A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

A New Look at Lebanon: Yezid Sayigh on Paris III

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 31, 2007

A very thoughtful piece by Professor Yezid Sayigh of King’s College, London, has been making its way around the world’s English language newspapers.

I doubt it will find a home in the US, the UK, or the Gulf – his analysis of Lebanon’s political situation does not mesh well with the Lebanon storyline already in play there.

Here it is, a reflective and analytic piece that focuses on Lebanon’s real crisis – its economic state – rather than the media-friendly specter of civil war:

Navigating Lebanon’s Political Minefield

On the face of it, the donor conference of Western and oil-rich Arab nations in Paris this week merely continues the work of two previous multilateral conferences in 2001 and 2002, aimed at helping Lebanon to rebuild its infrastructure after years of civil war and Israeli occupation and to tackle its massive debt. This time, donors will additionally help offset the $3.5 billion in direct and indirect losses caused by last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah, and the further rise of debt to $40.6 billion, a staggering 180% of Lebanon’s GDP.

The agenda appears straightforward, but “Paris III” has acquired a barely concealed political purpose: to bolster the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in the face of a powerful domestic challenge led by Hezbollah, and by extension to curb the influence of Hezbollah’s regional backers, Syria and Iran.

The West should tread carefully. There is a real risk that it will become entangled as a partisan actor in Lebanese domestic politics. Nor should it seek to play into the regional agendas of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan – hardly paragons of democracy – which are anxious to confront what they portray as a menacing “arc” of Shi’a Muslim power extending from Iran to Lebanon via Syria, and in Iraq.

Consider this. The United States and France, which have taken the West’s lead on Lebanon, have both confirmed the “democratic and constitutional nature” of the Siniora government. This is true, but only up to a point, for Lebanon’s confessional-based political system assigns the Shi’a, who make up close to 40% of the population, only 21% of parliamentary seats. The Sunnis, who comprise at most 20% of the population, are given the state office with the greatest executive power, that of prime minister.

Furthermore, the Sunni-based, anti-Syrian Future Movement to which Siniora belongs effectively extended this inequity into the present parliament when it overrode the opposition and insisted on conducting the 2005 general elections on the basis of the Electoral Law gerrymandered by Syria in 2000.

The West should therefore be wary of dismissing the Lebanese opposition out of hand as the cat’s paw of Syria and Iran. Rather, it should welcome proposals by Arab League mediators for immediate electoral reform and early parliamentary elections. At the same time, it should expect the opposition to endorse the establishment of an international tribunal to adjudicate the matter of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, albeit after clarifying and narrowing the current excessively broad United Nations rules governing the investigation.

The West should also recognize that the constituencies of Hezbollah and its allied, largely Christian, Free Patriotic Movement, led by presidential contender Michel Aoun, will be hit hardest by many of Siniora’s proposed economic and administrative reforms, such as lifting fuel subsidies and sharply raising value added tax. Already the 200,000-member Federation of Labour Unions has joined the opposition bandwagon, and Siniora’s proposals will further fuel grassroots populist nationalism.

All this might be seen as a predictable, conservative reaction to urgently needed reforms, were it not for the poor track record of the Sunni economic establishment, which for many years adapted well enough to Syrian domination. Part of Hariri’s legacy was the award of quasi-monopolistic licences to cronies – for mobile telephones, for example – and the sale of government debt at highly profitable rates to local banks in which had a direct interest. So were the profligate borrow-and-spend policies and the use of public-sector hiring to co-opt political factions, both of which resulted in Lebanon’s massive debt problem.

Yet the real challenge for Western policy in Lebanon is neither constitutional reform nor establishment of the Hariri tribunal. The Siniora government and the opposition are likely to reach a compromise within the next few months, probably on the basis of some variant of Arab League proposals. The tougher challenge is to solve the Gordian knot that binds Hezbollah (and the issue of its disarmament), Syria, and Israel together in a fateful triangle.

In short, the West needs to pre-empt a resumption of hostilities in Lebanon by seeking unconditional talks between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights. Failing that, Paris III will represent a sidestepping of the key political issues that must be addressed, and thus merely stock up trouble for the future.

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2 Responses to “A New Look at Lebanon: Yezid Sayigh on Paris III”

  1. Diamond, this is not a very good article. It’s ironic that Sayegh fully acknowledges that he knows very little about Lebanon when he’s a visiting professor in Lebanon, but then publishes horrible articles like this on the subject. Sorry for responding in rude blogger style, but this article does not provide any useful information. There are far better critiques of Saniora’s economic plan, which – I agree – is horrendous.

    “the “democratic and constitutional nature” of the Siniora government. This is true, but only up to a point, for Lebanon’s confessional-based political system assigns the Shi’a, who make up close to 40% of the population, only 21% of parliamentary seats. The Sunnis, who comprise at most 20% of the population, are given the state office with the greatest executive power, that of prime minister.”

    – Leaving the census subject aside, Sayegh forgets that the system was created by the Taef Agreement – something only the Sunnis liked, but everyone else went along with because they didn’t have manageable plans of their own. Taef intentionally gives more seats to the Christians and Druze than they deserve. It’s a different form of democracy, especially because the system was democratically put into place.

    “the Sunni-based, anti-Syrian Future Movement to which Siniora belongs effectively extended this inequity into the present parliament when it overrode the opposition and insisted on conducting the 2005 general elections on the basis of the Electoral Law gerrymandered by Syria in 2000.”
    -What is he talking about? The current opposition completely supported using the 2000 law. 14 March made a corrupt bargain with Hezbollah/Berri to carve up the country to their liking. Only Michel Aoun came out against the 2000 law. Everyone else agreed to it, and it passed – democratically, mind you – in the Syrian era parliament. People like me strongly opposed using the 2000 law, but 14 March (and the United States) feared that elections might not happen at all if we got bogged down in legal minutiae. Hezbollah agreed to it because they knew they would be keeping their sphere of influence under the 2000 law.

    “expect the opposition to endorse the establishment of an international tribunal to adjudicate the matter of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri”
    -And that just the problem, Yazid, isn’t it? It’s ridiculous to argue about making any reforms until the most crucial issue is decided. 14 March agrees to negotiating on everything after the Tribunal is approved. They have even dropped the issue of removing Lahoud.

    “The West should also recognize that the constituencies of Hezbollah and its allied, largely Christian, Free Patriotic Movement, led by presidential contender Michel Aoun, will be hit hardest by many of Siniora’s proposed economic and administrative reforms, such as lifting fuel subsidies and sharply raising value added tax”
    -Really? According to what data? Akkar is the poorest area of Lebanon. They won’t be hit hardest. What about the Christian small business owners who support Geagea? They will be hit less hard than Christian small business owners who support Aoun? That’s ridiculous.

    “the poor track record of the Sunni economic establishment, which for many years adapted well enough to Syrian domination. Part of Hariri’s legacy was the award of quasi-monopolistic licences to cronies – for mobile telephones, for example – and the sale of government debt at highly profitable rates to local banks in which had a direct interest. So were the profligate borrow-and-spend policies and the use of public-sector hiring to co-opt political factions, both of which resulted in Lebanon’s massive debt problem.”
    -Ahhh, yes. Let’s take an ahistorical approach to this and blame the Sunnis and not the Syrians, Christians, Druze, and Shia who all went along with this program. The Sunnis didn’t create the system. Hariri was just the best one at masterminding it.

    Yazid Sayegh may be good looking and have an incredibly sexy British accent, but that doesn’t make him any less pretentious, condescending, or competent to comment on Lebanese affairs.

  2. Okay Charles 🙂 we can agree to disagree on his assessments.

    As for the good looks and the sexy British accent … I’ve never met him, which apparently is my loss!

    off to google image el-Doktor …

    diamond.

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