The formation of Lebanon's first post-occupation government last week belies gleaming Western media accounts of the so-called "Cedar Revolution" in Beirut. A majority of the new Cabinet ministers held high-ranking government positions during the Syrian occupation. Indeed, the new Prime Minister-designate, Fouad Siniora, served as finance minister of Syria's satellite regime twice as long as all other occupants of the post combined.
Outside of predominantly Christian districts, most incumbents held on to their seats in the May / June parliamentary elections, after which Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri was duly returned to his post. Even President Emile Lahoud, whose unconstitutional term extension last September galvanized international pressure for a Syrian pullout, is safe in his job. Far from signifying the downfall of Lebanon's sclerotic governing elite, the political transition now under way heralds its rehabilitation.
The political bloc now assuming power in Beirut is not a reformist wing of this elite, but is associated with its worst excesses. It was forged by the late Rafiq Hariri, a multi-billionaire construction tycoon who took office in 1992, just two years after Syrian air and ground forces crushed Gen. Michel Aoun's Lebanese army troops and swept away the last remnants of Lebanon's First Republic. Strikes and rioting in Beirut had brought down two governments in just five months, and the late Syrian President Hafez Assad desperately needed a financial superstar to jumpstart the war-shattered economy of his new satellite state.
Hariri and Siniora, his chief advisor, embarked on a frenzied reconstruction and development campaign (financed by runaway deficit spending) that marveled many Western visitors. However, those who ventured far outside of Beirut's hotel and business districts could see that very little money was being spent outside of the capital or outside of the construction and service sectors. This peculiar allocation had little to do with economic philosophy -- it was just that much more graft could be extracted from building high rises than from importing tractors or expanding public transportation. Four years ago, a UN-commissioned corruption assessment report estimated that the country had been losing $1.5-billion in graft annually -- a whopping 10% of the country's GDP. Today, Lebanon has the largest per capita government debt in the developing world and little to show for it.
This doubly pernicious form of profiteering (which not only saps public finances but also misdirects them to unproductive or redundant enterprises) by Hariri and the postwar financial elite he came to represent was sustainable only under the shadow of Syrian power and in the service of Syrian interests. Hariri's conspicuous neglect of agriculture benefited Syrian farmers who flooded the country with untaxed produce, while his rapid expansion of the construction sector was a boon to over one million unskilled Syrian labourers who settled in Lebanon during the mid-1990s. Moreover, the prime minister distributed handsome payoffs to Syrian officers in Lebanon and formed lucrative business partnerships with influential Syrian officials, most notably vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam and Army Chief-of-Staff Hikmat Shihabi. In return, Hariri was granted political preeminence over his rivals.
Hariri's political eclipse came when his powerful allies in Damascus foolishly resisted Assad's efforts to delegate power to his son and heir apparent, Bashar. In 1998, after taking control over the "Lebanon file" from Khaddam and sidelining Shihabi, Bashar ousted Hariri and promoted then-army commander Lahoud to the presidency. Hariri was called back two years later after the Lebanese economy slipped into recession, but his authority was thereafter strictly limited to economic affairs, with Lahoud and his allies retaining control over foreign policy and security.
Most other factions of the governing elite lined up on one side or the other. Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt was closely aligned with Hariri, while the Shiite Islamist Hezbollah movement and Berri's secular Shiite Amal backed the president. This rivalry effectively paralyzed the government, but Hariri and his allies had invested too much in Lebanon (literally) to walk away. So they bided their time until the expiration of Lahoud's term in 2004.
Bashar Assad faced a profound dilemma in choosing a successor to Lahoud -- no candidate with a shred of credibility in the Christian community (for whom the presidency is reserved, under the constitution) could be counted on to remain loyal if the going got tough in his confrontation with the West. Since Lahoud had no power base independent of the institutional prerogatives of his office (and therefore no political future in post-occupation Lebanon), his loyalty to Damascus was absolute. This is why Syria defied Western demands for a constitutional presidential succession.
Although Hariri quietly encouraged American and European pressure on Damascus, he never really aspired to lead Lebanon out of Syria's orbit. After the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 last September, he spent weeks trying to cut a deal with Assad. Had the Syrian leader been willing to let him name two-thirds of the cabinet, Hariri would have happily returned to the fold. After his ouster in October, however, he quietly entered into talks with the Qornet Shehwan coalition of mainstream Christian opposition figures over the formation of a tripartite electoral alliance (along with Jumblatt) capable of winning a commanding parliamentary majority in the Spring 2005 elections.
Hariri's assassination in February was intended to shatter this alliance. But it backfired, leading to widespread calls for an end to Syria's occupation, as well as a series of street protests that starry-eyed foreigners labeled the "Cedar Revolution." After several weeks of vacillation, Hariri's 35-year-old son, Saad, picked up where his father left off.
The alliance faced no significant challenge in the late Hariri's electoral stronghold of Beirut, and quickly agreed not to challenge Hezbollah or Amal in south Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley, so its energies were focused mainly on districts formerly dominated by the Lahoud camp. The only serious electoral threat came not from Lahoud, but from the secular nationalist Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Gen. Aoun, who returned from exile in early May. With nationalist sentiment at a fever pitch in Lebanon, Aoun's unwavering refusal to accept the Syrian occupation during the past 15 years made the FPM a virtual shoo-in wherever Christians formed a majority and extremely competitive political force in mixed districts from the Chouf to northern Lebanon.
Buoyed by public outrage over his father's assassination, Saad Hariri and his coalition partners managed to win a solid 72-seat majority in the 128-member parliament after a contentious campaign marked by unsavory tactics on both sides (Aoun included a few pro-Lahoud figures on his electoral slate, while Hariri called in favors from Hezbollah, courted radical Sunni fundamentalists in Tripoli, and allegedly bought thousands of votes). However, the FPM captured 15 seats, enabling Aoun to effectively veto Hariri's choice of a successor to Lahoud (since reversing his three-year extension would require a two-thirds majority of the votes). Unable to hand-pick the next president, the alliance quickly decided that a weak and discredited Lahoud was preferable to an independent approved by Aoun.
Although the governing elite has managed to survive the removal of Syria's protective umbrella for the time being, it will be much more exposed to public scrutiny and considerably less capable of suppressing dissent than ever before. If left to its own devices in contending with Lebanon's resurgent civil society, the new regime will almost certainly be an improvement over its predecessors. However, while the West should strongly back this government against internal and external coercive threats, it must be careful to distinguish between support for Lebanon's sovereignty and support for its current officeholders. They are not the standard-bearers of democracy.
Gary C. Gambill, a former editor of Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, is a political analyst for Freedom House.