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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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Same Old Fishy Stuff from Syria

I find it utterly strange that two days after the Syrian announcement that they had severed their military co-operation with the U.S., suddenly 1,200 mercenaries are arrested by Syria heading to Iraq.

And over a month ago, at the height of another poignant moment in the U.S.-Syrian relationships, surprise: Saddam’s wanted relative appears in Syria and is handed over to the U.S. army.

Are these real coincidences or planned masquerades? Who are they trying to impress? Or, who are they are trying to fool? This has a sense of déjà vu all over again: it has Syria written all over it.

Musing: On the same day Hezbollah announces they have 12,000 rockets, Syria arrested 1,200 insurgents. What’s with the number “12”? Next, someone is going to release 120 prisoners?

Monday, May 23, 2005

Lebanon Should be the Power Broker for Middle-East Peace

Yes, Lebanon. Not the U.S., not the U.N., not France and not the E.U.

After the Lebanese elections, Lebanon has an opportunity to play a greater role in the region as the main broker of peace between Israel and the Arabs. But this is only possible if it steps up to it. The rewards are huge, and the risks are minimal. Here’s why.

Let’s face it. The U.S., U.N., France, E.U. and Russia have all taken turns in trying to lead Middle-East peace initiatives and they all have failed at it. Even Jordan and Egypt have attempted to lead other Arabs to follow their path, and they too have failed. The Palestinians are charting their own trajectory. So, who is left? Lebanon.

Lebanon has an opportunity to lead this effort because of the special relations it enjoys with all key parties.

First, Syria is the key Arab country that really needs to make peace with Israel. The other key Arab group that also needs to make peace with Israel is Hezbollah. Which country has the closest ties to both of them? Lebanon.

Furthermore, both France and the U.S. have been cozying up to the new Lebanese government as guardians of the post-Syria democracy era. Lebanon is on their agenda now, and the diplomatic channels of communications are very open, very active and can go as high as they need to be.

Next, Saudi Arabia. Although Saudi Arabia will never play an active role as a catalyst for peace, their support is needed to grease its wheels. The Lebanese-Saudi relations are on very solid ground, and if anything, they have been strengthened after Hariri’s murder. The new Lebanese Prime Minister Mikati has already made 2 trips to Saudi Arabia since taking office a month ago. The Saudis have a history of trust with the Lebanese. Who could they trust now for leading them to peace with Israel? Lebanon.

Even Palestinian President Abbas has made open overtures of co-operation with Lebanon regarding the Palestinian camps in that country. And we know that this subject is on the agenda of the greater peace talks with Israel.

Back to Hezbollah. More than Syria, there is no other group that needs to heel its wounds with Israel than Hezbollah. Hezbollah and Israel have battled each other in South Lebanon for several years and the memories of death and destruction are still vivid on both sides. But deep inside, the two groups undoubtedly respect each other because each one knows that they can’t take the other one down, but they can both inflict damage to each other. The Lebanese government must ultimately manage Hezbollah’s reign for its own sake, and there is nothing better to boost their ego than inviting them to the negotiating table.

Back to Syria. Now, the famous brotherly ties between Lebanon and Syria can be put to a greater use. From one brother to another, Lebanon can tell Assad: “let’s make peace with Israel now”, or … we may not be able to help you sustain your own regime. In other words, Lebanon could now play a reverse role with Syria assuring its government stability in return for a lasting peace.

Finally with Israel, Lebanon has had a history of flirting with peace talks and although the two countries are officially on non-speaking terms, there is enough inherent empathy to warrant the start of something. Israel has recently proposed that Lebanon should make peace with Israel, now that Syria is gone. Lebanon can take this opportunity by telling Israel, yes to peace, but with Syria and Hezbollah too. By distancing itself from Hezbollah for the purpose of the peace talks, Lebanon can play a unique role in it. Lebanon is in a position of strength now, as the darling of democracy in the Middle-East. There is no better position to be in for starting negotiations than from a position of strength.

This is all possible, but not easy. Israel typically favors divided negotiation stages where they would make peace with each country or group, one at a time. A common front would not bode well for a starter, but this is not an insurmountable obstacle. In reality, they would be dealing mostly with Syria, but via Lebanon.

Now is the time for Lebanon to step-up and play its power broker role in the Middle-East like no other country can. Lebanon and the Lebanese are the only ones that can bring to the same table Israel, Syria and Hezbollah. As for the U.S., France and Saudi Arabia, their role should be mostly as cheer leaders, economic sponsors and emotional benefactors. Again, Lebanon is best positioned to orchestrate and arbitrate such roles.

Lebanon will stand to benefit from this expanded role. Lebanon’s global stature will grow commensurately and they will pick up an economic windfall not to be underestimated.

Let’s not just make peace; let’s re-engineer it.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Lebanese Entertainment Live Show, Playing Now

Watching the Lebanese political dances and stunts is like watching a circus or a boxing match, really. It’s entertaining and shocking at the same time. But the tragic difference is that if this show doesn’t end soon, a whole country’s future is at stake, and the memories will not be so pleasant to remember.

What started like a big party (by the people, mostly) has now turned into a boxing match (by the professionals). The professionals are all hitting on each other, and the spectators are watching. When they stop momentarily, the show turns into a circus where they start to pull stunts, tricks and take us on wild rides. Then, during short intermissions, rabbits are pulled out of hats or from behind curtains. And after a good night’s sleep, some players get re-shuffled, their roles change slightly, and to make sure that we are not bored, they feed us new stories.

What the heck is going on? The whole thing is a mockery. Is this what the Syrian presence had been "masking" for 14 years, instead of trying to solve it? If Taef was supposed to unite us and protect us, but instead it is dividing us and inviting controversy, then, either Taef was flawed, or its implementation is being botched-up by the politicians, some of which helped to create it.

Who is minding the country? Who is talking about a better Lebanon, prosperous and thriving? All we hear is alliances and positioning. We hear divisions, confusion and unbelievable surprises. We're actually "numb" from the current madness.

It’s been said, ironically, that “logic stops in Cyprus”. Everything illogical and unthinkable will happen in Lebanon because its politicians are so creative and self-destructive at the same time. Where are the basic "values" of honesty, respect and trust?

As a Lebanese abroad, I am disgusted to see this. Judging by current events, Lebanon looks more like a circus or even a jungle, than a civilized country. Not the country I know.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Lebanese Citizens Abroad Have a Right to Vote Too!

This is an appeal to all Lebanese abroad to sign the online Petition asking for their rights to vote from abroad. There is a last minute "push" right now to make this possible. Sign the Petition here.

A bill amendment suggesting a simple process of co-ordination between the Lebanese Embassies abroad and local official electoral lists holders has been proposed. Bill Proposal.

Tomorrow, May 11th is an international solidarity day for this cause. Lebanese citizens will demonstrate in front of the Foreign Ministry in Beirut at noon. The www.lebanese-abroad.com International Committee has sent an email to 14,000 Lebanese citizens who have already signed the petition. This email urges them to contact their respective Embassies to pass the message. See text of Open Letter at: http://openlebanon.org/modules/mypage/lebabroad-pr1.php

In addition, there are on-going discussions with local politicians and there is still hope for this to become a reality in 2005, because the Lebanese Parliament has agreed to meet this Thursday, one more time. See Berri agrees to hold legislative session, warns of time wasting

Furthermore, The Daily Star has a story today explaining that this process is really as simple as "putting a box in each diplomatic mission".
Bill proposed to grant vote to expatriates

More than ever, this goal is within reach, but we are at a critical juncture. It is not too late to lobby until we are allowed to fully exercise our fundamental voting rights.

Take action by signing the petitition, demonstrating tomorrow in Beirut, or faxing/emailing the Open Letter to your closest Lebanese Embassy.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The Real Syria Comes Out

While Lebanese Prime Minister Mikati was meeting with Syrian President Assad on Wednesday May 4th in Damascus, the Spanish daily El Pais released an interview with Syrian Prime Minister Otri where he made a number of disturbing comments:

1- The Lebanese detained in Syrian jails are terrorists
2- Lebanon doesn’t want to establish diplomatic relations with Syria
3- Disarming Hezbollah is a Lebanese problem
4- Disarming the Palestinian groups is tied to the Israeli conflict

Interpretation and analysis:

1- Although Otri said that these Lebanese belonged to the Free Lebanon Army of the South, and that they apparently killed Syrian soldiers, what right does he have to call them terrorists? Any Lebanese that objects to foreign occupiers has the right to defend himself. They were heroes, not terrorists. And why did Syria deny the fact that they were holding prisoners for such a long time? And how about the promise made by the Syrian UN representative that all prisoners will be released by June 2005? Are these Lebanese people exempt from that release now that they have been labeled “terrorists”? And if they are “terrorists”, does that that put Hezbollah fighters in the same camp because they killed occupiers too?

2- Otri further added that the Lebanese people did not want diplomatic relations since Lebanon’s independence. Really? This is the first time we hear about that. It seems that it was Syria who always claimed that it doesn’t need diplomatic relations with Lebanon because of the “brotherly ties” that bind them. Would someone from the Lebanese government please respond to this?

3- In other words, “the monkey is off our back”. Or in plain English, “it’s your baby now”. Thanks Syria! After strengthening Hezbollah for 15 years, now you’re dropping that hot potato right into our lap. Thank you. Now we understand the meaning of your intentions!

4- So, first you were playing Lebanon as a card against your inability to solve the Golan problem. Now that this card has been taken away from you, you’re saying that the Palestinian camps are the new card. But how come most Palestinian groups are disarming inside Palestine, and you want the ones that are miles away to keep fighting from Lebanon? Haven’t you realized that the road to peace is via peace talks and negotiations, and not via armed battles that can’t be won?

So, is this the real Syria that is coming out: the Syria that is out of touch with reality? The Syria that is arrogant, disrespectful and ignorant?

And why isn’t the Lebanese Prime Minister responding to these comments? Why is he taking a “soft” approach by suggesting only the creation of a committee to study the issue of Lebanese detainees in Syrian jails?

If these comments don’t constitute interference in Lebanon’s affairs, I am not sure what does anymore.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Lebanon and Syria: Same Past, Very Different Future (Part II)

We cannot dissociate Syria from Lebanon’s future, but we have to manage its intersection by first understanding its differences.

In the past 15 years, Syria tried to make Lebanon be like Syria. For the next 15 years, why not propose that Syria becomes like Lebanon, instead? Syria will stand to gain a lot more by being an open, democratic state, much like Lebanon is today. If that is the case, then both countries can benefit exponentially.

Going forward, Lebanon must become more assertive in what it wants from Syria- basically reversing the roles of the last 15 years. Of course, we know that an abrupt regime change in Syria will make Syria look like Iraq and invite anarchy, Islamic fundamentalism and Al-Qaeda operatives. So, the question for Syria is – what kind of future does Syria want? Can Assad reform Syria on his own? Will he be forced to do it, or will he prolong Syria’s agony by keeping the status-quo another 3 or 4 years and suffer the consequences of raising the pressure level on his oppressed people?

In order to make a more informed judgment on Syrian-Lebanese economic co-operation, we must look at the demographic and financial trends of the past 30 years.

In 2004, Lebanon had a population of 4.5 million, a GDP/capita of $4,300 and a GDP of $19.4 billion. Syria had a population of 18 million, a GDP/capita of $1,200 and an economy of $22 billion. But let’s examine the dynamics. In 1976, with a population of 3.1 million, Lebanon’s GDP/capita was $1,600 while Syria’s 7.6 million people had a GDP/capita of $980. So, in 28 years, despite 15 years of war and 14 years of Syrian’s presence, Lebanon managed to almost quadruple its GDP and GDP per capita while Syria only doubled its economy and almost its population, therefore shortchanging its people’s wealth which only grew by 25% on a per capita basis over the same period.

Assuming Lebanon’s economy continues to grow at 4% while Syria’s at 2%, Lebanon’s economy will surpass Syria’s in 2011. By 2015, Lebanon will have a $30 billion economy and $5,800 GPP/capita while Syria will have a $27 billion economy and $1240 GDP/capita. Syria’s then 22 million people will be shortchanged again.

The macro-economic numbers do not hold well for Syria if it wants to set itself on a better economic development course. More bad news: 71% of Syria’s $5.4 billion in exports are derived from oil revenues. It is predicted that these reserves will expire in about 5 years.

Here’s what the World Economic Forum’s Arab Business Council wrote in their report on Syria in November 2004:

The Case of Syria
- There are no reform plans on paper. Syria is in need of a clear vision.
- Within 5-7 years the Syrian economy shall be completely restructured. Given demographic developments, Syria’s macroeconomic stability could be in danger. Within the next 10 years, 500,000 job seekers will be added to the job markets each year. The window of opportunity to reform is limited given the demographic pressures.
- Syria needs growth of six to seven per cent to sustain itself – to achieve this, Syria needs high investment (public and private), but also drastic improvement of productivity.
- The past decade was a lost one for Syria. It was not conducive to private sector development, growth, or employment. In the past ten years, Syria witnessed a severe economic crisis. One out of four job seekers does not find a new job.
- Syria must embark on a path of reform that emphasizes manufacturing over resources (from oil to non-oil), from public sector- to private sector-driven growth, from import substitution to export-led growth.
- Syria, as any other country aiming to reform, must consider the deep interrelationships that exist between the issue areas to be reformed. Issue areas are inherently interrelated.

(From ARAB BUSINESS COUNCIL ANNUAL MEETING, MARRAKECH, 25 NOVEMBER 2004 http://www.weforum.org/pdf/ABC/marrakech.pdf )

This is why rushing into economic integration is a bad recipe for Lebanon and a good one for Syria. If the economic gap is too wide, the poorer country stands to gain more than the richer one. It’s pure mathematics. Look at the integration of East Germany and West Germany. West Germany had to pay a big price for this integration. They are barely recovering from it 15 years later. This is also why the European Union takes a stepped approach to accepting poorer countries into its membership, and more specifically why they are not rushing to bring Turkey in.

Let us hope that the next Lebanese government sees through the economic integration masquerade that the current government was leading us towards, blindly.

Of course we want to help Syria, but first, Syria must help itself.

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