Elephant or donkey, and the Serail

Veteran journalist Mouafac Harb (The Daily Star)

The easiest and most common answer that politicians and observers give nowadays as to why Lebanon, despite the severe economic crisis, cannot end the current political gridlock and form a new Cabinet is that officials are waiting for the outcome of the US presidential election this November.

Lebanese always seem to be waiting for an international event in the hope that it will reverse their fortunes so the country can return to the path of prosperity and stability. They also always end up being disappointed. Expecting relief from an international event – whether Israeli or American elections, or even the death of a regional leader – is pure political heresy. It only serves to sedate the country and leaves Lebanon, once a pioneering force in the region, lagging on all issues.

Since the end of Lebanon’s Civil War in 1990, five American presidents have occupied the White House of whom three were republicans and two democrats. Unfortunately, in all that time the issues preventing a stable and prosperous Lebanon have not changed.

This traditional Lebanese tendency to shift blame to outside events has allowed Lebanese leaders to escape accountability and to justify their failure to build a modern state and meet people’s basic needs.

Moreover, I have closely monitored the US presidential campaign and haven’t heard any candidate mentioning Lebanon. In fact, it is certain that it will not be brought up in Tuesday’s presidential debate.

To be affected by the outcome of the US presidential election, the country should be relevant to the issues differentiating the two candidates: a trade war with China, global warming, support for NATO, and the relationship with Russia as well as multilateralism and approach to international organizations.

Lebanon is far from being pertinent to any of these issues, so why are people expecting a change following the US presidential election?

Those who argue that the picture will be clearer after the Nov. 3 election – assuming that there is a clear winner on Nov. 4 – base their argument on the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy against Iran, with Lebanon being collateral damage. And they assume that a change in the White House may lead to a less hawkish policy toward Tehran, subsequently allowing Lebanon a measure of economic relief.

This suggests that Lebanon’s problems are linked only to the Iranian nuclear program and the future of US-Iranian relationship, which is a shallow interpretation to the country’s many old and sticking problems.

At the regional level, Lebanon is directly affected by the future of war-torn Syria and any potential Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement. Both of these issues affect the refugee crisis that is draining the country’s resources.

Domestically, Lebanese politicians have failed to build a modern state with an updated political system because they serve their narrow interests rather than those of the nation.

Regardless of who has been the master of the White House, Washington has always pursued a tough policy toward Hezbollah, as manifested by the sanctions imposed on any person or organization extending support to the group that has been labeled a terrorist organization since its creation.

Anyone who expects this policy to change is delusional. The only consistent policy has been the continuing support for the Lebanese Army because of its role in combatting terrorism in its Salafi-jihadi form despite criticism that it is not doing enough to curb Hezbollah’s activities in the south.

It is regrettable that the Lebanese are banking their future on international events over which they have no control, because on Nov. 4 they will again wake up to electricity shortages, the smell of uncollected garbage and a severe economic crisis.

It is utter naivete to expect free gifts from the US and American taxpayer money to fund an archaic system ruled by corrupt warlords. A country heavily reliant on foreign imports can no longer import solutions to local problems.

Ever since banks stopped allowing Lebanese to withdraw their dollar deposits, people have become obsessed with fresh dollars and fresh food, but not fresh leaders. And despite calls by the international community politicians to introduce reforms before a financial lifeline can be extended, the ruling elite have failed to deliver any serious or meaningful reforms.

The region today is undergoing a major transformation that will shape its future for decades to come but Lebanon has no seat on the table. Wasted opportunities and erroneous bets on international events may lead to waste and fragment of what’s left of the country.

It’s well known that the Lebanese love to take sides on any divisive issue, whether it’s international football teams or the American presidential election. Hezbollah supporters are rooting for former Vice President Joe Biden, hoping he will ease the pressure on Iran, while anti-Iran March 14 supporters would be disappointed if the incumbent President Donald Trump loses the election.

But on Jan. 20, whether there is an elephant or a donkey in the White House, the Lebanese stand no chance of seeing an end to their miseries unless they change those ruling them.

Mouafac Harb is a veteran American-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut.





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