21 December 2012

* Lebanon's Stagnation - POLICYWATCH

December 19, 2012


By David Schenker


Lebanon has a long history of muddling through, and it may do so again unless Syrian violence reignites sectarian tensions in the perennially troubled state.


In recent months, violence in Syria has been spilling over into Lebanon, culminating in the assassination of a senior security official and ongoing fighting in Tripoli between Sunnis and Alawite supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Although these developments pose a threat to Lebanon's tenuous stability, the country already faced a series of independent social, economic, and political challenges that the Hizballah-led government in Beirut has not handled with distinction.


Since the 2005 assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri -- a crime for which Hizballah members were indicted by a UN-founded international tribunal -- Lebanon has been divided into roughly two camps. On one side is a coalition of anti-Assad Sunnis and Christians (and sometimes Druze) known as "March 14"; on the other is the Iranian-backed pro-Assad bloc called "March 8," led by Shiite Hizballah and its Christian partner, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). This divide reflects not only political differences, but also divergent economic approaches.

Despite not winning a majority in parliament, March 8 has controlled the government since 2009. Hizballah's weapons helped intimidate its domestic opponents, but persistent political divisions, widespread corruption, and fallout from Syria ensured that the government accomplished little over the past three years.


The war next door has hurt Lebanon's trade and tourism, curtailing overland exports and -- after a spate of kidnappings -- drying up the steady stream of vacation pilgrims from Persian Gulf states. The prospect of spillover has also led to a decline in foreign direct investment and a 20 percent drop in building permits requested since last year. At the same time, foreign remittances, long a staple of Lebanon's economy, have fallen off. The state's banks have also taken significant losses in Syria, contributing to flat earnings even for Bank Audi, which recorded its best year ever in 2011.

Yet these factors have only exacerbated existing problems, including continued repercussions from the costly Hizballah-provoked war against Israel six years ago. Taken together, these issues have contributed to a budget deficit increase from $40 billion in 2006 to nearly $56 billion today.

Meanwhile, rising unemployment, stagnant incomes, and hikes in commodity prices are increasing economic pressure on lower-income Lebanese, so much so that last month, teachers and other civil service employees went on strike demanding that the moribund parliament pass legislation to raise public salaries retroactively to August. Central Bank governor Riad Salameh opposed the raise, arguing that it would lead to inflation and add $2 billion to the state's already high 2012 deficit of $3 billion. To help narrow the gap, he instead recommended additional taxes on interest generated from bank deposits, as well as on cellphones and other luxury items -- a decision sure to generate grumbling among Beirut's jet set.

Lebanon's financial problems coincide with an acute electricity shortage exacerbated by the closing of the Deir Ammar power station, one of the state's largest facilities. Although Beirut has allocated some $500 million for a new plant, the tender process -- overseen by March 8-aligned energy minister Gebran Bassil of the FPM -- has been mired in scandal and interminably delayed. Basil's effort to secure temporary energy by leasing two Turkish electricity-generating barges has been years in process and tainted by corruption, and it is unclear when, if ever, the boats will arrive. Meanwhile, blackouts have become ubiquitous in the capital -- particularly in the Hizballah-dominated southern suburb of Dahiya -- and elsewhere.

The Energy Ministry's underperformance is especially frustrating given the recent discovery of vast natural gas reserves off the coast. These new resources have not been exploited because March 8 is unwilling to explore a modus vivendi via international mechanisms to establish a maritime border with Israel.


In the lead-up to next year's tentative parliamentary elections, the electoral law has emerged as another source of intractable contention. Both March 8 and March 14 are pressing for legislative changes that would disadvantage the other at the ballot box. The arcane dispute has FPM leader Michel Aoun calling for a shift to a proportional-representation model that he believes will strengthen his coalition and weaken the March 14-leaning swing vote of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Meanwhile, Samir Geagea of the March 14 Christian party Lebanese Forces is arguing for changes that would allow his sect to directly elect 50 of the 120-member parliament's 60 Christian seats -- well more than the 35 afforded by the 1960 electoral law and the 27 allowed under the so-called "Ghazi Kanan law" during the Syrian occupation. Given Lebanon's demographics, this change would be unacceptable to both Hizballah and Geagea's own Sunni (and potential Druze) coalition partners.

This issue might eventually have been discussed at the National Dialogue, a cross-sectarian political forum convened by Prime Minister Najib Mikati beginning earlier this year. Yet after March 14-aligned Internal Security Forces official Wissam al-Hassan was assassinated in October, the bloc announced that it would boycott both the forum and the parliament. For the foreseeable future, then, neither the National Dialogue nor the legislature will make any significant progress -- in fact, it remains unclear whether the elections will even take place. Even without the boycott, longstanding acrimony meant that significant modifications were at best unlikely; the electoral-law debate will only add more fuel to the fire.


Although Hizballah's ongoing support for Assad's brutal repression in Syria has undermined its popularity outside Lebanon, it continues to command impressive support among Shiites at home. When the organization was founded in the early 1980s by Iran, its support was fueled in large part by years of Shiite dispossession, a history of inattention from the state, and a fear of Sunnis, in addition to its anti-Israel message. Today, facing a Sunni takeover in Damascus and sectarian tensions spiking at home, Lebanese Shiites are clinging even more to the powerful militia.

In recent years, a series of embarrassing scandals involving the group and its affiliates have tarnished its reputation, including the distribution of tainted pharmaceuticals by the Hizballah-controlled Ministry of Public Health, reports that the children of senior militia officials have been involved in the production and distribution of narcotics, and a Ponzi scheme perpetrated by the group's chief local financier. Although these missteps are unlikely to threaten its domestic foothold anytime soon, popular support for its Christian ally, the FPM, appears to be eroding amid allegations of corruption in the Energy Ministry and elsewhere.

More troubling to Hizballah is the rather immediate prospect of Assad's fall, which will leave the militia without its chief weapons entrepot and, given its steadfast support for regime atrocities, surrounded by hostile Sunnis. Thus far, the group has responded to mounting pressure by going on the defensive and attempting to avoid escalation at home, but it is difficult to predict how Hizballah will respond to the loss of its key ally in Damascus.


Lebanon has a long track record of muddling through periods of severe domestic morass and may do so again if spillover from Syria does not precipitate a further deterioration in security. At minimum, the country's political and economic paralysis will persist until the Assad regime is dislodged next door. More likely, though, Lebanon's stagnation will continue until post-Assad Syria attains a semblance of calm. Next year's elections may change the government in Beirut, but the trajectory of the Syrian war means that Lebanon's tense political status quo and stagnant economy may be the best-case scenario for the coming year.


David Schenker is the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute. His follow-up article focusing on spillover from Syria into Lebanon will be published tomorrow.


19 October 2012

* Wissam Al Hassan Targeted and Killed in Ashrafieh Car Bomb

Eight people were killed and seventy-eight injured in a car bomb in Ashrafiyeh, Lebanese Civil Defense stated.
A car bomb rocked Sassine Square in Achrafiyeh Friday at 14h45, resulting in numerous casualties, NNA correspondent reported.
The bomb was situated facing Farah Library, 200 meters away from Kataeb House.
The Red Cross and Civil Defense are currently working on rushing the wounded to nearby hospitals. The number of dead and wounded is still not final.
State Prosecutor Judge Hatem Madi arrived a while ago in Ashrafieh to inspect the damages caused by the dreadful blast that shook this Beirut locality earlier on Friday.

Both Interior Minister Marwan Charbel and Military Prosecutor Fadi Akiki have arrived earlier in Ashrafieh to inspect the scene and start primary investigations.

26 September 2012

* GCC Doors Slammed in Lebanese Faces

الخليج مغلق أمام اللبنانيين

لا زوّار ولا «فيَز» زيارة: حرارة الأحداث أقوى
هل تفكّر دول الخليج بالمقاطعة التجارية؟ (أرشيف ــ هيثم الموسوي )
تكثر الروايات عن المقاطعة الخليجية للبنان. هي مقاطعة غير معلنة ولم تصل إلى مستوى دبلوماسي وسياسي وتجاري، بل تقتصر على الأفراد والزيارات. هكذا هي العلاقات بين لبنان ودول الخليج عموماً، متوتّرة «إلى حدّ ما»، أما السبب الرئيسي وخلفياته فهو الوضع في سوريا
محمد وهبة
يروي أحد المصرفيّين البيروتيّين أن قريباً له حاول الحصول على تأشيرة زيارة من سفارة دولة قطر في لبنان. اطلع على المستندات اللازمة لتقديم «فيزا» زيارة لقطر عبر الموقع الإلكتروني للسفارة في لبنان، وجهّز أوراقه، ومن ضمن الأوراق المطلوبة حجز لمدّة الإقامة في أحد الفنادق في الدوحة. المفاجأة كانت عندما اتصل الرجل بأحد الفنادق، ليتبلّغ من موظّف الحجز بأنه لا يمكن إعطاء أي لبناني حجزاً في الفندق بناءً على توصية الجهات الرسمية المختصة في قطر.
ووفق رواية أخرى وردت على لسان مسؤول في إدارة رسمية (بيروتي أيضاً)، فإن معلومات مؤكّدة توافرت لديه عن أن السعودية تمتنع عن إعطاء تأشيرات زيارة للبنانيين، باستثناء «فيز» الحج التي جرى التضييق عليها أيضاً إلى درجة كبيرة، وأُخضعت للتدقيق الأمني.
ومن الروايات التي وردت على لسان مدير في أحد المصارف، أن صديقاً له كان في إمارة أبو ظبي وخرج منها على أساس أن يعود لاحقاً بعد إنهاء أعماله في لبنان، ليستكمل أعماله في تلك الإمارة، إلا أن السفارة ترفض منحه الـ«فيزا» منذ أشهر.
كل هذه الروايات تصبّ في اتجاه واحد هو المقاطعة غير المعلنة، رغم أن المسؤولين الرسميين يتجنّبون الحديث عن هذا الأمر علناً، إلا أن عدداً من رؤساء جمعيات أصحاب العمل يتهامسون عن «قرار» خليجي بمقاطعة لبنان؛ ينقل أحدهم عن إدارة رسمية في لبنان أن السفارة السعودية رفضت، أخيراً، 29 طلباً لـ«فيز زيارة» إلى المملكة العربية السعودية، من أصل 30 طلباً مقدّمة في الفترة نفسها.
هذه المقاطعة غير المُعلنة تأتي على مستويات:
ــ المستوى الأول تعميم سفارات دول الخليج على رعاياها بعدم زيارة لبنان، ولا سيما في مطلع الصيف المقبل عندما احتدمت الأحداث الأمنية في شمال لبنان، علماً بأنه في ظروف مشابهة لم تصدر هذه الدول قرارات علنية من هذا النوع أبداً.
ــ المستوى الثاني متصل بعدم إعطاء سمات زيارة للبنانيين.
ــ المستوى الثالث هو عبارة عن ترحيل مقنّع تمارسه هذه الدول تجاه اللبنانيين العاملين على أراضيها.
ــ المستوى الرابع يتعلق بعدم تجديد الإقامات الممنوحة للبنانيين في تلك الدول، وخصوصاً صغار رجال الأعمال والتجّار.
إذاً، هناك أربعة مستويات من المقاطعة الخليجية غير المعلنة تجاه لبنان، لكن أحد الوزراء المتابعين لا يستغرب هذه الظاهرة التي تأتي «على خلفية الأوضاع السورية. فما يحصل لم يبدأ عام 2012، إلا أنه أصبح أكثر وضوحاً مطلع هذا الصيف مع ارتفاع وتيرة الأحداث في سوريا ولبنان».
لهذا السبب، يعتقد رؤساء الهيئات الاقتصادية أن هذه المقاطعة هي عبارة عن تحوّل مقلق في العلاقات اللبنانية ــــ الخليجية، نظراً إلى كونه أول قرار من نوعه تجاه لبنان مبني على خلفية الأزمة السورية المتذبذبة والمتواصلة «على ما يبدو».
واللافت أن كل المحاولات السياسية لتفادي هذا التوتّر في العلاقات فشلت، إن على صعيد الزيارات التي قام بها رئيس الجمهورية ميشال سليمان لخمس دول خليجية، أو زيارة وزير الخارجية عدنان منصور لقطر، وقبلهما الزيارة التي قام بها رئيس مجلس النواب نبيه برّي للإمارات العربية المتحدة بهدف إعادة المُرَحَّلين قسراً ووُعِد خيراً. في كل الزيارات، سمع الرؤساء الثلاثة كلاماً معسولاً من أمراء الخليج، لكنه لم يرقَ إلى الترجمة العملية.
وككل «الظواهر» في لبنان، استقطبت هذه المقاطعة آراء منقسمة في لبنان حتى بين رؤساء هيئات أصحاب العمل أنفسهم؛ فمنهم من يعتقد أن «على اللبنانيين ردّ الجميل لدول الخليج» فيما يؤكد آخرون أن «هذه الدول تحديداً قامت على أكتاف اللبنانيين». الرأي الأخير يصف موضوع «ردّ الجميل» بأنه عمل «استزلامي»، لكن أصحاب الرأي الأول يرون أن بوادر المقاطعة ظهرت إلى العلن إثر أحداث الشمال مطلع الصيف الماضي وأحداث الخطف التي بدأت قبل أسابيع. بين هذين الحدثين، أصدرت سفارات كل من الإمارات العربية المتحدة وقطر والسعودية والبحرين والكويت، بيانات تطلب من رعاياها مغادرة لبنان وعدم التوجّه إليه، حتى إن قطر هدّدت بطرد كل اللبنانيين الذين يعملون على أراضيها في حال تعرّض أحد رعاياها للخطف.
صحيح أن قلق رؤساء جمعيات أصحاب العمل في جزء منه مرتبط بالخوف من تقلّص المساعدات و«المكرمات» المهينة للبنان، لكن لدى هذه الهيئات مؤشرات اقتصادية سلبية ناجمة عن هذا القرار. فمن جهة، يعتمد الموسم السياحي بالدرجة الأولى على السياح الخليجيين، وخصوصاً على الأمراء والأثرياء منهم الذين توقفوا عن زيارة لبنان منذ نحو سنتين. ومن جهة ثانية، فإن تحويلات المغتربين في دول الخليج تمثّل مورداً أساسيّاً تعتمد عليه كثير من الأسر اللبنانية، ويعتمد عليه الاقتصاد في لبنان. فمن أصل نحو 6.7 مليارات دولار تحوّل إلى لبنان (وفقاً لإحصاءات صندوق النقد الدولي)، هناك 70% منها مصدرها مغتربو دول الخليج، ما قد تكون له تداعيات واضحة على الاقتصاد الوطني.
هكذا يكون لبنان قد خسر الإنفاق الخليجي، ومهدّد بأن يخسر جزءاً من تحويلات المغتربين في دول الخليج. فحتى الآن، يسجّل أن إمارة أبو ظبي لا تعطي أي لبناني فيزا عمل أو زيارة، وهذا ينطبق على قطر والسعودية اللتين توصفان، في أوساط وزارة الخارجية، بالرأس المدبّر لكل هذه الحركة.
رغم ذلك، تروي هذه الأوساط أن اللبنانيين يمثّلون العمود الفقري للأعمال في دول الخليج، علماً بأن نظام الكفيل للأعمال لا يزال قائماً في بعض هذه الدول، وبالتالي، فإن الترحيل يتعلق بمصالح الكفيل أيضاً. وحدها دبي تعدّ مستثناة من كل هذا الأمر، ففيما تحاول هذه الإمارة ترحيل التونسيين والمصريين حالياً، لا يزال للبناني مكان هناك في وحشة الغربة.

71.5 في المئة
هي نسبة انخفاض السياح السعوديين إلى لبنان خلال الأشهر السبعة الأولى من السنة الجارية، وفق إحصاءات وزارة السياحة. فقد بلغ عدد السياح السعوديين في نهاية تموز 2011 نحو 18992 سعودياً، إلا أنه تراجع إلى 5397 زائراً في نهاية تموز 2012.

التحذيرات الأميركية
ينقل عدد من زوار السفير السعودي في لبنان، علي عوض العسيري، أنه كان يمكن التراجع عن قرار المنع الذي أصدرته السفارة إثر أحداث الشمال في مطلع صيف 2012، إلا أن ما جرى لاحقاً من تحذيرات للسفارة الأميركية فاقم المخاوف السعودية من ارتفاع وتيرة العنف في لبنان. لكن هذا الأمر كانت له ترجمة عملية عندما تفجّرت أعمال الخطف والخطف المضاد، إلى أن أصبح الخطف مقابل فدية تجارة رائجة خلال الأسابيع الماضية.

14 September 2012

* Pope Benedict in Lebanon for peace visit

Pope arrives in Beirut for three-day visit, focusing on religious tolerance and welfare of Christians in Middle East. 

A plane carrying Pope Benedict XVI has arrived at Beirut's International airport, witnesses said, at the start of a three-day visit aimed at addressing the position of Christians in a region torn by civil war in neighboring Syria.

The Lebanese deployed thousands of troops on Friday to secure the pope's visit in which he is expected to stress unity
among the different Christian churches in the Middle East and peace between Christians and Muslims.

Religious pluralism and the welfare of Christians in the region were likely to top the agenda of his tour, but the pontiff was also expected to call for an end to the conflict in Syria and a halt to arming the two sides.

He will call on Lebanon's Christians to unite, divided as they are not only toward the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also on a political vision for their own country.

But the Vatican has said the pontiff will avoid intervening politically in his comments on Syria or tell Christians where their alliances should lie.

Benedict, 85, faces a packed schedule in the majority-Muslim country, which will take him from the presidential palace in the Mediterranean seaside capital of Beirut to important Christian towns in the nearby mountains.

He will reach out to the 13 million or more Catholics in Lebanon and the Middle East, asking them to work for peace and democracy alongside moderate Islamists, in a period fraught with fears of a rise of fundamentalism.

Those concerns are particularly poignant as the region is rocked by deadly violence over a video mocking Islam that has cost the lives of the US ambassador in Libya including four other Americans.

Around 200 protesters took to the streets of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Thursday to express outrage over video purportedly made in the US.

Sectarian tension

The pope hopes to advance the church's sometimes difficult relationship with Islam. While in Lebanon, he will meet not only local Christian leaders but Muslim ones as well.

His choice of Lebanon for his Middle East trip is not a casual one: the multi-confessional society - in which top political posts are split among religious groups - was hailed by pope John Paul II as a model for the region.

As the balance of power continues to shift in the region and with Christian minorities increasingly agitated, the emphasis will be on religious pluralism.

Benedict will weigh his words carefully to avoid politically charged comments that could increase religious tensions - and is expected to speak out in favour of a secularism that guarantees cultural and religious freedom.

He will also tackle concern over the exodus of Christians from the region during a presentation of results from the 2010 synod with Middle East bishops.

He has already received a request to recognise the Palestinian state and the important role of the Palestinian cause in the Arab world.

And Syriac Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan has said he hopes the pope will also use the trip to call for negotiations in Syria.

Here too Benedict must tread carefully. The political class in Lebanon - including people from the Maronite church, Lebanon's largest - are divided, some supporting the Assad regime and others backing the rebels.

On Thursday, Maronite Patriarch Bishara Rai said "the pope will definitely call for an end to the spiral of violence and to hatred, which are pointless, and for those who finance and arm both sides in the conflict to stop doing so".

Tight security

In the run-up to the pope's visit, Lebanese security forces are on high alert, and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said this week that it "will be one of the most successful visits in the history of modern Lebanon".

The pontiff will arrive at Beirut's Rafiq Hariri International Airport early in the afternoon to a 21-gun salute. After his welcoming ceremony, he will travel to Harissa in the mountains northeast of the capital, where he will be staying.

While there, he will sign the final report on a synod of bishops he convened two years ago to study the future of Christians in the Middle East.

On Saturday, he will meet President Michel Sleiman, a Maronite, and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni, as well as Muslim religious leaders and the diplomatic corps in Beirut.

He also expected to meet eastern patriarchs and bishops in Bzommar over lunch, to be followed by a meeting with Lebanese youth at the Maronite patriarchate in Bkerke, another village in the same area.

On Sunday, he will celebrate an open-air mass at the Beirut City Centre Waterfront and unveil the conclusions of the 2010 synod of bishops. He returns to Rome on Sunday evening.

Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.