A Lebanese Abroad

Opinions from an opinionated Lebanese abroad about Lebanon's politics, business and the future of a United Lebanon.

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Friday, April 29, 2005

Why Lebanese Politics Are Like a Game of Poker

What do Lebanese politics and a game of Poker have in common?

Everything!

Lots of bluff, poker faces, unexpected moves, everyone holds their cards tight to the chest until the last moment, regular shuffling of the deck, frequent swearing, the winner takes it all, win-lose always, etc… Does this sound familiar if you have been following the last few Parliamentary sessions on the Elections Law?

What happened to the Opposition? How did they get duped? Were they dealt bad cards? Did other players stab them in the back? Why suddenly a return to the 2000 law as a fall-back for not having reached agreement in two days? Where is the real work of the Parliamentary commission that was set-up? What kind of impartial government is that? Why do we keep falling back on bad compromises? Why do we have to face the “fait accomplit” politics? What happened to transparency? Why is it always about “making deals” with each other instead of serving the country?

So many questions landing on so many deaf ears!

No sooner did we get rid of the Syrians that now we are facing the second Lebanese vice which is now in #1 position: the dirty game of Lebanese politics.

These politicians keep pulling rabits out of their hats and pulling the rug from underneath each others. That’s what they do best.

Here’s the real source of the problem: We can’t expect to get change from those that the intended change will hurt. This means that the Elections may not bring a clean slate of politicians overnight, but it may only make a dent into the existing composition of the Parliament. The Daily Star article Adoption of 2000 electoral law will return familiar faces summarizes this situation pretty well.

After getting rid of the Syrians, the Lebanese should focus on getting rid of most of the existing politicians. Seriously!

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Memo To Lebanon and Syria: Get Busy and Stop Dreaming

Dear Syria,

You left Lebanon a few days earlier than April 30th, so that Kofi Anan can include your great accomplishment in the report that he delayed for that purpose. I am not sure if you were really trying to impress the world, but if you expect accolades now, please don’t. This is like the thief who gets caught as he was leaving the house he just robbed, and he expects a reward or brownie point from the police because he didn’t rob the entire contents.

That shameful exit of yours was from your own making. You did overstay your mission by many years, didn’t you? That is the unfortunate truth.

Now that you are all back in Syria, please stay home and don’t call us for a while. We’ll call you. If the phone doesn’t ring, it’s us. Honestly, you have so much work to do at home that you shouldn’t even worry about us for a while.

Since your president decides everything for you, he has to sort out if he is capable of reforming Syria, so that it emerges as the modern nation that it should become. Syria has two gigantic issues to deal with. First,- in the last 25 years, it doubled its population while improving its GDP per capita only by 25%, i.e. a mere 1% per year. Second, it must do something about its anemic economy and shift its dependence on oil. Here is the dilemma: 71% of Syria’s exports come from oil, but that production has only five years left. These are ticking time bombs. Deal with them.

Dear Lebanon,

As the Syrian grip is eroding, there has been too much talk emphasis in Lebanese political circles already on strengthening the relationship between the countries, as if it was an absolute basis for the future of each country [See: Lebanese MPs stress distinguished relations with Syria, and Khouri to boost Syria-Lebanon relations.] This is wrong and premature. There are other priorities that Lebanon should deal with, internally. Although Syria and Lebanon’s future will undoubtedly intersect, that interdependence should not be the guiding post for determining what each country needs to do, now. Otherwise, we’re back to the same old recipe, and Syria will tie us down and stifle our creativity and liberty.

First, Lebanon has to sort out whether it can emerge as a truly reconciled nation, while figuring out how to deal with Hezbollah, the wild card. Lebanon must re-dress its political and social institutions and allow them to reclaim a glamour that was lost amidst the civil war and the Syrian provincialism that has tarnished them.

In conclusion, each country should forge its own destiny and work on their own internal issues, first. They both have lots of work to do before dreaming-up of new and sophisticated bi-lateral relationships with all kinds of ties and common denominators.

In conclusion, let each country get really busy internally, before they get busy discussing imaginary alliances. Once Lebanon and Syria are back on their feet, they can start dating and dreaming again.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Zogby poll shows Hezbollah a wild card for Lebanese

A new Zogby poll has been released but not widely publicized yet. Here were the surprising or interesting results, from my perspective:

- 6% want Hizbollah disarmed, another 18% if peace exist, 31% if they self-disarm and 41% want them to stay armed
- 30% support the role of the U.S., 45% of France, 37% of Syria and 74% of Hezbollah

And these ones show that perception and reality are different:
- 75% of loyalists demonstrations principally motivated by “No to US/France” vs. only 19% of opposition demonstrations were actually inspired by US/French support
- 54% of loyalists thought that opposition demonstrations were not important versus 48% of opposition thought that loyalist demonstrations were not important

These polls show that the “dividing” issue remains Hezbollah. The “uniting” issues are: elections on time, new government, Taef accord and the role of foreign nations. Furthermore, this poll shows that there are large gaps between perception and reality.

I don’t think that the Lebanese are interesting in discussing their differences until after the elections which are seen as a defining moment in history. What is still unclear is how this polarization will change after the elections, and if it remains- will the Lebanese sit down and discuss these differences in a civilized manner, or will they ignore them?

Another possible scenario is that an entirely new reality might set-in after the elections, but this will depend on whether a new President can also be elected soon after, and whether he/she can fulfill their role as the ultimate “uniting motivator” for the country.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

New Government: Consensus or Bad Compromise?

There is a subtle, but important difference between reaching consensus and retreating to compromise. Because this new government includes some figures from the just-departing old government, it shows this was probably one of the compromises that the opposition had to concede to. But why include bad apples in a new basket? This is not a personal critique on the returning ministers, but couldn’t they find other qualified individuals with no association to the recent government? Murr personifies the embodiment of Lahoud-led corruption. And Hammoud was a disgrace by the way he handled the UN and by his closeness to Syrian foreign policy. This shows that Syrian influence is still in-there, and they have their men in-there ready to pollute and contaminate Lebanese politics when they want to. Maybe I missed something in the back-alley deal-making that preceeded this hoopla, but what happened to having a really neutral government? Was it just talk?

In hindsight, I am not sure if the opposition was tricked or if this was part of the deal-making, i.e. you pick the prime minister, but we get to bring back a couple of our own men. This shows that Lebanon has a (bad) habit of stooping down to compromise by finding the lowest common denominator, instead of rising-up to the challenge of reaching out towards a new consensus.

Bad compromise is the result of finding creative solutions that are not necessarily the best ones for the country, but they are what the politicians are willing to accept. So, this shows that the game is still about dirty politics, and not about Lebanon’s future.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Lebanon and Syria: Same Past, Different Future, Part I

Part I: Not so fast on economic integration

Those (politicians) still defending Syria today and its regime are making a grave mistake. As long as Syria is governed the way it is today, there is not much that Lebanon can learn from its neighbor. In the past 29 years, Syria has shown Lebanon some pretty bad habits: how to lie, be corrupt, steal, deceive others, blackmail, threaten people, manipulate, infiltrate, spy on, abuse human rights and literally terrorize. They basically exported Syria’s “values” to Lebanon. So why continue paying lip service to a country that has trampled all over every single Lebanese sovereignty characteristic?

Syria’s system is not the model for anything. It is despised by all Western countries that see it as a backward, authoritarian, communist-like police-state,- in the same league as Cuba, North Korea, and the ex-USSR. So, why defend Syria and continue associating ourselves with them? The last 10 years have been bad enough for Lebanon’s image abroad as both Syria and Hezbollah gave Lebanon its bad name.

Despite what is being said about our brotherly and historical past, where Lebanon wants to go and where Syria is going are two different paths. We are not tied by the same umbilical cord, and if we were, economically speaking,- we could not afford to move forward because Syria is like an anchor that will drag us down. Syria is economically inferior to Lebanon in almost every aspect (more on the economic comparison of both countries in Part II). The numbers are stacked against any type of economic integration that is being dreamt-up by the Syrian regime. Economic integration makes sense when two or more countries are more or less at the same level in their socio-economic position and geo-political status.

Let’s tackle these aspects. Society-wise, yes we speak the same language and have some familial ties (and so do the U.S. and Canada by the way- so what’s the big deal?) But over the last 24 years, Syria has doubled its population, while barely doubling its economy, so they are producing poorer babies. Meanwhile, Lebanon managed to quadruple its GDP of 1976. Economically, Lebanon’s per capita GDP is $4,300 vs. Syria’s $1,200 so that’s another very large gap. Politically, Lebanon is a democracy (actually, it’s trying to become an even better one). Syria’s political system is a dictatorship. Geo-politically, Lebanon is in an enviable position. It is now the new darling of Middle-East democracy and is poised to receive record foreign direct investment as soon a new government is in place. On the other hand, Syria is still in the “dog house” as far as the United States and the European Union are concerned. Actually, Chirac and Bush don’t trust Assad anymore because his words are worthless, and he is close to getting the Arafat treatment. Even worse, Syria’s friends are limited to Iran and Turkey.

So frankly, I am not sure what our politicians mean when they talk about “sisterly”, "special" or “normal” relations with Syria. Given the mess these relations are getting out of, we need to drop any vague language and start to define a much more sophisticated and transparent framework for these relations. It should be based on the socio-economic and geo-political realities, and not on assumptions of business as usual.

If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll keep getting what we’ve been getting, and that path is probably not acceptable to a majority of Lebanese.

(Stay tuned for Part II)