The Future of Democracy in Lebanon

Never say never seemed to be the theme of last Friday’s event ‘The Future of Democracy in Lebanon” held at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. The event hosted renowned guests Riad al-Khouri and Graeme Bannerman in a discussion on the history, current situation, and future of democracy in Lebanon.

The Future of Democracy in Lebanon
Riad Al Khouri is an economist focusing in the Middle East and North Africa. He has done extensive research in the region including regional trade and political economy, and he writes widely about development issues. Al Khouri has taught economics at the American University in Beirut and Beirut University College (now Lebanese American University) and he has worked as a consultant for the European Commission, ESCWA, GTZ, ILO, IOM, OPEC Fund, UNDP, UNIDO, USAID, and the World Bank and many other public and private organizations. Currently, he is a visiting scholar at the Middle East Center at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Graeme Bannerman runs his own international consulting firm that focuses on the Middle East and includes governments, private industry, and educational institutions. Before beginning his own firm, he served as a Middle Eastern affairs analyst and on the Policy Planning Staff at the US State Department. Following his time at the State Department, he worked on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1979 until 1987.

Al Khouri currently lives in Lebanon, although he is not Lebanese, and was in Beirut during the last Hezbollah attack. He made the point that most of his knowledge on Lebanon was practical, gained from his time in the country. For example after being present in Lebanon for several Hezbollah attacks, al Khouri asserts that Hezbollah is not a militia. Rather he calls it a well trained army, potentially even one of the best well-trained non-typical armies in the world. He discussed how the latest take over of the airport was the smartest, most efficient way for Hezbollah to gain power. In a small country such as Lebanon with a large portion of the economy coming from tourism, Hezbollah taking over the only airport essentially puts the entire country at its will. In this case it forced the government to negotiate.

Since the end of the civil war in 1990, Lebanon has not had a peaceful six year (presidential term) free from crises. It has been plagued with war and violence heavily mixing both with domestic politics. As al Khouri discussed, this is an unsustainable way of carrying a stable political process and that Lebanon as a sectarian state needs to disappear in order to have peace and a solid, sustainable political process.

Al Khouri also focused his attention on Syrian influence in Lebanon.. It is well known that Syria has exerted influence over Lebanese politics and life from its revolution through the present, but to what detriment? Al Khouri argues that Syria is slowly moving in the correct direction, but for the present Lebanon needs to have space to develop at its own pace. Development in Lebanon needs to occur faster or the country risks becoming a military dictatorship. Al Khouri believes that a Syrian-Lebanese alliance, something akin to the relationship between Helsinki and Moscow during the cold war, might be beneficial in the future. Both Helsinki and Moscow remained independent throughout the Cold War, yet they maintained a strategic alliance. Similarly Syria and Lebanon could both be independent, with separate political processes, but maintain a strategic relationship for trade and other such activities.

Lastly, al Khouri stated that America has no place in the region as a military power. He made a clear distinction between military power and soft power. The US can teach the Lebanese about how to foster a healthy, productive political environment, but needs to withdraw militarily.

“What is Lebanon? What is Democracy?” these are two key questions that Bannerman posed to the crowd. He said before one can understand democracy in Lebanon, both of these words have to be defined in context. Bannerman discussed a recent polling that said; when asked to define who they identified themselves as, most Lebanese defined themselves first and foremost as Lebanese and then into their respective religious group; Sunni, Shiite, and Christian. While these distinctions are fading, it is important that the Lebanese people see themselves as one entity. In order for democracy to work, the Lebanese people need to have one common goal of democracy in Lebanon because without it each group continually fights to guarantee their own rights and power. Bannerman talked about the need for a stable government that will address the concerns of each group. He said without a government working to protect all citizens, each group will continue to fight for its own rights and the political process will continue to be unstable.

Ask any American where democracy comes from, and the answer is simple, from the individual. The American government was created by the people, for the people. It is instilled in American people that they created and continue to maintain the political structure that exists within the U.S. Bannerman stressed that in Lebanon and most of the Arab world for that matter, people look to the government to ensure democracy and until this changes, democracy will not exist in Lebanon. He asserts that the Lebanese people need to take it upon themselves to elect officials that will protect the rights of all people. Not continuing to elect the same people who only focus on their own rights and power.

The entire event passed without a single mention of Iran, which is surprising considering that Iran and Hezbollah are closely linked in the American media mind. When asked by an audience member about the importance of the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah, both al Khouri and Bannerman agreed that the American media and government portray a stronger bond between the two groups than there truly exists. Both guests said that Hezbollah is not a proxy of Iran; rather they both use each other to achieve their own means. Both groups benefit from their relationship, otherwise the relationship would not exist.

Lastly an audience member questioned whether the U.S. truly wants democracy in the Middle East. According to Bannerman, yes, the U.S. would like to have democracy in the Middle East and most particularly in Lebanon. That said Bannerman made sure to point out that what the U.S. wants is not always portrayed in actions. He also discussed the need for U.S. policy to focus on promoting parties and institutions that meet the goals of democracy and freedom, instead of supporting groups that agree with U.S. values. As long as democracy and freedom are being supported the individual beliefs such as economic policies do not hold as much weight. It is more important to establish a stable, democracy rather than to establish a dysfunctional government that is a puppet of U.S. policy.

Pointed out by both guests, the road to democracy is long and the journey is tough, but never say “never.” Lebanon has many obstacles to overcome including Hezbollah, relations with Syria, and sectarianism, yet if they are able to effectively deal with each problem, democracy will have a fighting chance

Thursday, December 4th 2008
Kathleen Miles

New comment:

News | Politics | Features | Arts | Entertainment | Society | Sport