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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Lebanon will sink without a competent captain

by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

© Shutterstock: Protest march against the bombing of Lebanon by Israel in July 2006.
© Shutterstock: Citizens participate in a protest against the bombing of Lebanon by Israel on July 30, 2006, in Beirut, Lebanon.

The only continuity in one of God’s most beautiful creations Lebanon is its protected cedar trees. For me, personally, the fact that the Lebanese seem unwilling or unable to put their house in order is an endless source of frustration because this country blessed with nature’s finest bounty has potential that other countries would die for.

I lost my heart to Lebanon as a young man in the 1970s and have been a frequent visitor since. While looking-up some of my old friends in Beirut during the 1990s, they encouraged me to take-in the country’s amazing diversity with a tour from north to south, east to west. It was then that I decided to inject the hospitality industry with substantial financial investment.

Given Lebanon’s instability that was hardly a sound business decision; I was rather driven by emotion. I sincerely wanted to help the Lebanese prosper and live in a dignified fashion by providing business opportunities and jobs.  I truly believed they would purge themselves of sectarian divisions, demand a democratic political system that would allow effective governance, bolt the door to damaging foreign influences – and show the door to any leader willing to sacrifice Lebanon, whether for ideological reasons, personal benefit or foreign affiliations. How wrong I was!

It took me years to fully understand the complexities of the Lebanese people’s national character that, on the one hand is courageous and dynamic and, on the other, complacent and accepting. Their ingrained loyalties to political and religious figures who have failed to lead them in the right direction and out-of-date political systems are imprisoning them as spectators in a static time capsule.

I can’t even count the number of people I’ve spoken with on this topic or how many times I’ve attempted to reason with them that it’s in their interest to free themselves from the diktats of sectarian heads with less than patriotic agendas. It was usually the same story. No matter their faith, background or social status, they would often just shrug their shoulders before telling me that they’ve lived this way all their lives and are used to it. Oddly, most settle for surviving from day to day in an atmosphere of insecurity; some proudly portray themselves as invincible and put on a show of bravado when the majority of people around the world without a stable future for themselves and their children would be eager for change.

To be fair, the Lebanese have suffered more than most from a series of foreign occupations and internal/external conflicts. Nobody can criticize their resilience and endurance; they have a way of swiftly bouncing back from misfortune. But isn’t it time that they moved away from their crisis-mode way of thinking to one that will be more productive in the long-term?

As I’ve written before, the nub of Lebanon’s problems is its confessional system of governance bequeathed by the French. It is inherently democratic and promotes disunity. Its mandatory Maronite president, Sunni prime minister and Shiite parliamentary speaker often have competing agendas, loyalties, attachments and programs that undermine the overall personality of the government. Each time the president or prime minister tries to implement a solution to the nation’s economic or security woes, he is blocked by his colleagues’ political parties.

It doesn’t help that there is a disparity between parties in terms of strength and influence. Some are out to dictate Lebanon’s destiny by moving the government in any direction they choose; others are genuinely trying to make things better but are virtually impotent. Then there are those who unhesitatingly sell out their country to foreign powers to be used as a proxy battlefield.

Such continual inter-party differences of opinion do not attract investor confidence that leads to job creation – and are no recipe for the harmonious existence that most Lebanese crave but have no idea how to achieve.  These never-ending political stalemates make me nostalgic for the 1970s when President Suleiman Franjieh was at the helm. That was a time when the country was ruled by law-and-order and when this ship called Lebanon had a single, experienced captain.

At this moment in time, Lebanon’s economy is on the brink according to the head of the Lebanese Industrialists Association Nemat Frem. “We are on the verge of collapse,” he announced. “Our public debt has reached US$ 60 billion while the Gross Domestic Produce remains at US$ 41 billion…The budget deficit will grow more than 10 percent this year but growth will not exceed 2.5 percent.” Grim news indeed!

The head of Beirut’s Chamber of Commerce Mohammad Choukeir blames politicians for having “turned a deaf ear” to the economy’s deterioration and the drying-up of foreign investment. He warns of a worsening situation ahead if the government doesn’t quit its “endless bickering” and take concrete action. But even as the Lebanese reel from rising unemployment, soaring fuel prices, power cuts, a scarcity of drinking water and neglected infrastructure, the powers that be do little other than squabble.

I can only conclude that since the Lebanese are unable to rescue themselves they need rescuing. They like to portray themselves as sophisticated and intelligent but if the proof is in the pudding, collective intelligence is sadly lacking. Lebanon is the pulse of the Arab world. It is not expendable. If the Lebanese won’t rally behind a wise captain, regardless of his faith or personal allegiances – in other words the best man for the job – then perhaps this is the moment for its sincere Arab friends to send in the lifeboats to save a people who clearly aren’t politically mature enough to save themselves; a people beloved by Arabs everywhere. Since the Arab league have failed to save Syrians, then that leaves the GCC countries to, once more, step in to save the day.

Put simply, the GCC -or one of its member states - should be tasked by the Lebanese to supervise the country’s transition from a confessional system to a real democracy led by a robust decision-maker; a system that can empower the people of Lebanon to lead free and fruitful lives within secure, solid parameters rather than be blown around like straws on the wind by the whims of politicians and their masters in foreign capitals.

Lebanon’s problems could be resolved in an instant, if only the Lebanese would agree to admit they need help and request the help of the GCC long enough for our wise, elder statesmen to use their proven powers of alchemy that fuelled the transformation of Gulf States so that this fragrant land on the shores of the Mediterranean, Lebanon, may bloom in splendour once again. But let’s be clear. I’m not advocating interference in Lebanese sovereignty. I’m talking about friendship and the obligation of friends to help each other out in the way that Saudi Arabia has recently stood with Bahrain.

As someone who cares, I would appeal to the Lebanese to allow our GCC leaderships to offer their help, as they’re always here to give it.

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