The rightly deserved accolades of “Paris II” have been wiped out by the latest disagreement over the cellular phone issue, says Metn MP Nassib Lahoud, who calls the current impasse a “confirmation” of widespread skepticism about the handling of public money.
“What is happening currently on the cellular issue is doing a lot to rock the confidence that we were expecting (out of Paris II),” Lahoud said in an interview with The Daily Star. “The government is appearing to be squandering hundreds of millions of dollars, and at the same time has gone to the international community in an effort to save a few hundred million dollars. This is unfortunate and needs redressing.”
At issue is the refusal by cellular companies LibanCell and Cellis to sign a government-produced agreement regarding arbitration proceedings and the transfer of their assets and networks to the state. Coming hard on the heels of the Paris II donor conference, which secured more than $4.3 billion in assistance for Lebanon to restructure its debt, the stand-off between Telecommunications Minister Jean-Louis Qordahi and the mobile phone firms has thrown cold water on the government officials who praised the success of Paris II only 10 days earlier.
Lahoud recalled the history of the long-standing “messy” cellular issue, which began when “hasty” contracts launched the sector in 1994 and was followed by years of bad management and the breaking of the contracts with LibanCell and Cellis in 2001, a year before their exclusivity clauses were set to end.
Lahoud played down the issue of which politician was at fault in the cellular issue, saying that the public perception about the performance of officials in general was the key issue a loss of credibility is more damaging than any possibility that a “deal” had been reached to ensure Paris II’s success in exchange for certain measures favoring the cellular companies.
“I’m not sure that there was a deal” regarding a package of measures for the cellular companies in exchange for a successful Paris II conference,” he said.
“Waiving the $600 million claim by the government toward the companies and referring it all to arbitration may have been part of the requirements of making Paris II a success,” he mused.
The MP indicated that the handling of the cellular issue as the companies refuse to endorse a transfer agreement due to their position on how to handle arbitration proceedings confirms long-standing unease about the process of privatization.
“We’re witnessing today the shortcomings of this privatization effort the weaknesses of the original contracts given, and the weakness of the regulatory bodies,” Lahoud said.
“Public opinion is confirming for itself its conviction that Lebanon is still not capable of conducting a privatization effort that is fully transparent, that is conducted by the book, and (confirming) that there are still a lot of suspicions in public opinion about privatization in general, and the management of public funds,” he argued.
“Public opinion never had the confidence that privatization would take place” in a transparent manner, he concluded.
Otherwise, Lahoud said, “people were right to be pleased about Paris II, not so much about the numbers involved in the financial package, but more about the kind of (international) interest that Lebanon is still capable of mustering.”
“It should comfort the Lebanese but not drive them to being complacent,” he said, cautioning that the donor conference should be seen as one step in the overall reform process.
Paris II, he maintained, in effect asked Lebanon to reform itself, a position that the opposition has long championed.
Something will have to give the MP indicated that whether the political elite and the authorities like it or not, Lebanon is in desperate need of political and economic restructuring.
But where can the country start? Lahoud said that with “the troika in full swing,” it was not surprising to see politicians like Deputy Speaker Elie Ferzli pronounce both the government and Parliament clinically dead.
Parliament, Lahoud said, has suffered considerably because of a deficient electoral law, while the government’s lack of credibility is caused mainly by its marginalization. The performance of the judiciary, on issues like the closure of opposition station MTV and stripping Gabriel Murr of his parliamentary seat, has also increased suspicion and doubt, he said.
“It’s normal for a lot of politicians to start realizing that what we (in the opposition) have been warning about was not just ‘politics,’ it is real fears about the democratic system in all of its facets,” he said.
Lahoud reiterated his position that rather than being irrelevant, the opposition had staked out positions originally rejected by the government and then seen officials eventually adopt the policies.
“Let’s put it this way: Less than a year ago, the Democratic Renewal Movement … put forth a four-point plan that included fiscal reform, administrative reform, political reform and negotiations with the banks about restructuring the debt.
“This caused a memorable clash between the prime minister and me … but less than a year later, the government has adopted most of the points and it is fully engaged in negotiating with the banks about reducing the cost of the debt,” he said.
The MP argued that politics in Lebanon below the level of the troika was not dead, despite any indications to the contrary.
“There is room for coalitions in certain instances,” he maintained. “During the last parliamentary session, three groups voted against the debt-swap law: the Progressive Socialist Party, Hizbullah and the Democratic Renewal Movement. I think it’s possible to form coalitions on specific issues, and especially on socioeconomic issues.”
Easing the tax burden on the poor and carrying out reform provide “serious” opportunities for coalitions “and that will certainly influence the government in the proper direction.”
Summing up a year full of sectarian tension, struggles between the authorities and the opposition, and various other controversies, Lahoud said he hoped the authorities would drop their campaign of harassing the opposition and “listen to proposals” to improve things.
“This is not a vintage year for democracy and civil liberties, but I think the damage done can be corrected,” Lahoud said, calling on the government and opposition to find “constructive compromises” for various political and economic matters.
Lahoud said he was unaware of any serious work by politicians about pressing reform issues, and the movement that is taking place is alarming.
“The authorities are searching for an electoral law that will completely wipe out the will of the people. It’s indicative of the intentions of the authorities when the law that is most widely talked about today” will make Lebanon a single nationwide electoral district without proportional representation.
“Let’s stop threatening the opposition with Lebanon as a single district, for example. It’s not a threat to the opposition; it should be a threat to all democratic forces, whether in the opposition or the loyalist camp. It will completely destroy the democratic system and all of civil society will be the loser, and not just the opposition,” he said.
As for judicial reform, Lahoud said he was not impressed by the recent parting remarks made by his relative, Nasri Lahoud, upon retiring from his duties as a senior magistrate.
“They spend years in office shouting that the judiciary is free, then shout the contrary on their first day of retirement,” the MP said.