Tuesday, November 16, 2021

When Old Numbers No Longer Count: Strong Message from Expats to Lebanon

The Lebanese expat registration surge has sent shock waves through the Lebanese political establishment with traditional parties and their analysts scrambling to make sense of things. Some continue to be in denial spinning up old election data to try to prove that things will always remain the same in Lebanon. The Lebanese expats are proving them wrong.

Analyzing social media campaigns recently launched calling on Lebanese expats to register in 40+ countries on 6 continents, something curious was noted. Expats were basically found to be split into two clear categories:

  1. The vast majority were FOR the posts urging registrations, liking them and commenting favorably on the need for change.
  2. A minority commented that they did NOT want to vote, because they expected things would never change in Lebanon and that anyone who believes they will is deluded.       
What was found to be most remarkable though is what was missing. Even though the social media campaigns did not target any specific political traits, habits, party support, or other form of partisan segmentation, of the 125,000 expats reached through the campaigns, NOT ONE single expat stated, implied, or insinuated that they would be voting FOR the regime's traditional parties!

Considering that this is a sizeable sample size representing all age groups', genders, and economic strata of the global Lebanese expat  community, how could there have not been more engagement from regime parties' supporters? Were they hesitant to speak up? Were they completely disengaged from the upcoming elections? Or could this be interpreted as an early sign of an impending tectonic change in the Lebanese political landscape? And if so, could a potential landslide victory in the Lebanese parliamentary elections of 2022 occur in favor of the Lebanese October 17 Change movement as a result?

Before answering these questions, it is important to highlight that in any election, one needs to be careful to set the right context before making predictions. Without context, election projections are  meaningless, and massive miscalculations could ensue. As an example, the US Presidential election of 2016 is contextually looked at in very different terms from the subsequent election of 2020. The 2016 election turned out to be all about a protest vote against the  political establishment. The Democrats missed that and ended up losing the election by a whisker when they should have won it by a mile. However, 2020's election context was due to the perceived mishandling of the COVID pandemic by an apathetic and uncaring President. Republicans tried to make it about liberty from masks. It fell flat on a frightened population and Trump ended up losing in a landslide to Biden. Interpreting the right context is essential to election strategy. If someone tries  to make sense of 2020 using the 2016 context, the entire exercise would be meaningless, and vice-versa. While some demographic trends may count, every election is it's own unique story. That's why currently many Republicans are loathe to making the 2024 Presidential election about voter fraud because they feel it would be the wrong context. The recent results from Virginia's gubernatorial race, which focused on education instead of voter fraud and in which the Republican won, would tend to prove them right.

In Lebanon, since the last parliamentary elections, there has been no less than an economic crisis, a financial meltdown, massive rise in unemployment and poverty, and an explosion that destroyed a third of the capital city Beirut. All of this has been accompanied by close to no accountability or reaction whatsoever by any of the parties in power. If anything, they have been obstructive of the truth offering impunity instead of solutions. In the meantime, several localized guild and university elections held have shown landslide victories for change movements, in some cases in excess of 80%. And yet, notwithstanding this undeniable context, some election  analysts in Lebanon continue to hash out charts from the 2018 parliamentary elections to show that traditional parties gained 90% or more of the vote back then, as if turning back the clock really mattered now, or worse yet perhaps  insinuating that things will not change. Such analysis appears to disregard or in the very least heavily discount the new context.

At a time when people all over Lebanon are barely making ends meet, when there is hardly any electricity, when fuel shortages have been rampant, massive protests and strikes have occurred, and emigration is off the charts, applying the 2018 context to 2022 smacks of either statistical bias or tone deafness. Indeed, recent polling from serious sources such as  Zoghby, has shown that more than 88% of Lebanese say that they are worse off now than they were before, with average support for traditional parties falling to a mere 19%, and with 66% saying they would vote for new alternative parties.

It is through the lens of this context that one needs to look at the recent surge in Lebanese expat registrations, which are on target to almost TRIPLING what they were in 2018. Of course, anyone who claims that the increase in expat registrations will eventually yield nothing more than traditional voting patterns and proportions would be scoffed at, given the low polling  numbers for traditional parties. Similarly, for anyone to shrug off the expat surge in registrations as insignificant or to try and argue that it is not serious would be an even worse offense to the expat voters, on whose remittances the nation is currently surviving. 

It is for all the above reasons that the Lebanese expat registration surge has sent shock waves through the Lebanese political establishment. It may have once been easy to shrug off the occasional poll, or the guild or university elections with all kinds of excuses. It won't be so easy anymore to disregard the global democratic movement trying to help save the homeland from the abyss. And it will be equally hard if the surge causes alarm to some in the regime, when they try to float the idea of cancelling the election, postponing it, or even restructuring it. If they did, they would now have close to a quarter of a million disgruntled expats lobbying global governments against it.

For a regime that breathes from apathy and disengagement, Lebanese expats through their marathon registration drives, social media campaigns, movie tours, and all kinds of organic election ground motions have mustered hair-raising energy and sky-rocketing voter registrations, sending a clear message to all of Lebanon months before the actual elections: Listen Up: Old numbers and tactics no longer count; we are unhappy with how things are going in our homeland; we do not want our people to suffer; we want our country back; we are registering to vote in the elections, and whether some may like it or not, change is coming!

Monday, July 19, 2021

How The Bill of Rights Can Save the Lebanese Constitution

Amid precipitously deteriorating socio-economic conditions, the Lebanese government formation appears to have stalled indefinitely. Notwithstanding the urgency, and all the local and international pleading  to those in power to resolve their differences, little has changed in almost two years, except of course the dramatic economic decline in what the World Bank describes as among the worst crisis of any nation it has studied for the past 150 years. Meanwhile, the Lebanese executive branch continues to be totally ineffective and unable to respond to the predicament, come up with salvation plans, let alone carry them through. The legislative branch’s failures over the past two decades have also become salient, with hardly any agenda or oversight worth mentioning. Laws that are finally passed are too late to make much of a difference and have no practical ways to be implemented or budgeted for. As for the Lebanese judiciary, it has become so politicized that judges curry favor with their political patrons for all eyes to see, with justice failing to be served in cases of corruption, assassination, bank theft, and of course the massive explosion of Beirut port.

The question many are asking is why the Constitution has not fended off such a failure in the Lebanese state (See recent blog covering this topic) and whether we have reached a point where the Constitution's fault lines run so deep that they can no longer be mended. Some will claim that the problem is not the Constitution but its lack of implementation. However, when asked “What effective social contract permits such incessant and repeated abuses?” they have no answer, except to point fingers to individuals or parties as being the culprits behind it's failures. While there is plenty of blame to spread around, this argument does not stand historical scrutiny, particularly if one considers that none of the current players in power existed half a century ago when similar divisiveness and instability was present. Unfortunately, Lebanon's Constitution has proven to be time after time nothing more than a paper barrier, easily breached by competing politicians on the back of their communities with the people always paying the price. Since the current situation has become socially unsustainable, what are Lebanon's choices?

Firstly, to keep insisting on the  implementation argument and not altering the Constitution. While this would have been the simplest remedy, clearly 100 years of evidence have shown that doing nothing or even minor tweaks do not stabilize the system or make it more implementable. Internal crisis after another point to an intrinsic instability in the design of the Lebanese social contract; so does external fiddling, which to this day continues to foster or amplify internal divisions between competing community leaders. In relinquishing its unifying role and rather relying on the communities (and the leaders) to intermediate the relationship between the state and the citizen, it seems, the Lebanese  Constitution accidentally causes the state, the citizen, and indeed the community itself to all weaken. If this Lebanese Constitution could have made the nation stand on its own two feet, it would have already. Unfortunately, proof points that it hasn't been able to and in it's current formulation, most likely can't. 

Another alternative is to set about creating a whole new Constitution that fixes the design flaws. This would require a Constitutional Assembly and a highly likely protracted legislative process, which many fear could lead to a civil war or the dismemberment of the Lebanese state. They reason that the current evenly split power-sharing formula between Christians and Muslims at 50-50, once brought in front of a new Constitutional Assembly, would be split in thirds (typically referred to as “muthelathe”), which basically reduces Christian representation to a third, on par with each of the Sunni and Shi’a communities. Here we already see community fears being incited. This is not a good sign, and makes this option a risky national bet, especially since many argue against such an Assembly on the grounds that at this time one party holds weapons while the others don’t. "How can you negotiate a fair agreement when someone is holding a gun to your head," they ask.

The question then becomes, is there a way to bridge this gap and amend the Constitution without actually replacing it? And what to focus on to make it work better than its ineffective predecessor amendments. The answer is yes. Constitutional amendments are allowed in the Lebanese Constitution. However, the Lebanese need to consider what type of amendments are needed. The Ta’ef Accord, which was the latest major Constitutional alteration, primarily shifted the allocation of executive power between the President and Council of Ministers while strengthening parliament's role. However, it did very little to protect people from state abuse or instill ways to assure their rights, which has become the most urgent requirement, demanded by protestors in all corners of the nation. At this point, the essential problem of the Lebanese Constitution is no longer limited to its design but rather its lack of protections for the individual citizen. In fact, the crisis over the past two years has shown that the common Lebanese citizen has little if any protection—be it political, socio-economic, judicial, or even personal or security. Private assets have been seized with no legal repercussions. Protests have been subdued violently with no one held responsible. More than 50,000 homes of citizens in the capital city Beirut were destroyed with hundreds of thousands displaced and no one has been compensated or held responsible. Therefore, what is imperative now is not to tinker with Constitutional design but rather for citizens to reassert or retain their rights and to provide for such missing protections in multiple amendments. A grouping of such amendments that deliver on this is basically what is referred to as a Bill of Rights.

Whilst protecting the citizen, could Lebanon’s community fears be also allayed through the introduction of constitutional amendments through a Lebanese Bill of Rights? Evidence seems to point in that direction. In fact, nations with a Bill of Rights have proven to be more protective of minorities, diversity, and the individual citizen, than nations whose Constitutions split their societies along purely community lines. Indeed, fears of weakening community power sharing formulas become somewhat irrelevant, because if all the citizens enjoy the same rights and privileges, one does not need to split the nation in any specific proportions, avoiding the dilemma altogether. Therefore, not only does a Bill of Rights become more politically viable but its long-term effects and protections can be vastly more effective. 

If the Lebanese decide to go down this road, it would place it in an almost identical situation as the United States found itself almost 250 years ago when people complained that the Constitution did not afford them enough protections within their individual states. At the same time, there was trepidation over the creation of an alternative Constitution out of fear that the entire national project would fail and the states could be split into individual countries. Interestingly, a Bill of Rights was drafted by the very person who had written the Constitution in the first place and who had initially rejected a Bill of Rights as being superfluous. James Madison rethought his position a mere two years after and deduced that a Bill of Rights would actually be the optimal middle-of-the-way solution to the predicament, as the current Constitution would remain in place, but it would be amended by the Bill of Rights, giving the citizens the rights they most sought. This also helped circumvent a full blown Constitutional Assembly and reduced the fears that such an assembly could bring. Similarly, in Lebanon, a newly elected Parliament could propose and pass the amendments as per the existing Constitution within a Bill of Rights without the elimination of the current Constitution. 

Lebanon’s current Constitution finds itself in dire straits with no fail-safe mechanisms to halt the nation's free fall or protect its people. The social contract desperately needs to be amended to provide people the protections that they seek. A Bill of Rights is the instrument that could satisfy everyone: those who fear a new Constitution as well as those who believe their rights are not protected under the current faulty Constitution. Counterintuitive as it may be, the Bill of Rights might very well end up being the tool that saves Lebanon's Constitution and the nation from auto destruction.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Lebanese Sovereignty is Elusive without Citizen Rights

In 1952, then head of the army, General Fouad Chehab was tasked by recently elected President Chamoun to assert sovereignty in the Bekaa region after security incidents that took the life of some Lebanese soldiers. Chehab took his army there and soon met with the clans (ashayer) to resolve the crisis. They informed him that crime was high in the region because the people there had no schools, hospitals, public services, or jobs. The General came back to Chamoun and reported that he could not establish sovereignty by force when these people had no rights to speak of. “Give them their rights; and I will assure you sovereignty,” he said.

Photo courtesy of gettyimages.

When Lebanon supposedly should have had absolute sovereignty in the 40's, 50's, and 60's, large portions of the Lebanese population did not have equal rights. As a result, our country entered conflict in repeated bouts and eventually imploded, demolishing its sovereignty, with armies from different parts of the world trespassing its land, sea, and air. Based on Lebanese history, one finds that the lack of Lebanese sovereignty has paralleled the lack of equal rights and protection of the state to its citizens. Meaning, when the Lebanese people could not get their due rights from their state, they searched and found it elsewhere, seizing it at times and asking for others’ help at others, either of which undermined the nation’s sovereignty.

In the Lebanon of today, the people are missing many rights and unsurprisingly sovereignty is also missing across the board and at all levels. Sovereignty in this regard is not limited to a militia but to the entire makeup of the Lebanese state and it's Constitution, which has become disconnected from the needs of the people. Citizens have established their own sovereignty even in micro issues such as electric power generation, water provisioning, and banking, let alone armed militias for the defense at the community level. Within this context, one has to ask, how can there be any sovereignty if rights continue to be unequal or missing due to an inattentive and callous state whose very design mistreats citizens and where the buck stops nowhere? Can someone genuinely demand sovereignty while holding on to expired privileges over a carcass of a state?

It is not hard to conclude, therefore, that in Lebanon the issue of sovereignty is inextricably linked to that of citizen rights. Their concurrent necessity implies one without the other is untenable. When sovereignty is lost, one's rights are lost; but the opposite is also true: One cannot demand sustainable sovereignty while political, economic, social, and judicial rights are unequal or being abused by the privileged few. Sovereignty and rights are together necessary and sufficient conditions for a viable democratic Lebanon. Each by itself is not enough; and when schisms appear, they need to be resolved holistically and not piecemeal.

In the seminal speech delivered by the Patriarch Boutros Ra’i this last February, he called on the Lebanese people, “Do not be silent about the plurality of loyalties; do not be silent about corruption; do not remain silent about the embezzlement of your money; do not remain silent about uncontrolled borders; do not remain silent about the violation of our airspace; do not be silent about the failures of the political class; do not remain silent about the wrong choices and alignment; do not be silent about the chaotic investigations of the crimes of the seaport explosion; do not be silent about the politicization of the judiciary; do not remain silent about illegal weapons ... do not be silent about the Palestinian naturalization and the integration of the displaced Syrians; do not remain silent about the confiscation of the national decision; do not remain silent about the coup against the State and the regime; do not be silent about not forming a government; do not remain silent about the failure to implement reforms …”

The Patriarch is clearly urging the Lebanese people not to cherry pick their demand for sovereignty but rather for it to accompany demands for a host of grievances due to usurped economic, social, and judicial rights. This is not only a matter of rhetoric for the pontific but rather a notable strategic shift that could pave the way for Lebanon to go in the direction of equal citizenry based on a set of equal rights, which apply to the entire population and not only the Christian communities. The Patriarch’s speech was soon after backed up by Pope Francis’ own visit to Iraq, in particular the holy city of Najaf, where he met with Grand Ayatollah Sistani, declaring that all communities in the Middle East move away from the notion of communal rights to that of equal and inclusive citizenry. In yet another signal, some Lebanese politicians who are known for their divisive sectarian rhetoric and who had requested the Pope’s audience, were shunned.

Could this seismic shift carry implications for Lebanon? Could the basis of the Lebanese future society be heading towards equal citizenry based on principals that transcend religious communities? If so, this will have a direct impact of how rights are demanded and how sovereignty is asserted. In other words, no longer would sovereignty depend on divisive communities, but rather the rights and duties of united citizens, each individually assured of their inclusivity and diversity, while committing their state to standards of honesty, consistency, transparency, and accountability in serving all its citizens equally. 

In conclusion, those contemplating that the topic of sovereignty should overarch or precede citizen rights and be targeted against a single community only need to look at Lebanon's own history to see it’s inevitable failure. If the Lebanese wish to have a pluralistic and democratic society, the two issues of sovereignty and citizen rights will need to go hand in hand. The day Lebanon affords all its citizens the same rights will be the same day that full sovereignty can be sustainably attained with much less opposition. Indeed, the epitome of sovereignty will be when the Lebanese citizen is raised on the shoulders of a rightful state through a constitutional instrument such as a Citizen Bill of Rights. Until that day comes, sovereignty in Lebanon may very well remain elusive.

Wissam Yafi is an author, technologist and economic development practitioner. He has written books on democracy in Lebanon and the Middle East, with "Inevitable Democracy in the Arab World" published by Palgrave MacMillan. His latest research centers on how a Bill of Rights can serve as a counterweight instrument to correct dysfunctional constitutions in Lebanon and the Middle East. Yafi has delivered lectures at Harvard, Stanford, George Mason, and Georgetown. Yafi is a Lebanese expat and graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Is It Time for Lebanon to Rise for a Bill of Rights?

Speech Delivered at SOUL Convention on Lebanon on 06/25/2021 |1:30pm

Thank you to all the distinguished organizers of this Convention here in Washington DC and in Beirut. Thank you for all your hard work. And above all thank you for your belief that there is still hope for our homeland worthy of all our efforts.

For those who do not know me, my name is Wissam Yafi. I am a Lebanese American techie, writer and activist. And of course involved in the Lebanese uprising for the past 18 months. I have participated in protests, discussions, strategies, talks, webinars, fundraises, conventions, you name it. I am one of many fellow citizens wanting to see positive change in Lebanon so that one day we can see the homeland in a much better state than it is in today.

The experience has been as fascinating as it admittedly has been frustrating at times. Grassroots democracy can be slow and difficult, especially in a place like Lebanon, whose very definition of the term is diluted with so many attached strings and conditions. And yet, a large portion of the Lebanese people persist and resist. They do so peacefully. And they do so against not one perfect storm but multiple. It might seem unfair for a small country to be going through so much all at once; or perhaps, in His great wisdom, the Almighty has decided that nothing short of all this will make the Lebanese people rise and finally learn to stand on our own two feet. 

The question many of us are asking at this point is what are we rising for? We all know of course what and who we are rising against. A more difficult question is what exactly are we rising for? The title of this convention is SOUL that is based on Love and Unity. How can we translate it to so that it becomes institutionalized in such a way that our children and their children’s children would never ever forget it, but rather build a future of peace and prosperity based on a Lebanese soul, dare we call it identity? Seen from this perspective, the Lebanese uprising has set a clear delineation between those in Lebanon who are fighting for a destructive system that has swallowed society’s entire wellbeing. And those of us desperately trying to change it so that the Lebanese identity, as it was originally conceived by our forefathers can rise again like our proverbial Phenix.

This raises an interesting dilemma that I am often asked: When does one attempt to change a system, a Nizzam? Does one change it when things are good or when things are bad? Some will answer that a “Nizzam” or system cannot be changed when things are bad because there are other priorities. In the meantime, economists will stand here and suggest this or that economic solution. Financiers will pull out some of their cigars and blow smoke while discussing restructuring debt. The international community will talk about corruption and reform. International donor agencies will talk of poverty and of aid to the poor. Society will talk about the political class. Parties, new and old, will talk about elections and how to win them. But will any of this reach the essence of the problem?

As grey clouds hover above, it sometimes seems like everyone is looking at our cedar tree from their own angle and diagnosing that it is wilting and about to die, but are they digging into the soil to look at the condition of the roots, especially since the whole world senses a deeply mired and rotted system that effectively is eating away at the state? Meaning how likely would trimming this branch or that branch bring the Cedar back?

So, what is the root of the problem in Lebanon? There is plenty of blame to spread around for sure. And those who are in power today do not help their own cause by being utterly inept in almost every field. From the President and Prime Minister who have absolved themselves of any responsibility of the calamity befallen their people, to incompetent ministers who no one trusts nor knows how they get to their positions of power, to a beholden judiciary and security apparatus that is incapable of upholding the oath they made to the people, to a parliament which is incapable of providing any sense of oversight or any meaningful legislation or constitutional reform for well over three decades.

But truth be told, none of this is new to Lebanon. Similar bouts of institutional meltdowns have been happening since independence. Different attempts have been made by different groups to reign over the nation in different political, financial, and military ways over and over again; but they all failed. Under this system, it seemed the nation with so much potential is almost doomed to rinse and repeat failure. So let us be clear, as much as many in Lebanon and around the world would like to point a finger at a group or individual culprit; and serve up simplistic solutions to Lebanon’s deeply rooted problems, Lebanon’s current calamity did not start in 2019, the 2000’s, the 90’s, 80’s, 70’s or 60’s. It started upon its establishment as a nation a century ago through a faulty system that tried to accommodate the notion of religious communities, but unfortunately ended up doing it at the expense of the state and the individual citizen. While some claim that the current system actually helped establish co-existence between religious communities, it is hard for them to explain why then all the instability over the decades, and why has the common citizen has always had to bear the price? I stand in front of you today with full rights of a citizen in my adopted land in the United States, having left my homeland of Lebanon many years back because it didn’t afford them for me. Today history is repeating itself for many young Lebanese whose rights are being suppressed and usurped day in day out. Nor could they answer how exactly a community is being protected when its people are destitute and forced to immigrate from the land and the history that the notion of community is meant to protect.

Like many fellow Lebanese, I find it very hard to reconcile these basic contradictions, and even harder to demand things from others while insisting on maintaining inequalities and privileges. But truth has to be told: How can we as men demand equality under the law, if the law treats women unequally? How can we demand people to be good citizens, if the state in its very design does not treat them equibaly? How can we build a future that promotes a vision of inclusiveness, while insisting on holding on to discriminative privileges in the present? 

The history of the country where I stand today, the United States, teaches us that sometimes hard choices need to be made. When they are made, society inches forward. When they aren’t made, society gets stuck and eventually pays a price. Not many know that the US started off being sectarian as a state. Fortunately, they resolved this through constitutional tools that provided equality for the citizenry regardless of religion. Overtime, this process has grown to include many would be marginalized elements of society. Heck the current President is from a religious minority. And yet, this process did not cancel out religion. On the contrary, after more than two centuries religious freedom holds and while religion does a play a role in society, society is not divided along religious lines. Unfortunately, the same cannot necessarily be said of the issue of race, which the United States’ Founding fathers found very hard to solve in their day because of slavery; and whose can was kicked down the road, resulting in occasional bouts of racial tensions and even civil war. Proof of this is a mere block away at Black Lives Matter Plaza. The point here is that even in advanced and powerful nations, root problems can persist for centuries if left unresolved.

In the Franco-American tradition, and influenced by that history through colonialism, Lebanon’s constitutional creation in many ways was ahead of it is time and applied some liberalized principles. 

It was admired by many at the time and catapulted the nation forward—at least it gave that impression during the 1950’s and 60’s. But deep inside there were deep systemic flaws. The one issue that Lebanon’s founding fathers kicked down the road was how to deal with religious communities, with the choice being given to perpetuate sectarian identity as opposed to a national one. Of course, they knew the dilemma and debated it at the time, but like the American founders on the issue of slavery, the Lebanese founders could not solve it, and so they were compelled to institutionalize it. The sectarian fault lines soon began to be exposed, influenced by either internal differences or regional/geopolitical ones. And so, while strengthening communal identity may not necessarily have been deemed fatal at the time, over the course of decades, it became a tool for political influence and clientelism and started eating away at the national identity. This became an existential problem when politicians took over the reign of the different communities and used religion to raise community fears to compete for power and perpetuate their own power.

But if the problem in Lebanon at its root is as basic as its constitution, how to solve it? Can an economic plan be sufficient? Can a financial restructuring plan (and there have been many) be the silver bullet? Can changing the President or the Prime Minister do the trick? Or can a parliamentary election bring about the desired change. Surely, some of these steps could help, but we also must be cognizant of the fact that our generation is not necessarily any smarter or any more special than those that came before us. While we do have the benefit of hindsight, we must recognize that so do the current regime. So why have they not changed things if only to perpetuate their own interests as opposed to the calamity that is basically falling on their heads and that of their supporters? Some would say that they don’t really care and are beyond such calculations. Others who consider them more rational might say that the system in which they operate has become so broken that it even overwhelmed its own architects.

A more compelling question than one trying to psychoanalyze the incumbent political class is where are the Lebanese people in all this and why has any meaningful constitutional change not been realized considering Lebanon in some way or another, and as flawed as it may be, is still a democracy? A clue can be found in the careful analysis of the Lebanese constitution, which is about 60 pages long. Interestingly if one inspects the document’s wording, the word President appears 62 times, the word “Minister” appears 63 times, the word “Parliament” 87 times, the word state or institution 49 times, and the word citizen … only ONCE. Any casual observer could easily conclude that the Lebanese Constitution’s priorities are clearly not in favor of the common citizen. In fact, judging by the political, economic, social, and judicial abuse we are witnessing in Lebanon, one could easily conclude that the Lebanese citizen is found at the bottom of the social pyramid as opposed to being at its pinnacle. Is it a surprise then that Lebanese citizen rights are being trampled upon by an inattentive state, by community usurpers, by a political mafia, by banks, by greedy merchants, and if I may add by foreign powers?

Lebanon’s systemic problem is in its faulty Constitution that has resulted in destructive system that perpetuates bad rule leading to unrelenting cycles of instability, attempts of constitutional sequestration to dominate a carcass of a state, mired in institutional gridlock, communities pitted against each other and dominated by sectarian warlords and corrupt politicians, and ultimately a nation and its people who are bankrupt.

It is here that we have to go back and ask: When does one change a system? Is it done when times are good? Or is it done when the GDP has fallen by more than 40%? When poverty has engulfed more than 50% of the population? When the nation has no electricity or water or roads? When the political system is gridlocked? When people are immigrating? And when people are denied withdrawal of their savings?

I would suggest that one changes a system when one is honest enough to admit its failure and brave enough to reach the conclusion that things can never go back to what they were. That is basically what many Lebanese are rising to boldly demand. The system is dead: We need a new one that flips on its head the power structure in Lebanon, raising the Lebanese citizen above every other consideration. To do that, the Lebanese are calling for a Citizen Bill of Rights that meets our demands and our aspirations as a people. A Bill of rights that relinquishes power from the usurpers and gives it back to us the People …

This is not theory. This is not academia. This is about diving into the root of the Lebanese problem and facing the problem head on. It is about freeing ourselves of a system that has shackled us for decades and treated our fellow citizens unfairly. It is about rectifying the past by presenting a vision that would essentially alter the fundamental relationship between the Lebanese Citizen and the Lebanese state through Constitutional Amendment. It is about declaring with one voice that we The Lebanese people are unified in calling for a nation with equality, empathy, respect, and yes love! 

It is trying times like these that require truthful introspection. I believe at its heart the Lebanese Soul’s mission is not yet fulfilled. Our forefathers tried but failed at reaching the destination. Perhaps it is time we now tried something brave, bold, and different that could potentially not only change the face of our nation but the region as a whole. Why not show our people and the world at large that we stand united behind a Bill of Rights that protects all citizens equally under the law? Why not fight for a unique vision that creates a direct bond between the citizen and a caring state? Why not overcome the present predicament for our people and chart a better future for our children and theirs? Is it not time to be bold and brave and to call for a Lebanese Citizen Bill of Rights? And if not now, then when? 

I will end by sharing with you excerpts of a draft Bill of Rights, which is the product of the Lebanese people for a Lebanon that many of us are fighting for:

Read the Bill of Rights …  

Thank you …  

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Does Lebanon’s economic plan represent true reform?

 Published on Annahar on 10-05-2020 | 16:34 

Lebanon’s cabinet recently announced an economic plan that focused on lifting Lebanon out of its current financial meltdown. Welcomed by some as an effort to at least do something, serious questions remain as to whether such a plan is capable of addressing the country’s mounting problems.

That Lebanon needs a reform plan is unquestionable. The Lebanese have been demanding it; so has the international community as a precondition for any support. It is therefore understandable that the government would want to present such a plan in an effort to provide a semblance of policy. The problem with the plan however is that it is focused uniquely on economic aspects and barely addresses underlying problems. As economists are paraded on TV and social media to analyze the plan, there is a more basic question that is not being asked: Does economic reform equate to the true reform needed? To answer this question, we need to look at three factors.

Political Will

Economic reform without a political will to reform is like trying to fly a plane without an engine- it won’t be going anywhere soon; and if it were already flying, it will come crashing down at some point. True economic reform requires political will. In most cases, this means that those in power for decades would be willing to give up privileges that they’ve enjoyed at the people’s expense. As a small example, curbing the fiscal deficit means the political class would cease corrupt contracts, appointing cronies, running institutions dry, or insisting on policies that may hurt the plan (nationally or internationally). At this point, there is no evidence whatsoever that Lebanon’s political class is willing to do any of this. In fact, it appears that they are quite content at keeping the status quo, continuing tried and failed methods, and leaning on a desperate population to pay for the mismanagement.

Comprehensive Multi-disciplinary Reform

The economic plan is primarily focused on financial restructuring and only pays lip service to other key necessary components that solve underlying problems. Let us remember that previous economic plans, as this one, were also written by heavyweight consultants from Booz Allen, McKinsey, as this latest one by Lazard. All contained good ideas; and arguably few technical economic glitches. What they lacked is a multi-disciplinary reform approach that would have brought the necessary political, economic, social, judicial, institutional, and perhaps even environmental factors to buttress the reform plan. After all, how does one solve the electricity problem, without reforming social, judicial, and institutional elements? How does one turn Lebanon into a net exporter if the wrong educational, labor, and judicial elements are missing? The current economic plan was not designed to provide comprehensive reform; and as a result, will inevitably live in isolation and be constrained by Lebanon’s political idiosyncrasies.

Popular Support

The dilemma with popular support is while it is direly needed for any and all types of serious reform, it is inversely proportional to the degree of pain that the population will have to bear. Meaning, the more fundamental and painful the reform, the less likely popular support would be given. As it stands, the government is demanding a laundry list that will most likely include devaluation, capital controls, haircuts, and taxes—all without giving the population anything in return. The single most important question that the people need to ask this government and the political class standing behind it is: What are you giving the people in return for all the pain and what are the underlying institutional, let alone constitutional, guarantees? If one considers that in Lebanon the historical average life of a cabinet is about eighteen months; and that there is almost no continuity, one would quickly conclude that the value of this plan is hardly worth the ink on its paper. This plan at face value is nothing more than a plan.

In conclusion, Lebanon’s problems are deep, and the solutions required will need to reach the very same level of depth to have any effect. Government’s economic varnish no longer covers Lebanese political class rot. Lebanon’s current meltdown is so calamitous and will be so costly on the Lebanese population that it makes any swift economic plan and PowerPoint presentations futile. This plan, as the ones before it, have all led to little, if any, execution or fulfillment of promises. In this, I would echo the Prime Minister’s words when he said “Mabrouk Lebanon” (Congratulations Lebanon). But I would not do it based on expected results; rather the hope that in all the hopelessness, the Lebanese will finally realize that only true comprehensive reform, which includes political, economic, social, and judicial structural changes can turn the tide and bring the nation back to safe shores.

Wissam Yafi is an author, technologist and economic development practitioner. He has written books on democracy in Lebanon and the Middle East, with "Inevitable Democracy in the Arab World" published by Palgrave MacMillan. Yafi has lectured at Harvard, Stanford, and Georgetown. His latest research centers on how a Bill of Rights can serve as a counterweight instrument to correct dysfunctional constitutions in Lebanon and the Middle East. Yafi is a Lebanese expat and graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The Rise of Citizenry: The emerging philosophy behind the Lebanese revolution

Published by Annahar 10-06-2020 | 16:37 

What best describes the philosophical underpinnings of the Lebanese Revolution? Is it some traditional ideology akin to Capitalism or Communism? Or perhaps it is some form of re-emerging Nationalism, possibly at odds with unrelenting Globalization. What about age-old dichotomies such as democracy and autocracy, both being challenged by Populism? In this context of utter ideological confusion, it is not hard to see why some analysts have struggled to determine a precise ideology to pin onto the Lebanese Revolution. 

But why haven’t any of these traditional ideologies been able to serve the Lebanese Revolution? Some introspection shows that unbridled Capitalism has failed the Lebanese people by leading to endemic corruption and seizure of public goods. Demanding more of it would be nonsensical and unsustainable . It is equally out of the question that a people with such a deeply enterprising history would harken back to Communism, whose train left the station decades ago. As for Globalization, the Lebanese people are arguably among the most far-reaching in the world with a disproportional Diaspora. And yet, the Lebanese identity has held steady and indeed has been growing steadily. While roaming the world, culturally the Lebanese wish to remain proud of their flag, art, cuisine, architecture, music, jokes, and more ... Politically, the Lebanese are among the most democratic in the region, but have paid the price for such openness in a violently autocratic neighborhood. ‘If only we had a dictator to clean things up!’ some like to say. Questionable at best, if one considers that the last three Presidents have all been army generals—all failing to reverse the country’s dwindling fortunes. 

So, where does this leave the Revolution’s philosophical foundation? While there are a variety of focus areas among different revolutionary groups, there is one underlying theme that has been unifying everyone: Elevating the Lebanese citizen and their rights above all else in the state. This can be summarized succinctly as Citizenry. Citizenry basically aims to pull everyone together under the aegis of equality and fraternity—unlike Populism, which aims to divide populations along ethnic or religious lines. Also unlike Sectarianism, which typically elevate the leader to cultish proportions, Citizenry raises the ordinary citizen above any other consideration through the equal application of the law. Aiming to lift the Lebanese citizen through Citizenry is perhaps the ideology that best represents the motivation driving the Lebanese Revolution from South to North, East to West. 

Citizenry is a philosophy that may not always oppose the traditional ideologies. Rather, it sees them through the prism of how they may or may not help the citizen. As an example, the Revolution has been against corruption and against the corrupt, not against any Lebanese citizen for being a capitalist. The Revolution has been for free enterprise, but against the theft of public or citizen property. It has been for the rule of law but against those who apply justice sporadically for their own benefit. It has been for the freedom of religion, but against using religious sectarianism to usurp power or use it to apply unequal citizenship. It has been for the right of self-defense, but against those who intimidate other fellow citizens with arms. To its credit, while elements of the Revolution have tried to take it in certain undesirably dogmatic directions, in its collective wisdom, the Lebanese Revolution has maintained a consistent line not to exclude anyone and to focus instead on demands that empower citizens to get their rights back. From this perspective, the primary objective of Citizenry is based on assuring ALL the Lebanese of equal rights. Any vision, strategy, or policy contrary to this ideology is considered anathema to the Lebanese Revolution’s ideology.

But if the ideology of the Lebanese Revolution is that of Citizenry, how to demand it and later apply it? Citizenry happens through peaceful, democratic, and legal means by demanding a list of rights that the citizens wish to assert on themselves and those they elect to govern. This list of rights is typically referred to as a Citizen’s Bill of Rights, which is a constitutional tool that fundamentally shifts the balance of power of any nation in favor of the citizen along multiple fronts: Political, economic, social, judicial, and even environmental. A Bill of Rights is generally the primary tool that Citizenry uses to elevate the citizen to a level capable of holding their state accountable. As a tool, it can also provide serious reform helping the state eliminate archaic institutions such as sectarianism, replacing it with equal opportunity and justice. 

Detractors of the Lebanese Revolution who represent the traditional parties have been incapable of understanding the Lebanese Revolution’s philosophy of Citizenry because their context and ideas are those of an age of corruption, cynicism, division, and violence—all of which shackle them to an undesirable past, while blinding them of the potential future. The Lebanese Revolution represents an alternative future. Its Citizenry ideology places the Lebanese citizen at the apex of the state, not at its bottom. It can protect and indeed empower the Lebanese citizens to overcome existing challenges while preparing them to face a globalized future. Citizenry provides the Lebanese a framework based on absolute equality and fairness; and a tool such as a Citizen Bill of Rights to effectuate the change. By fortifying its nucleus, the common citizen, Citizenry promises to strengthen Lebanon at a time when all other failed ideologies have been doing nothing less than destroy it.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

To Form or Not to Form a New Lebanese Government- That is the Question

As the economy continues to deteriorate precipitously in Lebanon, many are expecting Prime Minister Diab’s government to collapse. It garners little support from the people, from the international community, and recently barely much from those who put it in power in the first place. Considering that this government, like those before it, has been unable to present any convincing solutions to Lebanon’s predicament, what will be the options? Short of an outright coup leading to civil war, there appears to be three peaceful alternatives being discussed.

The first is basically more of the same. Already there is talk of bringing back former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to power. What exactly he would do that is different from a handful of months ago is not clear. After all Hariri’s government repeatedly failed to deliver on promises made to both the people and the international community. Furthermore, he and his party have held the Premiership for the better part of thirty years; and few could dispute the economic mismanagement that ensued. Objectively, there is plenty of blame to spread around the entire political class not just his lot. However, his primary credentials used to be mustering economic support from the Gulf and the International community. Unfortunately, even during better times, it proved to be insufficient to plug the economic suction by an insatiable establishment. What would be the likelihood of success now? Slim at best.

The second alternative involves a temporary reduced military government, akin to that of 1952 when Army General Fouad Chehab took the helm to keep the peace. In the midst of a global cold war, the reasons back then were more ideological than economic, and Chehab’s firm but fair presence subdued matters until elections could be held. But the general didn’t have to deal with anything near as economically challenging as today’s crisis. Considering that the protests have been mostly peaceful and related to living conditions, the root problem does not seem to be that of security to be dealt with as such. Plus, one needs to keep in mind that the latest three Lebanese Presidents have all been army generals; and none have managed to solve the economic slide. So how exactly would having more military thrown into the mix help diffuse Lebanon’s current predicament, except as it were to call for new elections?

This brings us to the third option. The revolution has been proposing an independent government that is capable of presenting to the Lebanese people and to the international community an alternative future for the nation based on true reform. In most democracies, considering the state the country is in, this would have been considered a no-brainer. Not so in Lebanon, where those in power still seem to be in denial. Since they control the Presidency and the parliament—the two institutions necessary to bring forth a desired shuffle in cabinet—their preference has been a beholden cabinet keeping their interests intact, as per Diab’s government now and Hariri’s before him. Of course, the level of deterioration has them worried because by controlling all elements of the government, they also shoulder all the responsibility. Therefore, somewhat counterintuitively, there is a chance that the incumbents could opt to take a calculated risk, bringing independent elements spread their mounting liability.

A national unity government is likely to be there first go-to, as it has been for generations. If the revolution or independents acquiesce and join a unity government, there is nothing to suggest that they would fare any better than previous ones, which witnessed incoherence, delays and corruption. Meaning, such a government would not likely muster enough of the necessary reform, and ultimately would fail. However, unlike previous governments, which the revolution did not want, support, or participate in; the cost of participation in failure for independents or affiliates of the revolution would be substantial, because now they have to share responsibility. This is therefore unlikely to be a choice for the Independents.

What if the Revolution is all of a sudden allowed to form its own government without any prior agreements or conditions by the incumbents? In such a surprise scenario, those in power, through their control of the Presidency and parliament, could still block it at every curve, causing it to fail to meet the aspirations of the people. In fact, one might expect that incumbents may try even harder to force it to fail, because success would expose further their bad practices during all these past decades. Under this scenario, while initially it could diffuse tensions, in the medium term the cost of failure to the Lebanese revolution would be incalculable—and incumbents will pounce.

Is there a solution then to forming the next government to avoid the above failure traps? And how to signal to the world that Lebanon is genuinely capable of reforming itself, and hence merits international support? What if the revolution were ceded cabinet power, with pre-negotiated terms and tangible commitments made by powerful incumbent elements with oversight by the international community? What if only after these commitments had been accepted and fully committed to, would the independents accept to form a government and begin their marathon reformist agenda? And what if parliament monitored this government as opposed to beholding it? Is this perhaps worth a try? If not, the current political class is welcome to continue holding onto power. History will gladly give them all due credit for all that ensues.

Wissam Yafi is an author, technologist and economic development practitioner. He has written books on democracy in Lebanon and the Middle East, with "Inevitable Democracy in the Arab World" published by Palgrave MacMillan. Yafi has lectured at Harvard, Stanford, and Georgetown. His latest research centers on how a Bill of Rights can serve as a counterweight instrument to correct dysfunctional constitutions in Lebanon and the Middle East. Yafi is a Lebanese expat and graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.