LEBANON: The birth pangs of democracy
Habib C. Malik

October 4, 2005

With the lifting from Lebanon of 29 years of occupation has come hope for the country`s return to democratic life. Such a reemerging democracy in Lebanon, however, has been stumbling through a minefield of turbulence on the security front.

Several assassinations and assassination attempts have targeted mainly Christian politicians and media personalities, and there have been explosions in Christian areas aimed at causing physical damage, psychological terror and perhaps a revival of sectarian strife. Meanwhile, the country holds its breath awaiting the final report of the UN team investigating the killing last February of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

In order for Lebanon to undergo a successful transition during this perilous period - from the smothering of political freedoms to the rebirth of true democracy - Lebanese of all political and religious stripes have to accept a set of principles and undertake related concrete measures that would help make the democratic dream more of a reality.

To begin with, all must cooperate on the vital issue of communal security. A win-win attitude with respect to security must replace the familiar zero-sum tendency that says that setbacks to other groups help advance my sect, or my party, or my personal fortunes. Security is a seamless domain and everyone without exception ultimately suffers from its breakdown.

Next there comes the question of electoral reform. Everyone knows the June parliamentary elections, while a tangible improvement over their farcical predecessor exercises throughout the 1990s, remained deeply flawed because of an electoral law retained from the previous era and combined with other irregularities.

Parliament should quickly pass a new electoral law that is more suitable for a mixed society like Lebanon`s and that rests on the small- or medium-sized electoral district so as to reflect more fairly and accurately the political and communal layout of the Lebanese mosaic.

Incidentally, for future Lebanese parliaments to be truly democratic as their counterparts are in France, Britain, Japan, and elsewhere, there needs to exist a way to dissolve parliament and call for early elections - something that is unfortunately absent from Lebanon`s system and that requires a constitutional amendment.

Despite the unmistakable and healthy resumption of pluralist politics, Lebanon currently displays an odd alliance between Saad Hariri`s Future Movement and maverick Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

The latter, representing less than three percent of the Lebanese population and hardly ever `democratic` in his political behavior, has traditionally thrived on a permanent crisis atmosphere born of sectarian tensions and upheavals. Moreover, he is a staunch supporter of Hizbullah, which makes Hariri`s position in this strange combination untenable.

By contrast, the entire Hariri animus is oriented toward securing calm and political stability that are conducive to economic prosperity. Jumblatt parasitically rode the Hariri anti-Syrian wave after years of being a pivotal fixture in Syria`s camp, where he received protection, riches and access to power.

General Michel Aoun, who is the uncontested most popular Christian leader today in Lebanon, represents a far more influential constituency on the ground than Jumblatt. Since last May when Aoun returned to Lebanon after 15 years of forced exile, he has reemerged on the political scene as a force for stability and reform.

For the sake of a coherent, robust and democratic fresh start, Hariri ought to extend a sincere hand of cooperation to Aoun, and together with moderate Shias and Druze they can constitute the face of a powerful political consensus for a new Lebanon. Benevolent friends of Lebanon around the world should encourage such a coalition between moderate Muslims and free Christians, because it is no longer democracy if anyone is permitted to reduce Lebanon to his own fiefdom, even if it be Hariristan.

Equally important, Lebanon`s democracy cannot function in the present climate of corruption, which is the legacy of decades of entrenched cronyism that has transformed whole sectors of government and the economy into private rackets at the disposal of leading figures in Lebanon`s kleptocracy. The disastrous result has been a runaway government debt of some $40 billion and counting.

For any of this to begin to be reversed, a credible and all-encompassing anti-corruption campaign needs to be launched in Lebanon, with the cooperation of international bodies and renowned financial establishments, in order to root out and hold accountable the principal culprits. Only those with clean hands can bring this about. In attention, urgent attention must be given to Lebanon`s compromised judiciary with the aim of beginning to restore a semblance of the rule of law, and hence a mechanism of accountability.

True national unity is required to navigate the shoals of transition toward democracy. The pressing first task for achieving such unity is genuine reassurance by Mr. Hariri directed at the Christians, who are now in the crosshairs of a vicious terror campaign intended to alienate them further from rapprochement with their fellow Muslim citizens for building the Lebanon of tomorrow

Habib C. Malik teaches history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University, Byblos campus. Acknowledgement to bitterlemons-international.org