The last 18 months have seen the birth of Qornet Shehwan and the Consultative Gathering for Christian politicians, and the National Islamic Gathering for their Muslim colleagues. Will the next group to emerge finally transcend the much-criticized “one-color” dimension?
Tammam Salam, a former Beirut MP and one of the capital’s leading Sunni politicians, believes it is worth a try, especially after the authorities and the opposition have found themselves locked in stalemate.
In an interview with The Daily Star, Salam said he was in the process of “trying to form” such a multi-sectarian gathering, along with other figures. But he cautioned against too much hype before the groundwork is properly laid.
“Do you remember last year, when Speaker Hussein Husseini tried to form an opposition front? There was more media coverage than what was actually taking place,” he said, referring to the group whose death was announced before it was born.
Salam, like many politicians and parties these days, has been making the rounds and holding consultations with various sides, having visited politicians like Minister of State Talal Arslan in recent weeks. On Monday, Salam will meet with Carlos Edde, the head of the National Bloc.
Salam has in fact “returned” to the political scene after a hiatus following his loss in the parliamentary elections of 2000, when Rafik Hariri’s election steamroller picked up all but one uncontested seat in Beirut.
After the loss, Salam resigned as the president of the Maqassed Foundation, after 18 years as president, and began his process of reflection.
Late this summer, Salam visited Hariri, and the two talked about Lebanon’s political situation, with the country still feeling the aftereffects of the Metn by-election and the closure of Gabriel Murr’s MTV.
For Salam, the blame belongs to Qornet Shehwan, which he says made the mistake of not expanding to include non-Christians. He said the Metn elections, and specifically the Murr camp’s “unnecessary” alliances with groups vehemently opposed to Syria’s presence in Lebanon, only made things worse.
Moving ahead with a new grouping and, more importantly, new issues, Salam believes, is the way out of the impasse: “I support setting up a committee to study abolishing sectarianism in politics, as stipulated by Taif.”
As for Christian opposition to the idea, Salam said that it was not the only issue in town: “In any case, working on abolishing sectarianism doesn’t mean that we can ignore other issues, like decentralization, drafting a new election law, administrative reform or economic reform.”
But the reality, in Salam’s view, is that the government is unwieldy, as its ministers lack solidarity on various issues, while Parliament is not playing the role it should as a catalyst for dialogue and reform.
“The government is absent,” Salam said, “and Parliament is paralyzed. There are three major blocs that basically control things in Parliament,” he said, referring to Hariri, Speaker Nabih Berri and Walid Jumblatt.
“They’re all represented in the Cabinet, so they don’t really have an interest” in seeing change, he continued.
A government that Salam says is “not successful” in its general performance is nonetheless on the threshold of seeing a boost from the “Paris II” donors’ conference, scheduled to convene later this week.
Salam said he was optimistic about the donors’ gathering, expecting Lebanon to secure significant sums of money in order to reduce the debt burden.
“But a morale boost is not the solution the solution is to improve productivity,” he said, stressing the drain on state resources caused by corruption and waste in the public sector.
“This has to come through steps like the one taken in May 2001, when the Information Ministry halted the waste of public money by putting employees in the surplus category,” Salam said.
“Unfortunately, the move was not followed up,” he continued. “Meanwhile, we hear about the reports of bribery and corruption in some ministries.
“Talk of a change in government doesn’t come out of thin air,” he said, asked to discuss the topic that has prompted much speculation recently. “It’s based on a reason, namely the government’s performance. There’s no harmony.”
Salam indicated that the country was facing a contradictory situation of regional tension, with many people worrying about the impact of hostilities on Lebanon, and an expected boost from the international community in the form of Paris II.
But why would donor countries want to commit resources to Lebanon if the country’s government is unable to stem waste and corruption?
“Part of Paris II is politics, and connected to the regional situation,” said Salam. “It seems like the United States and some Western countries want to give the impression that they’re not fighting Arabs and Muslims, but are also supporting an Arab economy.”
The situation, he continued, appears to be different than December 1996, when the much-touted Friends of Lebanon conference in Washington produced little in the way of actual results, despite Hariri putting a positive spin on the gathering.
Whatever the future of the government, Salam said, privatization will likely provide the next big challenge for politicians, who will have to convince the public that they benefited from a mini-conflict that broke out earlier this summer between President Emile Lahoud and Hariri.
“The example that we saw from the handling of the cellular privatization issue was not encouraging. When we get into the details of privatization, we’ll find out if we learned a lesson,” said Salam.
Salam said he was not encouraged by seeing a state mired in corruption and waste managing a privatization process, and that many important questions need to be answered about the sudden improvement in the cellular sector and electricity situation, after the state “got tough.”
“Is it true that privatization is the solution if this is the case?” he asked.
The lack of regulatory bodies to monitor the sale of state utilities, he continued, is another discouraging sign: “When you ask officials about this, they say ‘it’s in the law, it’s in the law.’ But you have to form these bodies first, not later on.”
“They always talk about how much a sell-off is going to affect the debt burden, but privatization is supposed to be about improving competition and productivity and reducing fees,” he continued.
Whether it is political, administrative or economic reform, Salam concluded, Lebanon must position itself to make strides in the wake of what looks like a positive Paris II meeting and the resolution of the US’ drive to effect “regime change” in Iraq.
“Of course, there’s no way to predict the repercussions for us if a strike on Iraq takes place … but I hope the regional situation does not see such a military confrontation. If a confrontation doesn’t happen, it will help stability in Lebanon and the region and we have to benefit from such a possibility, by consolidating our situation and moving ahead with a plan of salvation for the next few years.”