This article is also available in Arabic, as published in Al-Hayat on the 24 of January 2012
Let’s start with a chiller: Although Lebanon would be losing one major impediment to civil progress with the inevitable fall of the Assad regime in Damascus, this will not in itself move Lebanon any closer to building a strong sustainable state for its people.
The political forces that stand to benefit from a definite end to the Assad tutelage over Lebanon must treat coming events not as an unexpected gift from the heavens but as an enabler of progress and an opportunity to confront five major challenges that Lebanon can now face, and solve, away from the Baath shadow.
1- Ending the age of impunity
The use of violence or threats of violence to gain political advantages must end. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is the first serious attempt to try the perpetrators of such acts of political violence. It is therefore our best chance of ending this age of impunity where aggression and killing have become a too easy recourse for many players on the Lebanese political scene.
In any case, the STL must now be treated as a fait-accompli. As the outcome of the recent (and futile) funding crisis has shown, Lebanon cannot afford to be at odds with international law, its banking sector being a particular Achilles heel. Full compliance is therefore necessary, including the hand-over of any Lebanese suspects to the court.
2- Extending the State’s authority over 10,452 sq. km
Hizbullah will be losing a valuable sponsor and will find itself further isolated regionally. With Hizbullah on the back foot, its political opponents in Lebanon must avoid any triumphalism that would only risk further exacerbating sectarian fears. Instead, courage must be found to make some political concessions to the Shia community in exchange for the voluntary and urgent disarmament of Hizbullah. The loss of its closest regional ally will force the party to face its critics at home through a more strictly Lebanese prism making a homegrown unwinding of the arms issue more likely but also potentially bumpier.
3- Establishing a relationship of equals with the new Syria
Any governing leadership that will emerge from a conclusive uprising in Syria is likely to be hostile to Iran and to Hizbullah. The party’s political opponents in Lebanon must resist enlisting their long-lost brethren to add foreign muscle to their side of the political struggle. Replacing Syrian tutelage channeled through a certain party with tutelage channeled through another will of course take us nowhere.
A relationship of equals based on common interests and mutual respect on a nation-to-nation level must instead be built.
4- Liberalising the economy and regaining control of sovereign debt
With public debt at about 135% of GDP (nearly as high as Greece), Lebanon needs to get its act together quickly to balance its books. Tax collection needs to become more rigorous and tax-loopholes need to be resolutely shut. On the other side of the equation, government spending needs to be more heavily scrutinised: every tax-payer Pound must count. For that, increased transparency in government tenders and pay must be achieved with the details of these made easily available for public scrutiny.
Mismanagement, corruption and “technical losses” at Electricité du Liban cost the government around $1.2 bn a year and will most likely require the institution to be rebuilt from the top down.
The financial black holes that are the Council for the South and the Council for the Displaced must be swiftly plugged. In their sad existence they have done little other than ‘displace’ buckets of public funds into nothingness.
Finally, important economic liberalisations need to be pushed forward to enable economic growth and empowerment. These are: Revoking state protection over exclusive import agencies (probably one of the most anti-competitive laws in the book); liberalising the electricity production sector to allow independent producers to sell surplus production on the national grid; liberalising the telecom sector, including the two state-owned mobile phone networks; and moving towards private management for state assets like the Beirut silos, the Beirut and Tripoli ports and the Casino du Liban.
5- Designing strong state institutions
With Assad’s demise, this country will become more free as the result of political realignments abroad. The aim of political reform should be to make Lebanon free – not by chance – but by design.
To achieve this, steps must be taken to break up sectarian monopolies in every sector of public life. A good place to start would be the drafting of a new electoral law based on proportional representation and incorporating other important reforms like the pre-printed ballot and stricter limits on campaign spending.
Next, the foundations for a non-sectarian political system must be laid: We must study our options for creating a powerful parliamentary upper house – or senate – that would represent communities and allay sectarian fears while making inroads towards creating a non-confessional lower house of representatives.
Simultaneously, an “opt-in” civil status code should be introduced allowing willing citizens to use the State as deliberator in matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance if they so choose.
In education, the huge swathes of missing national history in our children’s history books, namely the period from 1945 to today, leaves modern Lebanese history open to the convenient interpretations of various sects and political groups, effectively sowing the seeds for violent confrontation along sectarian lines in the future.
Let there be no illusions or hopes of a sudden political revolution, the state and indeed the political system that Lebanese liberals strive for will only be achieved one reform at a time, painfully and opportunistically. Faith in the State, as in anything, cannot be built overnight.
The sudden collapse of Assad’s political and intelligence apparatus in the country will leave a gaping void in the Lebanese political scene. A game-changer, some would say.
As some political forces fizzle out and others re-orbit in the aftermath of this seismic shift, liberal reformists with a clear vision for the country are well placed to take a more important role on the Lebanese political scene but must act fast lest this opportunity be hijacked by yet another malign force.
They must push not just for progress along these five fronts but for definite resolutions to these challenges to fully capitalise on the shift in the immediate aftermath of Assad’s impending fall. Now that would be game-changing.