July 31, 2006 | Family Security Matters

The Limits Of Lebanon’s “Democracy”

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, President George W. Bush thrice described Lebanon's government as “democratic” and pledged that “we will stand with the democratic government in its efforts to rid the country of terrorists and foreign influence and bring about a better life for the Lebanese people.” Likewise the same day, en route to Jerusalem from Beirut, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice spoke glowingly about “the democratic government of Lebanon.” The administration's characterization of the Lebanese polity is, of course, technically correct insofar as the members of the government are, however indirectly, subject to electoral scrutiny.

This optimistic view of Lebanon is completely understandable given how the Bush administration has treated Lebanon as a success of democratization, which in a sense it was. Following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, mass demonstrations, which would have been hard to imagination without the administration's promotion of democratization in Iraq and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East, led to calls for political transformation. Acting in concert with Lebanon's former colonial ruler, France, the United States pushed through United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 which forced Syria to withdraw and mandated the disarmament of armed factions. The problem, however, was that once the Syrians left, no one enforced the disarmament of Hezbollah, which assumed an increasingly significant role in the regime that emerged in Beirut, and few cared that nothing had really been done to deal with the underlying problems with Lebanon's body politic.


Absent such clarifications, the qualification of Lebanon as a “democracy” is, at the very least, a highly inaccurate description of the state of affairs, and, at worse, opens to door for a dangerous (and false) moral equivalency between Jerusalem and Beirut. Fareed Zakaria's efforts over the course of the last decade notwithstanding, many of our political leaders—including, it seems, the commander-in-chief—and most of the press operate from a Western frame of reference when they use the term “democracy.” However, what they and their audiences really are referring to is liberal democracy, which Zakaria defined in a seminal 1997 article in Foreign Affairs as “a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.” Consequently, this system of constitutional liberalism is less about the procedures for selecting public officials and more about the defense of the freedom of the individual against political, religious, and social coercion. By this more expansive understanding and under closer examination, the limits of Lebanon's “democracy” become painfully evident.


First, the organizing principle of the Lebanese political system is not so much liberal individualism as confessionalism; the religious affiliation of each citizen is the basis of his or her political representation. The country's 1943 “National Compact” (al-mîthâq al-watanî) divides the highest political offices on a religious basis: the president is a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament is a Shî‘a Muslim. The Taif agreement in 1989 left this system intact, although it altered the composition of parliament to have an equal number of Christian and Muslim deputies. Consequently, the 128 parliamentary seats are allocated to the country's seventeen recognized religious groups according to the following formula: Maronites 34, Sunnis 27, Shî‘ites 27, Greek Orthodox 14, Druse 9, Greek Catholics (Melkites) 8, Armenian Orthodox 5, other Christians 3, and Alawites 2. The problem is that this distribution of political spoils is hardly democratic if measured against demographic realities—hence the country's avoidance of any census since 1932. Not surprisingly, the Shî‘a group Hezbollah has not been slow to exploit this grievance among its constituents who understandably resent the fact that not all votes in Lebanon's “democracy” are equal (Shî‘ites make up an estimated 40 percent of the Lebanese population, but are represented by only a quarter of the parliamentarians). Conversely, some of Lebanon's Christian and Sunni Muslim politicians, eager to preserve their prerogatives, strike cynical bargains with the Shî‘a militants, exchanging their acquiescence to Hezbollah's state-within-a-state for the latter's tacit agreement not to seriously challenge the status quo. Jeffersonian democracy this is not.


Second, at the head of this “democratic government” is President Émile Lahoud, an unreconstructed Syrian vassal whose career prospered as protégé of the dreaded Syrian interior minister, General Ali Hammoud, when the latter held sway in Beirut as the late Hafez al-Assad's viceroy in Lebanon. Lahoud's six-year term of office should have expired in October 2004. However, under unrelenting pressure from Damascus, he was given another three years' tenancy in the presidential palace (the Syrians had earlier chucked the Lebanese constitution to allow for his 1998 election in the first place despite the constitutional ban on army chiefs running for office within three years of their command). The “Cedar Revolution” of last year was essentially strangled in its crib when the Beirut political elites agreed to leave Lahoud in place. Given Syria's role in precipitating (see the observations that my colleague Professor Michael Krauss of George Mason University School of Law and I published a week before the recent outbreak of fighting) and prolonging the current crisis (see, inter alia, the reports from the well-connected DEBKAfile of Syria downing an Israeli spy drone flying over Jebel Barukh, Lebanon, on Friday in order to allow a large consignment of rocket launchers and truckloads of rockets destined for Hezbollah to be moved undetected and safe from Israeli air attack) any eventual peace agreement that leaves Bashar al-Assad's lackey presiding over the Lebanese state—and possibly even signing the document—will hardly be worth the paper it is printed on.


Third, as Professor Krauss and I pointed out in an article published long before the current crisis and as I reiterated in a recent FSM column, it was bad enough that Hezbollah was allowed to compete the in the Lebanese elections last year without disarming like the rest of the country's factions. However, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's decision to include a group that has been classified as a terrorist group by the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Canada, Israel, and Australia (the European Union, splitting hairs, qualifies only the “military arm” of Hezbollah as terrorist) in his government grants it a legitimacy while undercutting his own bona fides as a responsible partner for peace. Modern democrats do not make pacts with death cults, irrespective of how the latter achieve office.


Fourth, although many policymakers and analysts do not seem to want to hear it, Hezbollah is not interested in peace. Ghaleb Abu Zaineb, the member of Hezbollah's “political council” responsible for relations with Lebanon's Christian groups and political parties, declared on Saturday: “We cannot hope to make peace with [the Israelis] and cannot consider them at peace as long as the Palestinian territories are occupied…Peace cannot be made.” If Abu Zaineb's position is that of his group—and there is no evidence that it isn't—how can anyone take seriously any commitment to honor any accord of a Lebanese government that includes Hezbollah within it, no matter how allegedly “democratic” its provenance is said to be? Put another way, Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah has said that his group “needs only to survive to win.” If such is the low bar for “victory,” what will we face if the cleric and his terrorists not only survive, but continue to have a role in government?


Fifth, the presence of Nasrallah in high-level councils may represent the big strike against the Lebanese government's legitimacy, but is not the only one. The speaker of parliament is Nabih Berri, leader of the Amal militia which is aligned with Hezbollah. Amal, along with the other Syrian-controlled Lebanese groups, was used by Damascus in the 1980s to drive U.S.-led multinational forces out of the country as well as to weaken the Lebanese state and force it to abrogate the May 17, 1983, agreement between Lebanon and Israel, a U.S.-backed effort to create peace and security between the two countries. Another longtime Syrian puppet, Berri first became speaker in 1992 following a rigged election that was boycotted by 87 percent of the Lebanese people. Berri subsequently used his position to embezzle million of dollars that Lebanese state desperately needed, even before the current conflict, for reconstruction and development (according to Lebanese sources, he and his wife Randa were and are particular adept in skimming funds from the Zahrani oil refinery). Consequently, even after the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri, Berri opposed the Syrian withdrawal and Amal conspicuously abstained from participating in the “Cedar Revolution.” Again, how appropriate of an interlocutor—much less partner—is a Lebanese government where a character such as this is the highest-ranking Shî‘ite official?


Sixth, while Hezbollah has been justifiably blamed for not disarming as it was ordered to do by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, little has been said about the complicity not just of its partners like of Amal, but of the entire Lebanese political establishment in condoning this violation and thus setting the stage for the war that has ravaged their country. With the exception of the allies of nationalist Maronite general, Michel Aoun, whose opposition coalition holds 21 seats in parliament, the rest of the Lebanese National Assembly have essentially turned a blind eye to the terrorist group's military buildup over the course of the last year. Some of these “democratic” politicians whom President Bush has pledged to help rid their country of terrorists are on the record condemning the UN resolution as prejudicial to “internal dialogue,” while still others have argued for the maintenance of Hezbollah as a “defensive and deterrent force” against Israel.


If one looks up “myth” in the dictionary, one will encounter several definitions, including “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people,” “a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone,” and “a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence.” By these measures, so many myths have cropped up in the global war on terrorism that one could even suggest an apposite definition of myth particular to the struggle: A statement of seeming fact about terrorists, terrorism, and/or counterterrorism efforts which has become conventional “wisdom” despite being provably false. It goes without saying that in the fight against terrorism and extremist violence, myths are deadly precisely because, on the basis of false presuppositions, they divert scarce resources down dead ends and other unproductive pathways—leading to frustration, tragedy, and even disaster.


Lebanon's “democracy” is one such myth that needs to be placed in proper perspective, if not put to rest altogether—and no amount of repetition to the contrary by politicians, diplomats, and reporters can alter that reality. While Lebanon is certainly more open than that of many Arab states, one should entertain no illusions about its “democratic” politics, much less the moral equivalence of its corrupt and cynical politicians. Disarming an international terrorist group and restoring a stable and secure balance along Israel's northern frontier will be a difficult enough tasks without exacerbating the challenge with political and moral confusion about whom and what we're dealing with on the Lebanese side.


J. Peter Pham, Ph.D., is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, and an academic fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He has written for a variety of publications, and has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.




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