Interview with Dr. Joseph Hitti, expert on Lebanese politics and President of New England Americans for Lebanon (NEA)

Posted in Broader Middle East | 06-Sep-06 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Dr. Joseph Hitti

WSN: Why has the Siniora government not been able to enforce the resolutions (UN 1559, 1680 and 1701) since it has asked for such support? Are the Shiias so strong or is it the weakness (or rather fear) of the Christians, Sunnis and Druze that maintains the status quo?

Dr. Hitti: The Siniora government - like all Sunni-led governments in the past - wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Like Rafik Hariri who was assassinated by the Syrians, Lebanon's Sunni prime ministers - out of incompetence or deliberate action - think they can lead a country under occupation, a country in violation of international law, a country that harbors paramilitary terrorist groups (Hezbollah since 1982, and the PLO from 1970 - 1982) and still have peace and prosperity. The dynamic of this feudal nepotistic style of Lebanese governance keeps bringing these inept leaders to power that think they can remain on the fence of vital national matters and still succeed. Two examples to illustrate: Rafik Hariri was brought to power by the Taef Agreement. He tried to rebuild Lebanon under Syrian occupation, but failed in many respects. He did not realize he could not entice investors to put their money under the Syrian boots and rampant corruption. When he finally realized this (2004), some 15 years after he came to power, he tried a reversal and the Syrians killed him. In the second example, Siniora is repeating the same mistake. On the one hand, he endorses international involvement to stabilize the country, establish the sovereignty of the state over the land and the decision making (he supported UN resolution 1559, etc.), but at the same time, his government gave a carte blanche to Hezbollah to continue "resistance" in the south (see the text of the Siniora Government Ministerial Statement) and even included 2 Hezbollah ministers in his cabinet. On the one hand, Siniora accuses Hezbollah of not sharing their decisions with the government, but on the other hand, Siniora always rejected sending the Lebanese army to the south, always rejected disarming Hezbollah, always called for resistance against occupation. Therefore, in summary, the answer is in the combination of corruption, incompetence and trying to please everyone all the time. In the end, you pay the price. Like Hariri who paid the ultimate price, Siniora will pay some price: Either the international community will abandon him or Lebanon, or he will have to stand up to Hezbollah.

WSN: How do you think Lebanon will look, say in about 5 years from now, with Hezbollah in parliament, government and its armed wing being part of the military? Is it likely to see a new political arrangement emerging between the various factions?

Dr. Hitti: Not in 5 years. The sectarian political system is so entrenched and the Lebanese people - although educated and advanced according to Middle Eastern standards - remain very tribal in their political allegiances. If Hezbollah is disarmed - and this is a big if - it will become a powerful political party exclusively for the Shiite community. However, without its weapons, it will likely be challenged by other Shiite leaderships of the more traditional brand and with time, its power base will erode, especially if the money from Iran dries up.

WSN: Would Lebanon be better off without the sectarian system? What is the alternative?

Dr. Hitti: Lebanon would definitely be better off with a non-sectarian political system. But the forces at play in maintaining the present system are too powerful. Big families, the churches (Christian and Moslem alike) are still very powerful and will not relinquish power easily. A few years ago, a Lebanese president asked a rhetorical question about why the Lebanese cannot marry in a civil court in Lebanon, but the Lebanese courts will divorce a married couple that married abroad. The Christian and the Moslem clergy went up in arms about how this will lead to a decline in morality etc.... It is the opinion of this writer that the Lebanese system, as concocted in the late 1930s - early 1940s is a religious federation of 17 communities, should outgrow its present status. This federation is not reflected geographically as the communities overlap each other extensively on the ground, which prevents a partition or a “cantonization” of the country. Right now, my relationship to the government is based on the government's recognizing my religious community before it recognizes me as an individual. My individual rights are subsumed under those of the church or the denomination under which I am born. Therefore, people generally revert to their religious community rather than to their sense of citizenship or nationhood in times of danger and strife. The only way to break the grip of religion on political life is for the Lebanese government and constitution to be amended to reflect a direct relationship between the ruler and the governed, without the intercession of organized religious groups. This is not likely to happen anytime soon, and such a change requires major social upheavals.