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Lebanon faces dangerous impasse amid calls for political change

Anti-government protesters block some roads in downtown Beirut, Lebanon on Monday. Photo by Nabil Mounzer/EPA-EFE
Anti-government protesters block some roads in downtown Beirut, Lebanon on Monday. Photo by Nabil Mounzer/EPA-EFE

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Lebanon, sinking deeper into political and financial crisis, has reached a dangerous impasse with no solution in sight to save it from a painful crash.

The people are deeply divided over what political system can best chart a way toward ending decades of conflict and instability: neutrality, federalism, decentralization or a civil state?

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They can't even agree over what caused Lebanon's collapse after more than a year: Is it a political or an economic problem? Is the 100-year confessional system, which marries politics to religion, at the root of all Lebanon's ailments? Is it corruption, which grew dangerously with warlords ruling the country since the end of the 1975-90 civil war?

Is it bad governance and economic performance? Is it because of a turbulent, polarized geo-political environment that pushes ideological and political allegiances to external powers? Or it is all about Hezbollah's tight grip and growing influence, which has left Lebanon in a struggle between the United States and Iran?

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All those factors complicate the situation and efforts at a lasting solution.

Resisting reforms

Western and Arab countries, which usually rush to Lebanon's rescue, are only offering urgent humanitarian assistance, delivered directly to the people. The country's corrupt ruling leaders are still resisting pressures to adopt urgent reforms and quarreling over the formation of a new government.

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"No one is offering a solution because there is no solution," Riad Tabbarah, Lebanon's former ambassador to the United States, told UPI. "All solutions being proposed need external support. Outside powers are requesting reforms that are not being implemented...We are turning into a vicious circle."

Tabbarah said Lebanon's essential problem is not its political system but rather corruption, which became "so destructive" after the 1989 Taif national reconciliation accord ended the civil war at the heavy cost of allowing militia leaders to assume power.

"We were facing two choices: one very bad and one worst -- either the militia leaders or continuing the war that had killed 150,000 people," he said. "We opted for the very bad...We brought some corrupt people to rule us because we had no choice."

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Tabbarah said Lebanon flourished after 1943, when it gained independence from France, despite its political system, which saw a new redistribution of powers under the Saudi-brokered Taif accord.

Lebanon witnessed its best times in the 1960s with booming tourism, a growing banking sector and a rich cultural life. But soon it became the scene of sectarian strife, Israeli invasions, Syrian occupation, assassinations and recently a severe economic and financial crisis followed last August by a massive blast that hit the Beirut port -- one of the 10 most powerful non-nuclear explosions in history.

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Christian power

The 1989 redistribution of power that stripped the Christians of some of their privileges and granted Muslims an equal share have left the Christians bitter. No wonder that under such a political confessional system, each sect, growing in strength, would attempt to tilt the balance of power in its favor when an opportunity arises. Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah and its Christian ally, President Michel Aoun, are recent examples.

Sejean Azzi, a former labor minister and an adviser to Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai who is advocating for Lebanon's neutrality, said the problem was not about more or less prerogatives for the Christians, nor their share in the current political system, but rather their "free presence in Lebanon and the weak state."

"The Christians, especially the Maronites, have always bet on the state and our fear is that the state is getting weaker," Azzi told UPI. "Sometimes, such a fear is expressed by frustration, despair and immigration."

He said the Lebanese cannot be saved unless they understand that they "only belong to this country" and should stop "betting on outside powers" and getting into political or military struggles or alliances.

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He argued that discussions related to changing the political system should not be conducted "with the presence of 500,000 Palestinian refugees, some 1.5 million displaced Syrians and an Iranian army," referring to the heavily armed Hezbollah, on Lebanon's soil.

An official census in 2017 estimated the number of Palestinian refugees still residing in Lebanon at around 180,000 from a total of 470,000 registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Azzi emphasized the commitment of the Christians to coexistence with the Muslims, the democratic system, decentralization, neutrality and a civil state.

"We want neutrality so that there is no conflict over the country's defense and foreign policies," he said. "If we don't adopt the concept of neutrality, there is no chance for the Lebanese state to remain united."

Defense strategy

Lebanese political parties have failed to agree on a national defense strategy that would bring Hezbollah's arsenal under the control of the Army and affirm the state's role in defending the country against any Israeli attack.

Hezbollah is not ready to relinquish its weapons, arguing that it liberated south Lebanon from Israeli occupation in 2000 and continues to protect the country. Its opponents accuse it of using its military force to tighten its grip on Lebanon and drag it into destructive military adventures by unilaterally deciding to engage in the Syrian war and help Iran expand influence in the region.

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"We need to go back to the logic of a normal state, whereby any war-related decision must be in the hands of the government and not of any military or political actor," Nassif Hitti, a career diplomat and Lebanon's former foreign minister, told UPI. "We must not accept that Lebanon is a mere negotiation card or a playground for the different regional and international powers."

Realistically, disarming Hezbollah is not a feasible option at this stage.

Hitti emphasized the need to engage in a national dialogue to develop a policy of "active positive neutrality" and to push Hezbollah to the middle; re-establish bridges with the Arab countries and the international community and most importantly achieve "a detente" in the region. Lebanon has been paying a high price for the conflicts in the Middle East.

However, he argued that Lebanon cannot be a neutral state like Switzerland, for it is an Arab country and a founding member of the Arab League that has "to shoulder part of its responsibilities" as such.

With Lebanon reaching a dangerous and critical phase of its history, it is clear that it won't be able to fix its problems without outside help. International support, foreign aid and reconciling with the Arab states are crucial to its recovery and may help reshape its political system.

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"The solution should come from outside... Lebanon should first be saved from collapse," Tabbarah said.

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