With Lebanon having crossed the Rubicon of the Mehlis report, it must now prepare for the storm that will follow. In many respects, the country will have to use the upcoming months to define, or redefine, what kind of society it expects to be – whether one imbued with a capitalist culture of openness and free markets, or one racked by fear and diffidence.
The answer is not an easy one, as the Lebanese will have contradictory answers to the three major challenges they can be expected to face: addressing the implications of what the United Nations investigator Detlev Mehlis revealed, and the legal consequences of this; the breadth of economic reform, and the limits of the society’s openness. In his report, Mehlis found compelling evidence to hold Syrian and Lebanese security officials and politicians responsible for former premier Rafik Hariri’s assassination, and described a widespread conspiracy that appeared to reach to the top leaderships in both countries. Whereas Mehlis’ conclusions may invariably lead to a clash with Syria, the dictates of the free market point in an opposite direction, namely to some sort of agreement so that Lebanese exports can travel through the common border, but also so Syrian guarantees of Lebanese security make the investment climate agreeable. The only problem is that intimidation and free markets rarely mix for long: if one party gains the upper hand, mutually beneficial exchanges – of goods, services, and much else – come to a grinding halt in favor of imposition by the stronger party. That’s why the Lebanese were compelled to applaud when months ago Syria was forced to end its border blockade of Lebanon after Iraq imposed a similar blockade on goods entering Syria. In other words, the desire for free markets may have to come accompanied with recognition that turbulence in trade and other exchanges will probably be inevitable in the coming months. This will not mean the government has no role to play in alleviating the consequences; but it does mean that it should probably not be held responsible for a worsening relationship with Syria it will almost certainly have little control over.
The fate of reforms
If foreign trade suffers from the aftershocks of the Mehlis report, the question of domestic economic reform is a different matter altogether. The difficulties of privatization are well known, and the government will certainly have to face those politicians or parties expected to lose the most from a cutback in the civil service. But instead of letting the ambient tension freeze privatization, the Seniora government (if indeed it remains in office in the coming months) must try to use the momentum created by that tension, so that any effort to derail a bureaucratic cutback can be played up as Lebanon’s missing a chance to be on the same page as foreign aid donors.
That might work if all things remain constant. Otherwise, Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s ability to pursue reform will be a function of political cohesiveness, or lack thereof. The prospect that Lebanon may enter into a period of confrontation over the presidency, for example, may mean many weeks of costly idleness, where the international community loses interest in Lebanon. A third question the Lebanese will have to answer is how open they want their society to be. This means, particularly, looking at the future of media freedoms. The bomb attack against LBCI anchorwoman May Chidiac came as a shock; it shouldn’t have after the assassination of An Nahar columnist Samir Kassir and the threats directed against other journalists, particularly An Nahar owner Gibran Tueni. Lebanese media have accepted a small measure of self-censorship, particularly on matters Syrian, but overall this has been limited to the commentariat – as many journalists understand, it is less what they say specifically that disturbs the neighbors than the fact that Lebanon has a relatively free media sector in general. A warning to one journalist is a warning to all, and if something must be clarified in the coming months, it’s how extensively journalists will defend this; but also how wide a margin of expression the government will give media outlets.
No turning back
The Mehlis report was a break-off point between Syrian-controlled Lebanon and what now follows. The findings will hardly bring serenity, but they do push us into a new phase where it’s up to the Lebanese to begin defining the system they intend to build. There are no easy answers, and relations with Syria are bound to worsen before they get better. In that time, Lebanon’s government and society should stick to the proven certainties: adhering to an internationally sanctioned legal process in the Hariri assassination, pushing economic reform, and defending an open society.