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News Analysis: Lebanon moves closer to genuine democracy

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-06-21

The election that gave a parliamentary majority yesterday in Lebanon to an opposition grouping brings the Mediterranean country closer to realizing its longstanding hopes of becoming a genuine democracy, possibly the first in the mostly authoritarian Arab world.

It also signaled the end of neighboring Syria's domination - though not necessarily influence - in a region that was historically a part of the French Mandate following World War I. And the election demonstrated the clout of politically galvanized young voters, underscoring the fact that more than 60% of Lebanon's population of 4.4 million is under 30.

Still, the election is only a first step in Lebanon's effort to be an independent and viable democracy. Most Lebanese wanted freedom from Syria's 30-year hegemony, and they got it when Syrian troops and intelligence personnel withdrew last April under international pressure. But Syrian alliances with many Lebanese Muslim politicians, and some Christian ones, too, suggest that Damascus is unlikely to yield its grip fully.

The Lebanese also want an end to the political complications of a sectarian nation that have invited so much suffering, including a civil war - largely between majority Muslims and minority Christians - that lasted from 1975 to 1990. The Taif Accord, brokered in 1990 by Saudi Arabia, ended the conflict that claimed 500,000 lives.

And the Lebanese also want the easing of the economic stranglehold of Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf Arabs. These Arabs have invested heavily in Lebanon's post-civil war rebuilding, including the development of Lebanon's tourism sector, a significant earner of much-needed foreign exchange. The Saudi, for example, have poured more than $2 billion into Solidere, the corporation that has restored the downturn area of the capital city of Beirut to its pre-civil war glory.

But the Gulf sheikhs have extracted a price: they demand adherence, however implicitly, to their traditional anti-Israel stance, if not outright anti-Semitism. It was the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri -- who was assassinated last February in what is widely believed to be a Syrian plot - who courted the Gulf Arabs, largely because of his friendships in Saudi Arabia, where he made his own construction-industry fortune.

The election has raised three thorny questions for his son, whose Future Tide movement and its allies obtained a majority in Lebanon's 128-seat parliament. How he tackles those questions will determine not only the quality of governance but also the sovereign integrity of Lebanon.

As Mr. Hariri savors his victory and prepares to succeed pro-Syrian prime minister Najib Mikati, the foremost question facing him is this: Will the delicate sectarian balance that has held Lebanon together for more than 60 years continue to hold, especially since the election freshly brought out the fissures between majority Sunni Muslims, and minority Shiites and Christians?

This is a critical question because the architecture of Lebanon's government is based on a 1932 census conducted by the French Mandate government. The census identified 861,399 Lebanese - including those living abroad - most of whom were identified as Christians. The distribution of parliamentary seats was based on the findings of the 1932 census; the ratio of six Christians to five Muslims, including Druzes, has been retained.

Further, Lebanon's president is always a Christian; the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim; and the speaker of the parliament is a Shia Muslim - an arrangement also reflecting the demographical ratios of the 1932 census.

Those ratios are an anomaly. An estimate by the United States Central Intelligence Agency in 1986 of the confessional distribution of the population showed 27 percent Sunnis, 41 percent Shias, 7 percent Druzes, 16 percent Maronites, 5 percent Greek Orthodox, and 3 percent Greek Catholics. But the Lebanese constitution has not been changed to reflect the new demographic realities, mainly on account of fear that an altered communal representation would be incalculably disruptive.

The political alliances in the recent election did not reflect Lebanon's contemporary confessional divisions. Mr. Hariri's grouping, for example, had mostly Sunnis but a sprinkling of Christians, too. The Maronite Christian president, Emile Lahoud - whose term was extended through a constitutional amendment managed by Syria - is no less likely to prove a foe for Mr. Hariri that he famously was for his assassinated father.

But Mr. Hariri is going need Mr. Lahoud's cooperation not only in forming a new cabinet but also tackling another troubling question: Lebanon's deteriorating economy. Notwithstanding the inflow of Gulf capital, its gross domestic product of $19 billion has been growing at a sluggish rate of less than 2%. Equally importantly, Lebanon's public debt has risen to more than $40 billion, unsustainable for a country whose major source of revenue is tourism and which has no manufacturing sector.

A "soft loan" of $4.2 billion given by Western donor governments under the so-called Paris II agreement to ease Lebanon's debt service, hasn't quite fulfilled its purpose. Nabil Itani, head of the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon, proudly says that foreign direct investment last year was $1.2 billion. What he doesn't say is much of this money came from Lebanese expatriates, and most of the money went into family-run businesses such as tourism. Investment in developing Lebanon's infrastructure and agro-industries is much less forthcoming.

Perhaps the most intractable question facing Mr. Hariri concerns the growing influence of Hezbollah, the terrorist organization whose secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, has openly called for the destruction of Israel. Hezbollah won 35 seats in the election, mostly from its strongholds in southern Lebanon but also, for the first time, from Beirut itself. Mr. Nasrallah has defied calls by America, the Europeans, and the United Nations, to disarm his militias, which continue to sporadically shell farms in northern Israel.

Drawing enthusiastic support from young Shias in a country where the unemployment arte is nearly 20%, Mr. Nasrallah has made few efforts to cloak his ambition of running not only the Bekaa Valley but all of Lebanon. How is Mr. Hariri going to contain that ambition?

In sum, the young prime minister has a bushel of difficult questions. And there are few ready answers. His job may be more than he bargained for.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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