|Lebanon at 64: still not 'fully independent, fully sovereign'
|Analysts point to outside influence and Presence of foreign troops
Lebanon on Thursday is marking 64 years since officially achieving independence, but the country still fails to qualify as a sovereign state by most measures, a number of political analysts told The Daily Star on Wednesday. "We've been asking this question for years," said legal expert Ziyad Baroud. "Each year we find out that the answer is not the one we would really like to have."
Plagued by the inability of the country's numerous religious sects to coexist and their consequent reliance on powerful foreign backing, as well as the country's location in a rough geopolitical neighborhood, Lebanon faces a long road to real sovereignty, the analysts said.
The nation took one step toward independence with the exit of Israeli troops from most of South Lebanon in 2000 after 22 years of occupation, and Lebanon inched forward again when Syrian soldiers withdrew in 2005 after a 29-year presence, Baroud added.
"You feel that somehow we're evolving. Still, you don't feel that this is a fully independent, fully sovereign country," he said.
At the same time, the Syrians' departure from the country also revived the festering sectarian discord that their heavy hand had kept under control, said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
The Syrian presence "was like a Band-Aid, and they removed the Band-Aid, and the wound started to bleed again," she said. The Taif Accord, which ended the 1975-90 Civil War, "was only held in place by the Syrians, and they kept the sides from annihilating each other."
Independence has two components, Saad-Ghorayeb added: A country must be free from military occupation and free of foreign interference.
"If we would measure Lebanon on both these criteria, I would say it fails on both counts," she said.
"Even the Lebanese government has acknowledged that the Israelis are occupying the Shabaa Farms," a small area which Israel says belongs to Syria, although Syria and Lebanon claim it as Lebanese.
In addition, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has beefed up its armed presence in the South since the 2006 summer war with Israel, Saad-Ghorayeb noted.
"I wouldn't call it an occupation, but you have 14,000 foreign troops on Lebanese soil," she said, adding that UNIFIL "detracts" from Lebanese sovereignty. "They have enforcement power. Their function isn't to safeguard Lebanon; it's to guard Israel."
Concerning foreign meddling, each of Lebanon's feuding political camps accuses the other of being a puppet controlled by foreign masters, she said. The ruling March 14 coalition paints the March 8 opposition as doing the bidding of Syria and Iran, while the opposition derides the March 14 camp as a fifth column pursuing US interests in the region.
"For both sides, Lebanon is not fully sovereign or independent," Saad-Ghorayeb said.
The only difference is that the Hizbullah-led March 8 faction acknowledges its ties, she added. She cited an interview she did with Nawaf Moussawi, head of Hizbullah's foreign policy. "We do not deny this alliance - we shout it from the rooftops," Moussawi told her. "We're part of a resistance axis to American hegemony in the region."
With the country a battleground in the US-Iranian showdown and its unavoidable role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Lebanon has been unable to break free of the regional turbulence, said Oussama Safa, executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.
"Lebanon is kind of caught in a trap," the analyst said. "It depends a lot on regional fluctuations, as far as Saudi, Iranian, Syrian [and] American. The worse the situation gets, the worse it gets here."
However, the Lebanese are not innocent victims of foreign violation of the nation's independence, as many seek external patrons to fulfill domestic political ambitions, said Timur Goksel, former senior adviser to UNIFIL and a lecturer in international relations at the American University of Beirut.
"Anyone who wants to achieve power in the country looks for an outside sponsor," he said.
This dynamic has functioned during a number of regimes throughout Lebanon's history, and it stems from the nature of the country as a mix of many disparate communities, Saad-Ghorayeb said.
Foreign powers are "pulling all the strings and undermining stability and unity in the country," Saad-Ghorayeb said. "This has always been the case. This is not a new development."
"Each sect has always been sponsored by foreign powers since Lebanon's very inception. That's because it's a country of minorities. No group is strong enough to stand on its own," she said.
With conflicting sets of external allegiances, Lebanon's fractious groups cannot agree on the most basic questions of the nation's orientation, Saad-Ghorayeb added.
"It's a problem of self-definition to begin with," she said. "There's still no agreed-upon definition of Lebanon's identity and who's Lebanon's foremost enemy. The main problem in the country in the current divide is that ... The Lebanese cannot agree who their enemy is. When you can't agree on a common enemy, it's very, very difficult to agree on a solution."
Lacking these foundations for sovereignty and independence, the Lebanese have unsurprisingly failed at building strong national institutions, Safa and Baroud said.
"Institutions are not effective," Safa said. "Even the army is barely effective," despite its enhanced status after its victory over Fatah al-Islam militants in a three-month battle at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp.
"We did not build a state so far," Baroud said. "This is the main issue here. Our institutions are not real institutions to ensure independence and sovereignty."
One route toward greater sovereignty leads could lie in crafting an electoral law which leads to the election of a new elite capable of constructing strong institutions, the analysts said.
"The entry point should be an electoral law that could produce a representative political class," said Baroud, who was a member of the Boutros Commission, which drafted amendments to the electoral law.
In addition, a positive resolution of the presidential succession crisis looming over this Independence Day could prod the country further toward achieving independence, Safa said.
"A good president as well as an acceptable electoral law would be benchmarks on how the country will fare," he said.
However, with Lebanon's history of sectarian violence and unceasing foreign interference, the Lebanese will have to struggle hard for independence, Saad-Ghorayeb said.
"We're never going to have conflict resolution," she said. "We're going to have conflict management at best."
The Daily Star