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Friday, January 24, 2020

Lebanon should restore presidential power

by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

© APimages

Too many cooks spoil the broth and that is exactly why Lebanon is in a state of paralysis. It has been more than a year since President Michel Suleiman left office and because there is no agreement on a successor, politicians engage in endless horse-trading.

This is not the way a country should be run. This is not democracy or a system benefitting the people; it is a grand power souk permitting politicians to hold on to their chairs in what has become a virtual old boys club; a place where fresh ideas are not welcome because they are all terrified of rocking a boat so rickety it is a miracle it has not sunk.

Moreover, while most are aware that the confessional system inherited from the French is antiquated failing to deliver the best man for the job, there is no will to change it out of fear they will lose their own jobs.

There is no comparison between Lebanon today and its golden era when President Fouad Chehab, a man with principles and integrity, held a tight rein on his country. He is remembered with fondness to this day as working to bring harmony between different sects and security for all. He not only steered Lebanon’s transformation into a modern state that was the envy of the region, he improved the economy, forged close relationships with Arab states – and he strengthened the country’s security apparatus to keep foreign interference at bay.

Chehab never played the sectarian game; he was truly a president for Muslims and Christians. Unlike those clinging on to their chairs like leeches President Chehab, declined to run for re-election in 1964. His inclusive policies were continued by his successor, Charles Helou, until 1970 when he lost the election to Suleiman Franjieh.

In the early 1970s, Lebanon was a heaven on earth in every respect. Visitors flocked there from all over the world, awed by its atmosphere of prosperity, culture and sophistication. Hotels and restaurants were full. Businesses expanded. In short, the Lebanese people were united, proud and happy in ‘The Paris of the Middle East’ infused with a spirit of gaiety and entrepreneurship.

In 1970, Lebanon’s literacy rate was the highest of all Arab countries. Today it has fallen below that of Jordan, Libya, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar. The Lebanese pound exchange rate then hovered around LBP 2 to the dollar as opposed to the current average of LBP 1,500. Then its GDP ranked 73rd in the world; in 2014 it had descended to 138th.

Those were the days when Lebanon boasted the region’s most dynamic economy fuelled by a strong banking system and a balance of payment surpluses, low inflation and stability enticing foreign corporations, international businesses and banks. In 1975, public debt was a mere three per cent of GDP but by 1990 that percentage had soared to 99.8 percent. Last year, the government recorded a public debt accounting for 146 percent of GDP.

Lebanon flowered when Christian presidents and leaders who were not afraid to administer tough love, had absolute control, as evidenced by the above statistics. But no statistic can reflect those glory days as effectively as anecdotes from those old enough to remember just how wonderful it was.

The civil war, sparked when violent clashes broke out between Maronite Christian and Palestinian groups in 1975, thrust the country into bloodshed and a downward spiral from which it still has not fully recovered. Franjieh’s greatest mistake was to invite Syrian troops to bring calm. The forces sent to save Lebanon soon morphed into occupiers.

Scratch the surface and you will see an impotent government that is little more than an elaborate show hiding a maelstrom of competing sectarian interests. Not a single politician is courageous enough to put his country first. No one speaks the truth, except behind closed doors. And almost all make obeisance to the hand that rocks the Lebanese cradle – Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, whose marching orders come directly from Qom. Lebanon’s politicians, out of cowardice and selfishness have collaborated with Hezbollah in turning their homeland over to Iran.

The restructuring of Lebanon’s political system subsequent to ‘the National Reconciliation Accord’ negotiated in the city of Taif, Saudi Arabia and signed in October 1989 brought with it devastating unintended consequences. Authority was partially stripped from the President so as to empower the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Parliament. Instead of answering to the President, the Prime Minister came under the direction of squabbling lawmakers, which is why the country is gridlocked.

Taif did not bring about national reconciliation, other than on paper. It heralded rule by committee, whose members hold wildly divergent world views. Each bloc drags the country in different directions and neither the president nor the prime minister has any real authority.

Unfortunately, the only part of the Taif Accord that was implemented was political restructuring. One of its most important components, the disarmament of militias, was ignored by Hezbollah that falsely branded itself as ‘the Lebanese resistance’. If that were so, then what is it doing defending the Assad regime in Syria and fighting alongside Shiite militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen?

Lebanon’s future whether politically, economically and socially, looks bleak without a strongman, a charismatic figure able to take needed tough decisions; someone with the ability to coalesce the nation behind him. Lebanon must be taken in hand by a patriotic leader able to unite all citizens under the Cedar flag rather than religious standards or the flags of other nations.

As we age, we like to talk nostalgically about ‘the good old days’ when in most cases, we enjoy superior lifestyles. For instance, when I compare the conditions of my home country, the UAE during my youth and now, there is no contest. But it is a different story for the Lebanese. Life really was genuinely much better in the 50s, 60s and early 70s than today when the Presidency was not as restricted as it is today.

Chehab, Helou and Franjieh were empowered to respond to all contingencies. They could think on their feet and act fast, without having to plead for parliament’s permission to do the right thing in any given circumstance. I was one of the lucky ones who knew Lebanon in its heyday. I know first-hand how amazing it was and, therefore, what it could become again, provided there was sufficient political will to reform the system.

Because I know what could be, my wonderful memories are now tainted by annoyance at the status quo in the same way a parent feels when he sees his beloved child going down a wrong path. I have no words to evoke ‘my Lebanon’ which exists only in poetry, song and old movies.

As long as there is nobody in charge, the country will remain in a state of flux without direction, jogging along on a wing and a prayer. The antidote is the return of power to a president untainted by corruption scandals and with a reputation of operating in accordance with his personal ethics, not a man willing to switch sides for a handful of carrots.

Most importantly, he should be someone with proven patriotic credentials; a person whose love of his country’s soil is beyond dispute. He should be chosen to lead because of his character attributes, not just because he happens to be a Maronite from a well-known family or he served in the army or his father once held a prominent position in government. The Lebanese thirst for a leader with a successful track record, capable of satisfying their craving for security, stability and economic health; someone they can trust.

In recent decades, career politicians and relics from the military have consistently let down the Lebanese people, so I would argue that now is the time to look over their shoulders for candidates at the top of their respective fields be they captains of industry, business moguls or technocrats either resident in the country or drawn from the diaspora.

Beirut may have undergone a glitzy transformation clawing back some of its fabled glamour, but without firm political foundations, a solid economy, and leadership that is not reliant upon consensus, the country is a house of cards vulnerable to being collapsed by a gust of wind in a region fraught with tornadoes of threats. Rescuing Lebanon is bigger than a mere figurehead president or a prime minister engaged with currying parliament’s favour. It needs a man with muscle and the wisdom to know when to flex it.

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