Four months into the opposition’s descent on the Soliderearea in protest, it is increasingly plain that the effortwas a remarkable success. No, the Seniora government is notabout to fall, nor has the Hariri tribunal been permanentlyderailed; rather, the opposition has scored a dazzlingvictory against businesses in the downtown area. Most havebeen knocked out cold financially, while the rest arepreparing to throw in the towel.
This may seem a tendentious reading. Opposition supporterswould respond that neither Hizbullah nor the Aounistmovement ever really intended to push the Solidere merchantsand restaurants into the street. Most businesses are indeedthe victims of a political confrontation that shows no signsof abating. However, one thing is undeniable: oppositionparties have a much tougher climb than the majority does inproving that they are truly concerned about Lebanon’seconomic well-being; or even that they have a cohesive planto address the country’s financial woes. Three episodes inparticular illustrate the opposition’s problems.
In one episode, Solidere businesses not long ago askedMichel Aoun to take measures to lower the pressure on theirlivelihoods. This would have involved removing tents fromsome parts of the downtown area, to free up access to theirbusinesses. Aoun did not reject the idea. However, severalweeks later nothing has been done. This has only showed thatthe opposition remains reluctant to lose face by reducingits presence in Solidere, even though it couldadvantageously sell a downgrading of its tent city as proofof its interest in the fate of those closing down.
The second episode was the opposition’s decision on January23 to block roads throughout Lebanon, but more particularlyto block the airport road and prevent Prime Minister Fuadal-Seniora from traveling to the Paris-III economicconference. While the opposition parties publicly declaredtheir support for what the conference was trying to achieve,they also understood it would give the government greatcredibility at a time when they were trying to force Senioraout of office. That’s why the expressions of support endedup sounding hollow, as opposition parties placed partisanpolitics before that of trying to create an impression ofunity at home that would have enhanced Lebanon’s chances ofgetting funds.
A third episode was the speech of Hizbullah’s secretarygeneral, Hassan Nasrallah, on April 8. In his address,Nasrallah wondered where the Paris-III pledges of some $7billion were, and lamented that donors had imposedconditions to loan Lebanon money. “Even the economy has beeninternationalized,” Nasrallah observed. He went on to pointout that Hizbullah would be willing to let the situationremain as is for another two years, until Parliament’smandate expired. While he admitted that the opposition wasnot happy with the situation, it was better than civil war.
Nasrallah, even if he is sincere in wanting to avoid a newwar between the Lebanese, will have hardly convinced anyonethat his strategy shows concern for economic realities. Twomore years of stalemate may not only devastate economicconfidence, it would make much more unlikely the release ofmoney pledged in Paris. The Hizbullah leader askedironically where the Paris money had gone, but he leftunmentioned that the dispute between the majority and theopposition—a dispute for which Hizbullah and the Aounistsare partly responsible—is the cause for the reluctance amongsome countries to pay up. Nor will Nasrallah have reassuredeconomists that his criticism was legitimate when hecomplained of the conditions set by foreign donors to helpthe Lebanese economy. Not all aid money can be delivered insuitcases, and for Lebanon to first meet internationalconditions in order to earn the right to receive foreignloans seems so obvious as to be a moot point.
Each of these examples was significant in that theopposition has failed to convincingly show it has aneconomic program that would allow it to take power alone,without March 14. The parliamentary majority, for all itsshortcoming, retains international financial confidence,while the opposition simply does not. Just as important, themajority seems more or less united around the Senioragovernment’s economic program (even if it is open tocriticism), while there are fundamental differences betweenthe economic preferences of the Aounists and those of Hizbullah.
Forgetting politics for the moment, the existential fightbeing waged by both sides in Lebanon today detracts from thefact that when it comes to economics, their continueddivisions can only lead to collective suicide. The majoritycannot pass its economic program without a dialogue with the opposition; but the opposition needs to clarify its own economic views before any sort of dialogue has a realistic chance of succeeding.