As part of Executive’s ‘10 Ways to Save Lebanon’ issue, we asked leading figures from a range of fields to put the case for one major changes for the country. In this article, former Tripoli MP Misbah Ahdab makes the case for moving beyond the March 8 and March 14 political groupings in search of a new national pact.
The formation of a new government is cause for optimism — after nearly a year without a Cabinet the Lebanese were crying out for change. Yet sadly it was not really made in Lebanon; while the parties involved may be local, the deal struck to bring it about was not made in Beirut, but in the Gulf, Tehran and Washington.
The key moment came in January, when Hezbollah abandoned its demand for a veto block in the cabinet. This sudden shift, after months insisting that there was no room for negotiation, almost certainly came about due to Iranian repositioning in its negotiations with the US and the West.
This is emblematic of a wider trend; the country’s politics are now almost exclusively controlled by outside interests. The March 14 alliance is largely responsive to the wills of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, while March 8 dances to Iran’s tune.
While this divide has its roots further back, it was the 2008 Doha Accords that really cemented these two foreign-backed groups in power. The deal, which saw both groups agreeing to share power, is often credited with improving the country’s short-term fortunes both politically and economically.
But what it did in the long run was squeeze the space for moderates by divvying up the key state institutions along political lines. Rather than seeking to reconcile the parties and find common ground, it embedded the divide by giving them different and competing power bases. For example, one key intelligence agency was handed over to March 8 while another was given to March 14.
The cumulative effect is that there are almost no institutions left for those Lebanese who don’t take their agendas from outside. And so we have become more than ever subject to the wills of foreign powers.
Take the new government as an example. While everyone talked extensively about which ministry each party will get, there was almost no debate about what the government should actually do. Forming a cabinet has become little more than a squabble over which side gets which slices of the pie.
But the Doha Accords were predicated on one flawed principle: that the deal would lead to a reduction of violence in the country. A loss of sovereignty, we were told, was the price of security. Six years later, we can see how wrong this was.
Take my home city of Tripoli. Since the 2009 elections, around 400 people have died in ongoing clashes, provoked, and often funded, by outside interests. In the past four years, there has been no meaningful attempt to create a genuinely unified government position on these clashes.
A fresh start
Worse still, the division of security services has actually exacerbated the crisis, with the institutions of the state no longer seen as honest brokers between warring parties. There has also been almost no support for the city’s economy, making the youth increasingly easy to radicalize; for many young men, picking up a gun is now the only way to earn a decent wage.
Tripoli is just one of dozens of examples that show that the principles of the Doha Accords are leading the country closer to a return to civil war. What is required is to turn inwards again and develop a genuine vision for Lebanon, independent of foreign meddling. This requires a deal of the magnitude of the Doha Accords, but this time brokered and designed in Lebanon, with its primary focus being to serve the Lebanese people.
There are reasons to be positive. The non-sectarian movement endures, while oil and gas wealth offers the distant possibility of economic independence. We know how to manage Lebanon better than outsiders.
To make any deal work requires compromise of a different form. Rather than agreeing to divide power, we need to share it — working together, rather than setting up parallel organizations.
Currently those in the international community who would genuinely like to support an independent local agenda in Lebanon are not able to do so, as they see little vision for a better future. We have to create this vision so that international players want to support us.
It is an immense challenge — both March 8 and March 14 are incredibly well funded and will outspend and outmuscle all rivals when it comes to elections. Similarly, convincing people to believe in an alternative when the current system is so engrained can be a challenge. But for Lebanon right now, the stakes are too high not to try.