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What is the solution for Lebanon's public debt?

Lebanonwire.com 6/29/04

While the Lebanese in and outside the country continue to dream and worry about the upcoming presidential election in the fall of this year, more attention seems to be appropriately directed toward the problem of the economy and the public debt. The focus, however, seems to be more on who is responsible for getting things to this point, rather than what to do to solve the problem or at least diminish its impact on a population that has already suffered a lot.

It would be irresponsible not to recognize that the issue of the public debt should have significant, if not the determining influence on the presidential election and the future choice of a prime minister. But the question remains by what mechanism? Are all or most members of Parliament knowledgeable enough about economics to make the enlightened decision? Even if they were, would the economy be their main motivation while voting, or would they have to obey directions from their regional leaders so that they can get re-elected under the current system? Or would they be more interested in what Syria may want or even the US or the European Union? The Lebanese democratic system is too imperfect to allow early predictions about the determining factors, let alone the result.

Lebanese politicians should nevertheless focus on addressing the problem of debt with sincerity and courage, motivated by responsibility and patriotism.

There is no question that Syria will have influence on who reaches power in Lebanon in the foreseeable future. However, President Bashar Assad, while acknowledging Syria's influence rightfully adds that "attributing everything to us is an injustice." He also adds that Syria will support any president that comes through a consensus among the Lebanese. What other issue so crucial to Lebanon's survival should the Lebanese seek consensus around, other than that of the mushrooming debt?

Therefore, all candidates for high office in the next administration, whether they are part of the current administration or real outsiders should present short and long-term plans for the economy and should speak precisely about how they would handle Lebanon's public debt and any upcoming maturities or due dates.

What incentives would high office candidates have to speak on such a difficult and dangerous issue, since few seem to believe that it would make any difference with the final result?

Although a prominent member of the Lebanese Parliament was quoted as saying that Syria will 100 percent determine the next Lebanese president, I tend to believe Assad's statements that he "will support any president that comes through a consensus among the Lebanese."

Does President Assad have the will or the power to deliver on his statements? I asked well-informed sources in the US administration this question. The answers I obtained can be expressed as three different opinions: (1.) Assad inherited complete dictatorial power from his father (2.) Assad is a figurehead president with practically very little power (3.) Assad has all the power in certain matters and very little power in other issues. The more reliable source with whom I spoke to seemed to favor the third opinion.

I suspect that higher-ups within the State and Defense departments do know how much power President Bashar Assad holds. Their knowledge on this matter may be "classified information." Nevertheless, I would bet on the side that President Assad knows what he is talking about, and he is taking into consideration the geopolitical environment in the region between now and the time of the election.

Further, he is certainly aware of what we all heard recently from US President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac regarding the Lebanese freedom to choose their destiny. The realistic expectation would therefore be that Syria would have a major or at least a significant influence, but other factors may be at play. Such factors could still be competence, consensus building, ability to deal with Syria and other Arab countries as well as the US and the European Union and, most importantly, ability to deal with upcoming issues related to the public debt and the fear of economic collapse.

Therefore, regardless of the exact environment that may prevail at the time of the presidential elections and regardless of the geopolitical factors that may affect the mechanisms of accession to power, whoever wants to be president of Lebanon by the beginning of 2005 should unveil a plan to handle the economy and the public debt. This should also apply to whoever wants to be prime minister. In fact the economic issues and the control of corruption and graft should also be high priority in the subsequent parliamentary elections.

In medicine, we frequently confront patients with multiple disease problems of various risks and severities. The primary objective is always to secure survival by treating first the life-threatening conditions, which we refer to as emergencies. Lebanon seems to be sliding toward a dangerous emergency related to the public debt. Therefore the candidates for president and prime minister should openly discuss their specific plans to handle the economy in general and any upcoming emergency in particular. They should also seek common ground, so that their efforts are not wasted. If they don't, they won't have anybody to blame but themselves for leading Lebanon toward the abyss.

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