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Lebanon and the Arab Spring 11/21/2011

Before we start to look realistically at where Lebanon stands in the midst of the turmoil that has engulfed several of our sister Arab countries, we wish to look objectively at the phenomenon characterized as the” Arab Spring”. Due largely to a degree of wishful thinking, we are going along with the terminology "Arab Spring", because we wish the best for all our Arab brethren. But we do realize that some have questioned whether the “spring” terminology is justified. Will the countries involved progress towards real freedoms and democracy, and not fundamentalism, radicalism, fragmentation or more violence? Only time will tell for sure. Since we are Lebanese Americans, our concerns for Lebanon precede and supersede any of our interests or involvements with any other Arab or Middle Eastern cause. We therefore want to focus and evaluate the potential effects of this "spring" on our own country of origin.

We have concerns and anxieties about some leaders in and outside Lebanon congratulating them selves, or boasting that Lebanon may be safe or immune from the phenomenon that is shaking neighboring and distant Arab nations. We acknowledge and are thankful that Lebanon has remained relatively calm and somewhat stable, despite all what has been happening in the area and the neighborhood. This is explainable by the fact that the demonstrators, activists, rioters and armed gangs, who descended to the streets of various capitals and cities, were all apparently seeking freedom and democracy. It is therefore understandable that Lebanon may legitimately feel somewhat comfortable and secure, because freedom and democracy have been prominent in its history and continue to be the “raison d’etre” for its current existence. Nevertheless our concerns are: how much of Lebanon freedoms and democracy have survived the sequence of wars and crisis that have plagued the small republic, referred to by Pope John Paul II as "not just a country, but a message to the world." If one compares today’s Lebanon to what it was shortly after independence, are we making progress? Would it not be fair to ask the question, how much independence, freedom or democracy does Lebanon still enjoy today?

In fact, despite all its problems and difficulties, Lebanon still enjoys more freedom and democracy than practically any other Arab country, before or after the "Arab Spring." However, the appropriate question may be: Has Lebanon’s relative freedom and surviving democracy helped the country progress towards genuine stability and its full economic, social and political potential? Is the relative calm that is prevailing to date a reason for the Lebanese leaders to relax, be reassured, and sleep proudly on their laurels? Did their policies and actions make Lebanon secure and well prepared to confront the external risks on which no Lebanese has any significant control? Does the phenomenon characterized as "Arab Spring" provide more determination in the hearts of the Lebanese and their leaders to continue "business as usual"? Or should it serve as a wake up call to Lebanon's government and its political and religious leaders. Do they not need to take special precautions to protect Lebanon from the possible deleterious effects of events in neighboring countries that could potentially result in a "Lebanese Armageddon."

Thus we ask ourselves again if enough is being done to protect the country from the serious dangers resulting from continuing and worsening divisions. While it may have been relatively easy to put together a united front towards events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, it is obvious that the opposite is true with regard to Syria, a very close country, of extreme importance to Lebanon, but which also elicits significant sensitivities. The Lebanese are apparently united in wishing the best for the brotherly Syrian people, but appear as divided as they can be with regard to the Syrian regime which is facing very serious problems.

When the current turmoil started in Syria a little less than a year ago, some of us were asked by friendly American leaders with important foreign policy role, what we thought about Syria. Our answer was simply "Syria is not Libya". This opinion is probably still valid and thank goodness there is no American or NATO military involvement, to date, and none is anticipated. While there was no apparent disagreement about the above statement, the Lebanese expatriate community, is now plagued by divisions similar to the old country. Some of us focus on the fact that the Assad regime is the most secular in the region and has given Syria the longest period of stability since independence. Therefore it may deserve a fair chance to implement the needed reforms. Others feel that the regime is too totalitarian, corrupt and violent and needs to go as soon as possible, without even thinking what will happen next. Nevertheless we are not aware of any Lebanese American lobbying for external military action, which until now, we all seem to agree that it can only do harm and would not solve any problem. There is a shaky consensus that a stable Syria is in the best interest of Lebanon. However there is disagreement as to whether stability can be achieved best by support of the Assad regime or by the fastest transition to a doubtful democracy that is unlikely to be achievable peacefully or promptly.

The American role in Syria was apparently limited. It was mostly focused on the humanitarian aspect. Since early on there were appeals against violence and in support of human rights. There were subsequently efforts directed at UN sanctions which remained limited by resistance from the Chinese, the Russians or both. There were also progressive proxy pressures by Turkey and the Arab League, largely under Saudi influence. These pressures are now reaching very dangerous levels. The king of Jordan has now gone one step further by calling on President Assad to step down.

In Lebanon, sharp divisions regarding the Assad regime continue. Some leaders advocate blind support for the regime and others hail the opposition as the real pathway to freedom and democracy. There are frequent media reports of arms smuggling, intelligence interference and mistreatment of refugees. Some Lebanese seem to think that their support or wishful thinking can affect the result of the confrontation inside Syria. However in reality the Lebanese effect on the Syrian outcome is either minimal or negligible. On the other hand, the Syrian developments can have profound effects on Lebanon.

We believe that the best role Lebanon could play towards Syria is mediation and conciliation within the Arab world, as well as utilization of the Lebanese expatiate influence in the US and Europe towards some form of compromise that may defuse the violence and allow opportunity for gradual and reasonable reforms. The Lebanese’s best interest is that peace and stability return to Syria as soon as possible. It would be nice if they could contribute to such goals. But the hard truth is that the best they can aim for is take precautions to protect Lebanon’s peace and stability if the Syrian developments take an unfortunate turn. They should also be prepared to accept and deal with whatever the Syrian people chose. Under no circumstance should they allow the Syrian problems, if they deteriorate, to spread to Lebanon, intensify the divisions and result in possible violence. 

The other external event that the Lebanese may have to be prepared for is unfortunately a possible clash between Israel and Iran. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) not known for using alarmist tones seems to be now convinced of Iran's intention to develop atomic weapons. There is also concern among Iran's adversaries that they are close to achieving their targets. Israel is believed to consider this matter as an existential threat. It is said, however, that some leading Israeli experts argue it would be catastrophic for Israel to attack Iran. On the other hand, others say it would be suicidal not to. There is therefore legitimate concern that not being comfortable with the Obama administration, the Israelis may act on their own, within the foreseeable future. Knowing of Iran's friendships and alliances with major segments of the Lebanese population, it is very appropriate to wonder what Lebanon will do. More importantly one should ask what Lebanon can afford to do? It is clear that Lebanon must not address this potentially very risky possibility by wishful thinking alone. If Iran is attacked by Israel or the US and one or more Lebanese groups get involved unilaterally, the results for Lebanon could be catastrophic. Considering the seriousness of the threat and the probability that it could happen reasonably soon, there should be intensive sincere efforts between the March 8 and March 14 groups to reach agreement on a unified response, which will focus on the interest of Lebanon, before any other consideration. 

There are currently too many divisions in Lebanon. It is not just the March 8 vs March 14 struggle. There are various degrees of division amongst and within religious, sectarian and ethnic groups. There is also significant division within the one sided government over the financing of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). This issue alone, if mishandled could cause major economic problems. The problems would be much worse if the Lebanese manage to carelessly enter divided into a new war. Therefore urgent dialogue is needed so that the various factions within Lebanon can discuss and agree on how they will react in case the internal Syrian situation deteriorates or a military confrontation occurs between Israel and/or the West with Iran,

The Lebanese should remember how the Paris 1, 2 etc efforts have rushed to help Lebanon survive recent economic crisis. The various actors that initiated the Paris reunions for Lebanon are currently preoccupied with their own serious economic challenges. The United States and Europe are struggling with major fiscal and monetary problems. They may therefore not be able to focus their attention towards a new Lebanese crisis. Therefore, if Lebanon carelessly stumbles into a new economic crisis, there may be nobody available for bail out. Thus the country may risk complete meltdown and no effort should be spared to avoid any trigger that could stress or challenge the security or the country’s economy.

In the US, because of unchecked indebtedness, we hear warnings every day that the declining super power may be heading faster than we think towards a Greece or Italy type situation! Are the Lebanese people being warned how much more risky their situation may be. Is everybody concerned doing all they can to protect Lebanon from the threats looming in the horizon?

Greece and to a certain extent Italy flirted closely with default despite a major advantage over Lebanon, in being larger economies with a full commitment of the European Community of which they are members. Nevertheless, they are addressing their problems by forming new national unity and/or independent technocratic governments. Who can Lebanon currently count on for prompt help, if a forced crisis occurs? The only possibility appears now to be its fractious Arab brethren. Is Lebanon aligned with the richer Arab countries that can inject cash into its economy, if needed? Not really, but Lebanon and particularly the current government can not afford to side against Syria. Therefore, there is every reason to look for dialogue that may result into a unity/technocratic government that can help Syria by its potential for mediation and conciliation and does not have to confront the Arab League or the World Community.

A major religious leader spoke at the United Nations of desirable neutrality for Lebanon. Our interpretation is that he probably meant the desirability of Lebanon's neutrality when there are tensions or confrontation within the Arab world or for instance between Turkey and Iran. But Lebanon needs to remain committed to the Arab cause and to its special brotherly relation with Syria and can not be neutral towards their real enemies, which are also Lebanon’s enemies, until a complete and just peace can be achieved in the Middle East. Therefore, in order to improve its chances of avoiding potentially catastrophic risks, Lebanon needs sincere and courageous dialogue. A possible objective could be like in Italy or Greece consideration for adjustments of current government or outright formation of unity/technocratic government capable of confronting any looming threats. We sincerely wish and hope that the situation in Syria will peacefully stabilize soon. We also hope that Iran will reach a satisfactory understanding with the IAEA that should preempt any Israeli military action. However, since nobody can be sure that either of these two situations will not take an undesirable turn, Lebanon should be appropriately prepared.

We therefore appeal to the President, the Speaker of Parliament, the Prime Minister and to at least half a dozen or a dozen of major decision makers, to examine their conscience, forget temporarily about politics and look sincerely for a unified plan to protect Lebanon. The Lebanese President, who has called for resumption of dialogue, is perfectly suited to initiate the new effort towards dialogue, not necessarily to be focused at old chronic problems, but at the new evolving threats resulting from worsening situations in the neighborhood.


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Last modified: 11/21/11.