On the face of it, the donor conference of Western and oil-rich Arab nations in Paris last week merely continued the work of two previous multilateral conferences in 2001 and 2002, aimed at helping Lebanon to rebuild its infrastructure after years of civil war and Israeli occupation and to tackle its massive debt.
This time, donors additionally helped offset the $3.5 billion in direct and indirect losses caused by last summer’s war with Israel, and the further rise of debt to $40.6 billion, a staggering 180 percent of Lebanon’s GDP.
The agenda appeared straightforward, but “Paris III has acquired a barely concealed political purpose: to bolster the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora in the face of a powerful domestic challenge led by Hezbollah and by extension to curb the influence of Hezbollah’s regional backers, Syria and Iran.
The West should tread carefully. There is a real risk that it will become entangled as a partisan actor in Lebanese domestic politics. Nor should it seek to play into the regional agendas of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan – hardly paragons of democracy – which are anxious to confront what they portray as a menacing “arc of Shia Muslim power extending from Iran to Lebanon via Syria, and in Iraq.
Consider this: The United States and France, which have taken the West’s lead on Lebanon, have both confirmed the “democratic and constitutional nature of the Seniora government. This is true, but only up to a point, for Lebanon’s confessional-based political system assigns the Shia, who make up close to 40 percent of the population, only 21 percent of parliamentary seats.
The Sunnis, who comprise at most 20 percent of the population, are given the state office with the greatest executive power, that of prime minister.
Furthermore, the Sunni-based, anti-Syrian Future Movement to which Seniora belongs effectively extended this inequity into the present parliament when it overrode the opposition and insisted on conducting the 2005 general elections on the basis of the electoral law gerrymandered by Syria in 2000.
The West should therefore be wary of dismissing the Lebanese opposition out of hand as the cat’s paw of Syria and Iran. Rather, it should welcome proposals by Arab League mediators for immediate electoral reform and early parliamentary elections.
At the same time, it should expect the opposition to endorse the establishment of an international tribunal to adjudicate the matter of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, albeit after clarifying and narrowing the current excessively broad United Nations rules governing the investigation.
The West should also recognize that the constituencies of Hezbollah and its allied, largely Christian, Free Patriotic Movement, led by presidential contender Michel Aoun, will be hit hardest by many of Seniora’s proposed economic and administrative reforms, such as lifting fuel subsidies and sharply raising value added tax.
Already the 200,000-member Federation of Labor Unions has joined the opposition bandwagon, and Seniora’s proposals will further fuel grassroots populist nationalism.
All this might be seen as a predictable, conservative reaction to urgently needed reforms, were it not for the poor track record of the Sunni economic establishment, which for many years adapted well enough to Syrian domination. Part of Hariri’s legacy was the award of quasi-monopolistic licenses to cronies – for mobile telephones, for example – and the sale of government debt at highly profitable rates to local banks in which had a direct interest.
So were the profligate borrow-and-spend policies and the use of public-sector hiring to co-opt political factions, both of which resulted in Lebanon’s massive debt problem.
Yet the real challenge for Western policy in Lebanon is neither constitutional reform nor establishment of the Hariri tribunal. The Seniora government and the opposition are likely to reach a compromise within the next few months, probably on the basis of some variant of Arab League proposals.
The tougher challenge is to solve the Gordian knot that binds Hezbollah (and the issue of its disarmament), Syria, and Israel together in a fateful triangle.
In short, the West needs to pre-empt a resumption of hostilities in Lebanon by seeking unconditional talks between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights. Failing that, Paris III will represent a sidestepping of the key political issues that must be addressed and thus, merely stock up trouble for the future.
Yezid Sayigh is Professor of Middle East Studies at Kingís College London. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org.