Lebanese Elections Open Door to Political, Economic Reform

U.S. supports new government, urges end to militias, Syrian influence

By Carrie Loewenthal
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The United States will “stand with the people of Lebanon” as they move toward becoming “a more free, more prosperous, more secure and more fully sovereign country,” Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch said in testimony before the House International Relations Committee July 28.

Welch called the recent Lebanese elections “a wonderful breakthrough for the Lebanese people to have control over their future.” He noted that Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has strong support from the Lebanese parliament and public, as well as the United States, as he works to implement his stated platform of instituting reform.

These proposed reforms are both political and economic. The new prime minister promises to combat corruption in order to improve government transparency, form a merit-based civil service, pass new electoral legislation and promote an independent judiciary.

In addition, Siniora’s platform includes restructured tax collection, improved debt management, possible privatization of certain sectors and protection of intellectual property rights. The agenda also promotes adherence to requests from the international community as related to support and assistance agreements, as well as accession to the World Trade Organization.

Welch noted that Lebanon will face challenges in the implementation of these reforms and will need international support. These challenges include the disarmament of Hezbollah, armed Palestinian groups and all other militias, as mandated by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.
Hezbollah obtained 35 of 128 parliamentary seats through the recent elections, which creates a stumbling block to complete U.S. engagement with the new Lebanese government, Welch said.

He noted that the United States has designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization and refuses to meet with its members.

“We do not believe that Hezbollah can be a legitimate political actor until it lays down its weapons and renounces terrorism and violence,” he said.

He said the Lebanese armed forces, with the backing of international funds, equipment and training, should deploy throughout the country, primarily in the Hezbollah-dominated south in order to combat the militia problem.

“In our judgment, exercise by Lebanon of its full sovereignty will make a contribution to regional stability,” he said.

Continued Syrian presence, despite the April 26 troop withdrawal, poses an additional problem for Lebanon. According to Welch, the United States believes that Syria maintains an underground intelligence operation in Lebanon, and it sees signs of “a campaign of intimidation and violence and threats of violence.”

Resolution 1559 also calls for an end to Syrian interference in Lebanon.

“The international community supports a Lebanon free of violence, terrorism and foreign interference, and as such expects Lebanon to meet those international obligations,” Welch said.
Despite these challenges, Welch remains optimistic about the ability of the Lebanese government to carry out the proposed reforms.

“We expect that others in the government and in the parliament will set aside their political disagreements and their agendas … to put the longer-term needs of the Lebanese people first,” he said.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) also looks forward to coordinating development projects with the new Lebanese government, while simultaneously working to assess the government’s main impediments to full implementation of Resolution 1559.

“[W]e’ve been waiting a long time for this very moment, for the Lebanese government to become an engaged partner in these efforts that we’ve been working on for the last decade,” said James Kunder, USAID assistant administrator for Asia and the Near East, who testified alongside Welch.

USAID has, in the past, assisted the Lebanese people only through local municipalities, Lebanese organizations and international nongovernmental organizations.

Ongoing aid projects include work with landmine victims and rural women’s cooperatives, delivery of computer technology to the most isolated and impoverished areas of the country, and facilitation of scholarships to the American University in Beirut and other institutions of higher learning.

“[We’re] trying to reach out into these areas and bring them into the economic and political mainstream,” Kunder said.

USAID has focused its efforts in the south, directing 54 percent of the $35 million the United States currently gives in aid to municipalities in this vulnerable region. Hezbollah has its strongest presence in the south and facilitates aid projects of its own in the area.

Kunder said the goal of such a concentrated U.S. aid effort is to ward off such terrorist organizations and provide “basic training in citizen services, transparency in local government to restore the Lebanese people’s faith in the effectiveness of government.”

Kunder noted that Lebanon’s sovereign debt will pose an obstacle to the effectiveness of the new government. Lebanon has “one of the highest debt burdens to population ratios in the world,” he said, and the level of debt will prevent the government from exercising proper control over the entire country.

“[O]ne of the first things we’re going to have to grapple with is a program of reform, of restructuring, to try to get that burden off the back of the Lebanese people,” he said.

Source: International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State

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