Dec 27, 2019
American University of Beirut electrical engineering professor and Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab is expected to face major challenges as he begins the process of forming a new government. Although the 60-year old academic lacks in-depth experience in running a government, Diab is not tainted by corruption or theft of public funds. As Lebanon teeters on default, Diab’s ability to cobble together a functioning government depends principally on whether he will have the courage and vision to implement a revitalization plan that could shake the country to its very core. It could also pull Lebanon away from the abyss. Pursuing such a plan will require support and strict guidance from regional and international donors. France, Lebanon’s primary benefactor and historical ally, together with major regional and international funders of Lebanon’s economic revitalization, should inform Lebanese politicians clearly and unequivocally that high-level corruption and thievery can no longer be tolerated and that those who participate in or benefit from such acts will be held accountable and could be indicted and possibly jailed. At the recent international group meeting on Lebanon, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that the group “supports protesters who have taken to the streets since October 17 to call for and end to corruption and the overhaul of the Lebanese political system.” He also called for the creation of a “competent government” that represents the Lebanese people, not corrupt politicians. If Diab hopes to overcome the country’s difficult domestic and regional challenges, he should form a cabinet of technocrats with expertise in their respective fields and without being restricted by religious quotas. The selection process should be transparent and inclusive, and should reflect the new realities in the country. Although the protesters lack a recognized leadership, the Prime Minister-Designate should seek their support for his government and should heed their demands. The protesters are not driven by or beholden to any partisan or religious ideology. Their goal is to create an inclusive functioning government devoid of corruption and committed to serving all the people of Lebanon. Both the French and the American governments support this credible goal. Ending Corruption Through Accountability A draconian accountability system must be established if Diab’s economic reforms are to succeed. This will require clear metrics against which progress can be regularly measured. Regional and international donors should establish an International Monitoring Group (IMG) to track and evaluate the fiscal and financial performance of the new government, especially the disbursement of the billions of dollars in recovery money from the international donor group. The IMG would include representatives from Qatar (expected to be the largest regional contributor to Lebanon’s recovery), France, the United States, Germany, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and the protest movement. Although so far it has no designated leader, it should agree on at least one person to represent it on the IMG. The disbursement of funds should target specific recovery and job creation projects and should remain outside the control of any one minister or agency director. Prime Minister Diab and his finance minister, as the designated administrators of specific development funds and projects, will be expected to report quarterly on their performance to the IMG. Specific Revitalization Projects Initially, the recovery process should focus on four specific projects and track the performance in each one through special committees appointed by the IMG. The projects include the banking sector, foreign investment, the environment and public services, and the Syrian refugee crisis. International donors through the IMG should earmark a minimum of 2.5 billion dollars to each of these projects. The banking sector should ease its consumer lending to encourage businesses to resume operations, hire new employees, and rehire those who were laid off since the crisis started in October. Banks should permit customers freer access to their money. Restrictions on individual weekly withdrawals to $200-300, which have been implemented in recent weeks, should be lifted. Large depositors, including wealthy millionaires and billionaires, however, will be scrutinized more thoroughly before they can access their liquid deposits. The IMG will be responsible for monitoring foreign investments in such areas as the school system and technical education, the power grid, communications, garbage collection and waste disposal, industrial parks, job creation, and entrepreneurial start-ups. Managers of these mega- enterprises would provide detailed quarterly status reports to the IMG whose technical staff will evaluate the success, effectiveness, or failure of these projects and their impact on the Lebanese people. Senior managers of these projects should be held accountable for their performance. The review process should be committed to zero tolerance of any form of corruption or patronage jobs that could lead to corruption. The country’s physical environment—including the water system, public services, roads and highways, the police force and the fire fighters—has been at the heart of the on-going mass protests in the past two and a half months. The environment is on the verge of collapse because of government neglect, inaction, fraud, and corruption. Malfeasance in office, large kickbacks, and the lack of quality control have led to shoddy workmanship and poor physical structures. Syrian Refugees Must Be Repatriated The butchery of the Assad regime has forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians to seek shelter in Lebanon. At the risk of stating the obvious, these refugees have been a huge burden on the Lebanese economy, infrastructure, education, public services, housing, and employment. Lebanon is not equipped to handle such large numbers of refugees. The Diab government should push through the parliament a Syrian Refugees Repatriation Act (SRRA), which would begin the process of repatriating Syrians to Syria. Under the SRRA, each Syrian family would be given $20,000 from the Syria-designated IMG fund to resettle back in their country. Syrians whose safety could be threatened if they return and who seek asylum in Lebanon or elsewhere should be reviewed separately by the IMG legal staff before a decision is made whether or not they would be returned to Syria. The Syrian refugee presence in Lebanon is untenable. Although not the primary cause of the current Lebanese crisis, it has certainly exacerbated it. The simple truth is that Lebanon cannot cope with the continued presence of hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the country. Ta’if Revisited The current crisis and the on-going demonstrations have shown that the confessional system and the religious apportionment of political and economic power over the years have been a major contributor to corruption and mismanagement across many sectors of the Lebanese economy, politics, and society. This system of governance, which defined the Lebanese state since independence in 1943, was more or less reaffirmed in the Ta’if agreement at the end of the 15-year civil war in 1989. It is time to jettison confessionalism in Lebanon. Working closely with the IMG, Prime Minister Diab’s government and representatives of the protesters should draw up a referendum for a national vote on the future of the country. The Lebanese people will be asked to vote in this referendum on whether Lebanon should be a secular, democratic republic where freedoms of speech, assembly, thought, movement, and worship are guaranteed for all Lebanese people, regardless of sect, religion, and gender. The President of the Republic, regardless of religious affiliation, should be elected nationally and serve for a maximum of two five-year terms. The Prime Minister, regardless of religious affiliation, should come out of the party that received a majority of the national vote. He or she also could only serve a maximum of two five-year terms. The speaker of the parliament, regardless of religious affiliation, should be chosen by the parliament after every new national election. Members of parliament could only serve two five-year terms. A national referendum, approved through fair and free elections and supervised by international observers under the direction of the IMG, should go a long way toward restoring the Lebanese people’s confidence in their national institutions. If this is done and Prime Minister Diab is able to connect with the Lebanese people, Lebanon will be on its way to recovery. Furthermore, the envisioned Lebanese democracy will be a fitting New Year’s gift to the Middle East, Arabs and non-Arabs alike.