Lebanon, it is commonly joked in Beirut, has three presidents: Elias Hrawi, Rafic Hariri and Nabih Berri. ‘What about Hafez al-Asad?’ asked a recent visitor to Beirut. ‘He is the godfather of all the presidents,’ came the matter-of-fact reply.
Jokes aside, the three men reflect the confessional division of Lebanon. Despite carrying the title of president, Hrawi is the weakest of them all. This was not always the case. The Maronites had enjoyed a monopoly on power since Lebanon’s independence in 1943, thanks to French manipulation of the political system. Now most influential Maronite leaders live in exile in Paris, some sulking, others plotting to regain their lost power and privileges. Raymond Edde and general Michel Aoun are in self-imposed exile; Dory Chamoun spends more time abroad than in Lebanon.
In the political power equation, Hariri has gained, largely at the expense of Hrawi, a Maronite Christian. The new arrangement was brokered at Taif in Saudi Arabia at the end of 1989. While Lebanon has not had smooth sailing despite the Taif deal, the guns fell silent in 1990.
The new arrangement brought Hariri, a billionaire and a Saudi citizen to boot, to power to try and put Lebanon back on its feet after 15 years of civil war. The zionist invasion and their continued occupation of the South have compounded Lebanon’s problems.
Hariri, however, has not been very successful despite getting a favourable press in the west and supported by a largely sympathetic western world. The west, especially the US, wants to see Lebanon as the lynch-pin of their strategy to integrate Israel into the Middle East fabric. The task assigned to Hariri is to build Lebanon’s infrastructure - not only roads but also commercial buildings and most importantly, the banking sector - so that zionist businessmen could come in under the cover of foreign investors.
Hariri’s company, Solidere, handles much of the reconstruction activity in the country. He is projected as Beirut’s wonderboy launching projects on a build-and-operate basis. Solidere is also furiously buying every piece of available land. Lebanon is fast turning into ‘Haririland’.
Fifteen years of civil war, made worse by zionist vandalism, have taken a heavy toll of Lebanese infrastructure. Shell-poked buildings are everywhere, as is the reconstruction at every street intersection. The blend of old and new gives the city an eerie look, once the favourite haunt of naughty Arabs.
With the help of his western friends, Hariri is trying to rebuild not only Lebanon’s infrastructure but also its playboy reputation. Lebanon’s beaches, famous throughout the Middle East, are once again getting crowded, as are the bars and cafes. Beirut comes alive at night. Yet in the midst of all this filth, there are many women in hijab in the streets. It is not uncommon to see two girls in Beirut, one in complete hijab, the other in heavy make-up and tight dress, walking hand-in-hand. Lebanon’s diversity is reflected in strange ways.
There are well-paid jobs for those qualified in the banking, real estate and public works. There is a shortage of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Still, the unemployment rate stands at 20 percent and at least one-third of all families live below the official poverty level, earning less than US$600 per month. Prices are skyrocketing. Corruption is rampant, especially among Hariri’s cronies but protests are banned.
Throughout Beirut, people deal in American dollars rather than the Lebanese pound. Even taxi drivers charge in dollars. A seven-kilometre ride into town costs $30. Breakfast at the Marriott Hotel, comprising two boiled eggs, tea and a croissant costs $22. Charges for a single room per night are $165 plus taxes. One may not lose one’s head these days but is sure to lose one’s shirt in Lebanon.
When he became prime minister in 1992, Hariri imposed a 10 percent ceiling on tax, arguing that this would increase the revenue base and attract foreign investment. Neither has materialised. Instead, the internal public debt, at $1.5 billion in September 1992, climbed to $13 billion by June 1997. External public debt rose from $300 million to $2.2 billion in the same period.
A country with a total gross domestic product (GDP) of $13 billion now has an accumulated public debt of $15 billion. Another $2 billion are owed by private banks to international institutions. Not surprisingly, 71 percent of State revenues went to service internal debt in 1996; another 5 percent were consumed by servicing external debt. In the first quarter of 1997, a massive 91 percent of all revenues went to service internal and external debts. Had there not been a $500 million cash handout by the Saudi Commercial Bank at the end of 1997, Lebanon might well have defaulted on its loans.
Lebanon’s real problem is that despite undergoing a 15-year civil war, little has changed for the majority of its people. All political arrangements are worked out between the powerful warlords who distribute the rapidly dwindling pie among them. The Muslims of Lebanon who constitute an overwhelming majority, are cleverly divided along sectarian lines: Shias and Sunnis, with the Druze thrown in for good measure.
These divisions are made permanent by the distribution of political power. The president must always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and, speaker of the parliament, a Shia Muslim. Unfortunately, the situation is not improving.
Lebanon’s honour, and indeed that of all Arabs, was redeemed by the Hizbullah’s courageous resistance to zionist occupation. It took them three years, from 1982 to 1985, to drive the zionists from much of Lebanon. Now the Hizbullah are fighting them in the south from where the zionists launch vicious attacks on South Lebanese villages.
Over the last two months, the zionists have made noises about accepting security council resolution 425 provided Lebanon accepts certain conditions. The resolution, passed in March 1978, demands the unconditional withdrawal of all Israeli troops from Lebanon. The zionist offer, hypocritical as it is - they have been reinforcing their positions in the South - has been rejected by Lebanon, primarily because it does not suit Syria.
President Hafez al-Asad of Syria wants the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon tied to their withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The presence of Israeli troops in South Lebanon, where they are bleeding, suits Asad’s purpose. He will not let them off the hook unless they agree to a pullback from the Golan as well.
Syria maintains a 30,000-strong military in Lebanon. This gives Damascus enormous clout. In the hopelessly divided Lebanese political landscape, there are plenty of opportunities for Syria to get its way. And for Israel to continue to meddle and inflict massive suffering on its people. Even the pullback offer is designed to create differences between the Hizbullah and the Lebanese government, much like the Oslo accords did between the PLO and the Islamic Movement in Palestine.
Lebanon’s next crisis may come during the presidential elections due in fall. While the post is reserved for a Maronite Christian, it offers yet another opportunity for the US and its meddlesome surrogate, Israel, to be disruptive, especially in view of the fact that America’s Middle East policy now lies in shambles.
Washington knows how to blame others for its own failed policies.
Muslimedia: May 16-31, 1998