December 7, 2006

Hizbullah holding Lebanese economy hostage

By Abu Kais

Some people justify Hizbullah's actions by claiming they represent an impoverished community long neglected by the state. In other words, because the Shias of Lebanon were poor and neglected, somehow Hizbullah earned the right to be the bully it is, since it provides for them. This is a false argument, mainly because Hizbullah was never about social justice, but about farming humans to carry out an essentially Jihadist agenda. The people who benefit from their Iranian-funded projects are essentially tools for social change that is incompatible with Lebanese democracy. And if the state has failed Hizbullah's people, so has Hizbullah, which is now holding their country's economy hostage.

Michael Karam, managing  editor of Executive Magazine, says Hibzullah's protests are killing the Lebanese economy.

Crunch the numbers and it becomes obvious that this is neither the time nor the place for such a jamboree. Lebanon's total debt stands at $39.4 billion, a year-on-year increase of 6.9 percent. The debt-to-GDP ratio is a staggering 190 percent. PM Fouad Siniora, a banker by training, is aware of the urgency of reform… …Even on a "good day" it is estimated that Lebanon looses $1 million for every day it stalls in carrying out economic reform. Does the opposition care about such figures? One wonders.

Yes, one wonders whether the "opposition" cares.

According to the March 14 media, Hizbullah has been working on a new government for months now, and the lineup is ready, consisting mostly of pro-Syrian ministers, with former PM Salim Hoss likely at the helm. Aoun's rejection of joining the current cabinet seems to corroborate these reports, which claim that the new government was to be announced as soon as the Grand Serail fell last Friday.

But if they had a lineup ready, this doesn't mean they have a economic plan—unless they want to play it Syrian style: assign finances to a semi-independent figure (Aoun?) with some credibility, in return for control of foreign policy and security matters.

Michael Young spells out Hizbullah's strategy:

Hizbullah's strategy is now clear, its repercussions dangerous. The party is pushing Lebanon into a protracted vacuum, in which low-level violence and economic debilitation become the norm. Hizbullah is calculating that its adversaries will crack first, because they have more at stake than do poor Shiites when it comes to the country's financial and commercial health. Its leaders know the powerful symbolism associated with dispatching thousands of destitute people into the plush downtown area, which best symbolizes that financial and commercial health - the jewel in late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's reconstruction crown.

According to Karam, the country's economy is "hurtling to hell in the proverbial hand basket". The Paris III economic conference might be postponed again, which might force rating agencies to downgrade the country one step away from a default. Tourism and industry are in shambles. Pierre Ashkar, the head of the Federation of Tourism Syndicates, told al-Mustaqbal that hotel reservations went "from 90% [full], to 50% when Hizbullah threatened to take to the streets, and now 0%."  The protests and the sit-in in downtown Beirut has cost the country $400m so far, with businesses to lay off workers in the near future. Some 20,000 workers were laid off in July during the Hizbullah-initiated war.

Furthermore, Hizbullah and FPM tents occupy private property owned by Gulf investors and slated for development. Economist Marwan Iskandar accused the "protestors" of seeking to scare away major investors, especially if Beirut is transformed from a civilized place into a gangland where "groups of kids" fight and hurl obscenities.

Karam describes it well:

Lebanon's image as the region's party town is evaporating faster than you can say Bacardi Breezer, while brand Lebanon, which nearly two years ago oozed with equity, is looking very brittle. A widely televised war, a gangster-style assassination in broad daylight, and the sight of soldiers behind razor wire defending a holed-up Cabinet are not good for business, and whether we like it or not business is what makes Lebanon.

I would add to the above that 1980s Beirut is being resurrected. Armed thugs are back on the streets, and the only things missing are a wider scale conflict and the Syrian army for the picture to be complete.

Hizbullah, in fact, is filling in for the Syrian army, as far as destabilizing the country is concerned. On Wednesday, the Syrian vice president and the regime's official liar (by UN findings), Farouk al-Sharaa, said Syria "didn't need" troops on the ground to have "stronger" relations with the country than in the past (stronger relations = hegemony). Sharaa promised us that the conflict will continue as long as the Lebanese "political will" is imported (meaning no resolution as long as Syria's will is resisted). He also bragged that if the Syrians were to get involved (he says they're not), the situation would have been resolved quickly. He lashed out at France and the United States, said Syria's relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia were at an all time low, but praised Michel Aoun's "reasonable and logical" discourse.

And then this gem:

Can you imagine a Lebanese soldier would fire at a Syrian soldier or vice versa? Whoever doesn't understand this issue has no future.

In Sharaa's mind, Hizbullah is their army, and the Lebanese army is in their pocket, and would not oppose their efforts to topple the government when push comes to shove. The army has proved them wrong so far, although many still question the loyalty of its leadership, and its long-term ability to withstand communal divisions and infiltrations by Hizbullah and the Syrian regime. 

Which brings us back to the main point. Hizbullah thinks that economic peril and Syrian-style destablization can deliver the government and please their Syrian allies. This is proving to be yet another costly "miscalculation", for the political opposition to their tactics has been formidable. The Sunni street has united around the cabinet, and the Maronite Church has regained its political role following attempts by Syrian regime thugs like Suleiman Franjieh to discredit the Patriarch. The Church is now asking Nabih Berri to convene parliament to settle the conflict within the state's institutions. The church's initiative, in fact, calls for endorsement of the Hariri tribunal, early presidential elections, a new electoral law, one of two kinds of government: consensual or independents if the first is not possible.

The Syrian regime was quick to reject the Church's recommendations through its mouthpiece, "president" Emile Lahoud, who ruled out early presidential elections because it's "unconstitutional" and "the parliament does not represent the orientations of Lebanese people". (LBC)

Hizbullah responded by calling for another massive protest on Sunday afternoon. It is not clear what will be different this time.

But what is becoming evident is that some of Hizbullah's allies in the country, namely Aoun and Berri, cannot afford to attach themselves to Hizbullah's economic and political suicide project for ever. The country is not a fighter that can be sacrificed. With Aoun lacking any sensitivity, Nabih Berri probably feels it the most. He reportedly sent an emissary to Damascus for consultations. Lahoud is free to reject the Church's demands, but can Berri, as parliament speaker, ignore Sunnis, Maronites and Druze, not to mention a Saudi ambassador giving him an earful every day? At some point, he must realize that the Syrian regime's fear of the tribunal and Hizbullah's "conceit" are pushing the country into the abyss. 

Young gets the final word.

Another flaw in Syrian and Iranian reasoning is hubris. Despite the tactical parallels in the staging of a coup, Lebanon is no Czechoslovakia. Tehran, Damascus, and Hizbullah imagine the country can be conquered, with Hizbullah somehow emerging on top. Only the fundamentally intolerant can fall for such a tidy, straightforward conceit. But that's not really how things work in Lebanon's confessional disorder. We may be in the throes of a faltering coup, but the ultimate challenge is to avoid being inadvertently manhandled by Hizbullah into a war nobody wants.

Posted by Abu Kais at December 7, 2006 6:50 AM
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