Lebanon’s Politicians Are Incapable of Productive Dialogue

Lebanon has now entered the fourth year of its devastating economic crisis and collapse, with no end in sight and no hint regarding the possible launch of a recovery plan that would reignite its economy, restructure its banking system, and bring some hope to its struggling population, which has been forced to accommodate, in one form or another, to the state’s inability to provide basic services.

The fact that Lebanon urgently needs a comprehensive and honest dialogue among the various political factions that are represented in parliament, whether on the future of the economy or on divisive political issues that have repeatedly left the country in a political stalemate, is a foregone conclusion. That said, the prospects for any form of national dialogue serious enough to bring about results in terms of justice and accountability are practically nonexistent. The only possibility at this stage is to reach a form of short-term settlement that would allow for the election of a new president and the formation of a government capable of providing a brief sense of normalcy and hope for the future. However, even with a short-term settlement, there will be, as usual, no form of accountability for past wrongdoing.

Herein lies the quandary facing any talk about dialogue in Lebanon in its current political landscape, i.e., in a country that has been ruled since the end of its civil war in 1990 by infamous political leaders who have helped cause its economic ruin. On the one hand, Lebanon needs a meaningful, rights-based and justice-oriented dialogue that tackles divisive issues head-on. On the other hand, the people who would likely take part in such a dialogue represent the antithesis of rights and justice, thriving instead on endemic corruption and a culture of impunity at the expense of ordinary citizens who are left to accommodate to difficult circumstances and urged to be “resilient.” The question must therefore be asked: is there a need to even flirt with the idea of dialogue in Lebanon at this stage?

An Accord Seen as Sacrosanct

The 1989 Taif Agreement, also referred to as the Document of National Accord, that effectively ended the Lebanese Civil War and became part of the country’s constitution suddenly came back into the spotlight during the last quarter of 2022. Given the state of affairs in the country, one would have expected the discussion to be centered around the need to revisit the agreement, or to consider a new social contract. However, politicians’ main reason for bringing up the accord was to insist that there is no need whatsoever for any revision of the constitution, and that the 1989 agreement is just fine and is only in need of proper implementation.

Interestingly—but not surprisingly—the discussion was coupled with warnings about threats to social peace and cohesion should the Taif Agreement be tampered with. A dinner at the Swiss embassy for representatives of Lebanese political parties was canceled after acrimonious objections by some politicians in the anti-Hezbollah camp. The Saudi ambassador in Lebanon also decided to hold a forum in November 2022 in support of the agreement on the 33rd anniversary of its signing.

In brief, the message was simple: there is no appetite or political will to discuss any modification to the power balance agreed upon in the Taif Agreement. Thirty-three years after the signing of the accord, and despite Lebanon’s dire situation, the only criticism being voiced is that it was not properly implemented. Thus, the only desire for dialogue, if any, is for a new agreement similar to one made in Doha in 2008 that only dealt with imminent issues such as government formation, election of the president, and electoral law.

The Time is Still Not Ripe for an Agreement

The process leading to the Doha Agreement was the only time since the Taif Agreement when all major Lebanese groups sat together and agreed on concrete steps to take following the country’s May 2008 clashes. At the time, Hezbollah and its allies took control of the capital in reaction to contested decisions by the government of then Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Those violent clashes forced a change in the status quo. At the time, Lebanon had a presidential vacuum and disputants were invited to Qatar to agree on a way forward and to end hostilities. To be sure, the agreement was only possible because the security situation necessitated regional and international pressure for and patronage of a deal that would prevent any further escalation of violence.

While there are certain similarities between the context then and now—including a presidential vacuum and the contested constitutionality of the government­—the main catalyst that led to the dialogue in Doha (i.e., violence and security concerns) is still not present in Lebanon today. This is why lethargy currently characterizes the prevailing political climate, with most of the country’s news stories focusing on petty infighting such as whether or not Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s caretaker government is constitutionally allowed to meet and govern in the absence of a president, or whether a decision on the provision of electricity (which aims to secure a mere 3–4 hours daily) will pass despite trivial contests between Mikati, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, and the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil.

Interestingly, a recent landmark Lebanon-Israel maritime border agreement has not, so far, been coupled with a broader settlement related to internal political and economic issues. In other words, the agreement was signed with what Lebanon still considers an enemy state, while at the same time outright hostility and infighting continues to rage internally, urgently requiring an agreement to stop the country’s economic freefall. Despite some political and religious figures’ calls for dialogue, none have succeeded at bringing everyone to the table.

Why Is Dialogue So Difficult?

Given what is known about the actors who would shape and take part in a potential dialogue, a number of factors render a real dialogue in Lebanon (as opposed to a settlement or short-term agreement that would not involve a genuine consideration of contentious issues) a complete waste of time. Three points must be considered:

1. No party enters into a dialogue that might result in undesirable outcomes, strip them of some powers, or hold them accountable unless they are forced to. The Taif Agreement only succeeded with the help of Syrian military intervention in October 1990. The 2008 Doha Agreement talks, meanwhile, were convened after Hezbollah resorted to using weapons inside Lebanon, leading to a situation that necessitated—or in a sense, coerced—a settlement in order to prevent more fighting. And indeed, the text of the agreement notes the need “to restrict the security and military authority over Lebanese nationals and residents to the state alone so as to ensure the continuity of the coexistence formula and civil peace among all the Lebanese.”

The main political parties in Lebanon have no sense of urgency on the economic front, which is causing the most suffering among the Lebanese people, and even less let alone on the political front, since they have become quite comfortable with extended periods of stalemate.

Currently, and especially since Lebanon’s May 2022 parliamentary elections, the main political parties in Lebanon (who were voted back in despite the country’s collapse and the tragic 2020 Beirut Port explosion) have no sense of urgency on the economic front, which is causing the most suffering among the Lebanese people, and even less on the political front, since they have become quite comfortable with extended periods of stalemate. Thus, the current presidential vacuum is not an anomaly; nor does it stir up panic, despite the fact that Article 75 of the Lebanese Constitution clearly stipulates that parliament “must proceed immediately, without discussion of any other act, to elect the Head of the State.”

In other words, the status quo favors members of Lebanon’s political establishment. And the only way that a meaningful dialogue with resulting compromises can take place is if a situation on the ground renders the status quo undesirable or untenable for the ruling political leaders and parties. The country’s main political protagonists still believe that they can either wait things out or improve the situation on the ground before concessions are made out of necessity and pragmatism, and based on developments in the region and internationally.

Furthermore, the regional and international patrons of Lebanon’s political leaders have not set Lebanon as a priority given other hot topics that lead their domestic and global agendas. As long as the situation in Lebanon does not spiral into a civil war, there seems to be an implicit acceptance of the country’s stalemate. Evidence of this is found in the contrast between the country’s presidential and parliamentary elections. While the latter was the focus of sustained attention and pressure by the international community and civil society, which ensured that it took place on time, there is far less of a sense of urgency regarding the former, even though Lebanon is now operating with a hung parliament, with no side holding a clear majority when it comes to the election of a president, and with countries such as France, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar supposedly trying to reach an agreement on how to approach the coming period in Lebanon.

2. Lebanon does not have a good track record in negotiating agreements that take transitional justice into account. If the idea is that a meaningful dialogue should result in more justice and accountability and a future based on the rule of law, democratic principles, and respect for human rights, it is no exaggeration to say that Lebanon’s political parties are incapable of coexisting with these terms, a fact that renders such a potential dialogue stillborn. This point is crucial and is perhaps the main impediment to any meaningful change or reform taking place in Lebanon. To this day, this remains a problem without a solution, at least in the absence of a viable opposition movement or party capable of seriously challenging the political system.

Lebanon does not have a good track record in negotiating agreements that take justice into account. The very parties to a potential dialogue are at the present time the main obstacle to its success.

In other words, the very parties to a potential dialogue are at the present time the main obstacle to its success. Lebanon urgently needs dialogue, but it would be wishful thinking to expect anything to come out of one. A country that has experienced great tragedies, and especially since the protests of October 2019, needs to take stock of the past; to establish the truth regarding the economic crisis, the 2020 port explosion, the country’s political assassinations, and the future of Hezbollah’s weapons stockpile; and to hold perpetrators accountable. This is the only way to successfully turn Lebanon into a modern state capable of competing in the regional and global economy and providing security and human rights to its citizens and residents.

The best one can expect from any dialogue, however, is a short-term settlement that will not deal with contentious issues head-on and that will not be oriented toward accountability and the protection of rights and freedoms.

However, absent an ability and willingness by the powers-that-be to delve into the issues needed to make justice and accountability possible, and given said powers’ actively and aggressively using all means at their disposal to prevent and obstruct such goals, the path to dialogue is extremely difficult. In fact, one can reasonably suggest that some calls for an international conference, as well as the presence of some voices calling for international protection, are born of people’s desperation with the prospects for internal dialogue. The best one can expect from any dialogue, however, is a short-term settlement that will not deal with contentious issues head-on and that will not be oriented toward accountability and the protection of rights and freedoms.

3. Lebanon does not have a good track record in confronting contentious issues in a sustainable manner. It is no secret that the issues facing Lebanon are extremely complex in nature due to their overlap with regional and international considerations. For example, when it comes to Hezbollah, the question is how to devise a viable strategy to protect Lebanon against Israel while at the same time restoring full sovereignty and a monopoly on armed force to the Lebanese state. This is sometimes referred to as a national defense strategy, an idea that has not seen the light of day since 2006 and the various “national dialogues” that took place at the time in order to tackle this and other issues.

Two examples illustrate how previous rounds of dialogue failed to properly deal with this issue. First, the 2008 Doha Agreement called for “a dialogue on promoting the Lebanese state’s authority over all Lebanese territory and their [sic] relationship with the various groups on the Lebanese stage in order to ensure the state’s and the citizens’ security.” This did not take place, as politicians swept the issue under the rug once the country’s 2009 elections were over. And other contentious issues at the time, namely Lebanon’s relationship with Syria and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, were also avoided. The Doha Agreement was successful in bringing about a temporary settlement leading to the election of a president and the formation of a government. But beyond that, there was no dialogue in the real sense of the word on core issues, only a settlement and a mentality that favored simply “leaving issues for the next round.”

The second time that Lebanon’s political leaders agreed on a common statement was in 2012, with the Baabda Declaration. The declaration, which consists of 17 articles, reads like a set of broad principles that are open to various interpretations. Importantly, the question of Hezbollah was only indirectly mentioned in Article 16, which states, “The next session of the Committee will take place on Monday, 25 June 2012 at 11 a.m. The Committee will resume consideration of its agenda, particularly the national defense strategy.”

Ten years later, dialogue remains necessary to address Hezbollah’s arms and activities, as well as other core issues; but there is no sign of any willingness to confront such issues in the current political climate. The question of Hezbollah is currently presented in political discourse as a zero-sum game, and often takes on regional dimensions related to Israel and the wider Iran-Saudi Arabia regional contest, which makes it hard to see any potential resolution without a regional and international entente and the diplomatic will to manage a breakthrough that would bring about a sustainable resolution to the issue.

Still a Flicker of Hope

In the short-term, any deal or settlement that is brokered by members of the international community handling their countries’ Lebanon portfolios should make sure to safeguard, as much as possible, the principle that Lebanon’s elite, who brought the country to ruin, should not be given a free pass to rebuild the country on foundations similar to those established at the outset of the post-war period, i.e., with no accountability, collective amnesia, and disregard for principles of good governance. In addition, any external pressure exerted against the political class has to be comprehensive and non-partisan, not just targeting one political party or alliance but instead treating all of Lebanon’s political players as part of a corrupt establishment that needs to be pushed toward making much-needed reforms and safeguarding what little is left of individuals’ rights and freedoms.

Despite the bleak outlook, a small flicker of hope remains for a credible, non-sectarian opposition movement or party to materialize and to pose a serious challenge to those responsible for Lebanon’s failures since the end of the civil war. Such a movement may be able to force a shift in the balance of power that leads to a chance for real dialogue, one that will finally bring justice, accountability, sovereignty, respect for human rights, and judicial independence to Lebanon.