Skip to comments.Lebanon's free fall
Posted on 04/17/2004 4:11:04 PM PDT by DeaconBenjamin
Political bickering, poor governance and economic woes - with foreign debt of $53.7b - weigh down the country
THERE'S much about Beirut that recalls Singapore: the greenery, the lively, urban lifestyle, good schools and eating places, a colourful port, low crime.
But look again. One in four passers-by is not Lebanese, but Syrian - about a million of them in a nation of barely four million native Lebanese. Some 30,000 Syrian troops man roadblocks. Other Syrians work as labourers in the booming construction business. Some beg. And some - installed in Lebanon's intelligence service - help monitor the movements of foreigners, especially Westerners.
Meanwhile, the Israelis, determined to tweak Syria's nose whenever possible, frequently send military jets over Beirut, breaking the sound barrier. All this is terribly scary.
So, one cannot say that Beirut is another Singapore. Indeed, the country, though no longer the civil war battlefield that claimed nearly 300,000 lives from the mid-1970s until 1990, has very serious problems. As a result of poor governance and a political stand-off between its President and Prime Minister, Lebanon is in an economic free fall. There's a real danger of a unique contemporary society going the way of failed states, its secular popular culture hijacked by the missionaries of fundamentalist Islam.
Beirut's port was once the busiest in the entire Middle East. Beirut's political establishment still fondly refers to its city as the 'gateway to the Middle East', but not too many other Arabs will use that term.
The 16-year civil war, which raged largely between Lebanon's minority Christians and majority Muslims, brought social and economic destruction. In 1990, Syrians and Saudis stepped in to broker a truce. The Syrians have remained.
The Lebanese despise them, frequently making jokes about them. But Lebanon's political leaders make a big show of being nice to Damascus.
President Emile Lahoud, a Christian, said not long ago that Syria was welcome to stay as long as it wished because it ensured political security in Lebanon. That's as if Malaysia had occupied Singapore, and the latter's prime minister invited it to stay in perpetuity.
Now, Mr Lahoud wants a second six-year term, which is prohibited by the Constitution. (Under a National Covenant agreed to in 1943, the country's president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of Parliament a Shi'ite Muslim.)
Mr Lahoud has been making frequent visits to curry favour in Damascus and is said to be in Syrian President Bashar Assad's good books. Whether Mr Assad will help Mr Lahoud change Lebanon's Constitution in time for the Lebanese election later this year remains to be seen. In the meantime, local newspapers continue their craven coverage of everything Mr Assad says. The Lebanese authorities discourage any attempt at a more balanced view.
Laudatory media coverage, though, may not necessarily influence the Syrian President's decisions about Lebanon. Mr Assad clearly understands his political calculus: Lebanon's strategic eastern Mediterranean location is important to Syria's own status as an anti-American Arab leader in a region of 300 million people and 24 countries. He cannot afford to antagonise Lebanon's majority Muslims, particularly the Shi'ites of Lebanon's Hizbollah party, whose radical programmes the Syrians support through money and armaments.
At the same time, Mr Assad is known to fear that if he pulls Syrian troops from Lebanon, its ethnic communities will once again start tearing one another apart, perhaps rekindling the civil war.
Conflict in Lebanon could then spill over into Syria, where Mr Assad's secular-minded - but authoritarian - government is facing mounting opposition from fundamentalists.
Mr Assad also sees the value in having the Hizbollah nip constantly at neighbouring Israel from its militarised bases in southern Lebanon. In his calculation, it is financially worthwhile for Syria to fund the Hizbollah because it keeps Israel from military excursions into his country.
With the intifada still raging in Palestine, the Israelis may not have a Syrian assault in mind just yet. But try telling that to the people of southern Lebanon. A visit to the Bekaa Valley, the region's cradle of Islamic fundamentalism, shows how much anti-Israeli propaganda the Hiz- bollah undertakes.
Judging from posters and fundraising in the Bekaa's towns and villages, one would think that the Israelis are about to invade Lebanon. Hizbollah street literature also alleges that the Israelis prompted the US invasion and occupation of Iraq last year.
The Hizbollah is doing more than mouthing anti-Israeli mantras, however. It has acquired political legitimacy by transforming itself from a guerilla movement into a full-fledged party: It holds 12 of the 128 seats in Lebanon's unicameral Parliament.
Its leader, Ali Nasrullah, has said that although the Hizbollah does not wish to see Lebanon transformed into an Islamic theocracy, he would not mind if that happens. But Lebanon's Maronite Christians and even Sunni Muslims do not share Nasrullah's enthusiasm for outlawing alcohol, gambling and Western lifestyles that have long contributed to the country's reputation as the Middle East's playground.
Perhaps paradoxically, that reputation, put on hold during the civil war, is blossoming again. Since Sept 11, Gulf Arabs who used to travel to Europe and the United States for pleasure are increasingly indulging themselves in free-spirited Lebanon, buying valuable real estate, hotels and resorts. If Lebanon were to become an Islamic state, it's a sure bet that the Arab traffic, and the revenues it generates for this country, would dry up.
It is a situation that vastly worries Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a self-made billionaire who does not get along with Mr Lahoud, a former army general, nor with Lebanon's patron, Mr Assad. At the root of his worry is that the Syrian presence and incipient Hizbollah threat are driving away Western investors.
Mr Hariri made his fortune in Saudi Arabia in the construction business, and is widely considered to be the main force behind the post-war reconstruction of Beirut. He often appeals to global investors - and, increasingly, those from Singapore and South-east Asia - to help develop the tourism industry, the country's main foreign-exchange earner after remittances from an estimated 20 million people of Lebanese extraction who live overseas.
The response has been discouraging. Investors are frightened by the country's staggering US$32-billion (S$53.7-billion) foreign debt, or nearly 200 per cent of the gross national product. They see little being done to streamline Lebanon's traditionally lethargic bureaucracy. They view Lebanon's economy as hopelessly encumbered by a bewildering body of regulations. And they are disheartened by the unending corruption.
No one accuses Mr Hariri of corruption - he's too rich for that - although some of his Cabinet colleagues are not immune from bitter criticism. He fears that the main cause of Lebanon's economic deterioration is that, unlike Singapore - a country he hugely admires - it does not enjoy good governance.
This, of course, is an indictment of his own management. But it also suggests that Mr Hariri's room to manoeuvre is limited by Mr Lahoud's opposition to any Hariri initiative. A recent agreement with foreign governmental lenders to reschedule Lebanon's debt has already faltered.
Prices are rising, and incomes are falling. Every month, some 3,000 young Lebanese emigrate because there simply aren't enough jobs here. Uncertainties over possible repercussions from US legislation passed recently reinforce economists' fears. US investors are forbidden from putting their money into Syria or Lebanon, and American companies are barred from doing business with Damascus.
Would it matter if Lebanon's economy collapses? For one thing, that would certainly embolden the Islamic fundamentalists to perhaps seize power. Already, the deteriorating economy has resulted in the enlistment of scores of new recruits to Hizbollah's cause from the 400,000-strong Palestinian community. Lebanon's collapse would also constitute a severe setback to efforts to stabilise the Middle East.
The current economic situation can be resolved only by a combination of steps - all difficult and all unlikely, according to most Beirut bankers. One would be for the International Monetary Fund to arrange for short-term financial relief. The country's long-time donors, such as the European Union, could make a renewed commitment. International banks could lend more for major tourism projects and infrastructure growth.
But the most important step to prevent Lebanon from spiralling into total chaos would be for its politicians to clean up the country's politics and administrative morass. By adding to business costs, corruption is a horrific drain on the economy.
So it's all very well for Beirutis to wish their country were more like Singapore. It's nice that Mr Hariri is a big fan of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. But the Lebanese tend to overlook the fact that Singapore is synonymous with a corruption-free society that is able to devote its unfettered resources to sustainable economic development.
The Lebanese want a clean society without paying the necessary price in civic discipline. In this regard, Lebanon is much further from Singapore than geography would suggest.
The writer was editorial director of the Lebanon edition of The Daily Star in Beirut until recently. Earlier, as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, he covered the Lebanese civil war in the late 1970s and early 1980s.