This post is a rebuttal to Ambassador Tom Fletcher's publication on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Blog: Beirutopia.
Today Lebanon turns 100. I am watching the celebrations on TV from my Dubai Marina apartment. After almost 15 years working in policy making in the Gulf, I still haven't found a way to put my competencies to the service of my country. Listening to the official speeches at the celebration on Martyrs' Square does not make me believe this could happen anytime soon.
The highlight of the celebration is the participation of so many talented poets, musicians and filmmakers. Many international leaders are present. Lebanon’s new wealth, the result of huge amounts of offshore gas, is attracting great interest. At many points in the last few years, I thought the time had come for me to come back from my long expatriation. Especially after the 2015 Israeli blitzkrieg against Hezbollah, when gas revenues allowed Lebanon to recover and rebuild even faster than in 2006. The resilience of this country will always surprise me.
The Syrian civil war had ended and Israel thought it had a window of opportunity to end once and for all the threat at its northern border. This was another misreading of what post Arab spring Middle East had become. The 2015 war on Lebanon created an unprecedented wave of solidarity in the region bringing together the newly formed Syrian government, Gulf countries, Egypt and Iran. Many former Free Syrian Army fighters even crossed the border and joined the resistance in Lebanon.
The new balance of power that followed the war opened an era of prosperity for Lebanon. But the great reconciliation between Iran, Muslim Brotherhood countries (i.e. Syria and Egypt), and Gulf countries in addition to the local agreement between the different political groups on an 'equitable' sharing of offshore gas revenues, allowed the Lebanese political class to further lock government work and perpetuate itself through more clientelism and corruption. Hence, turning what could have been a chance for me to come back to Lebanon into another lost opportunity.
Back to the 100th celebrations, the newly elected Syrian President is guest of honor. He is standing on the main stage with the three Lebanese presidents. Since the 2017 legislative elections, the regional reconciliation allowed Lebanese parties to resuscitate the 2013 so called "Orthodox Gathering Electoral Law". As a result of what is now shamelessly called the new sectarian system, the prime minister is picked by the Future party, the speaker by the Amal-Hezbollah tandem, and the president by the Christian coalition that includes the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb and the Free Patriotic Movement. It is amazing how sharing the cake of a gas rent can reconcile everybody, and how 'March 14' and 'March 8' sound like labels from a forgotten era.
Of course, the Treaty of Recognition and Cooperation signed between Syria and Lebanon in 2014 established an equal relationship and the border was demarcated. In his speech, the President said that as global power shifts South and East, we are on the cusp of a new Levantine age. He praised the new Middle Eastern reconciliation that allowed Lebanon to thrive and become the stable and prosperous country it has been since the last Israeli aggression in 2015. He also said he was confident this reconciliation was the only guarantee against Israel’s colonial project in the region.
It is true that the gas rent and the reconciliation of regional powers gave Lebanon a stability it never saw in its chattered 100 years of existence. This came at a price. Political debate is dead; democracy and secularism are old memories. A facade freedom of expression is maintained but political participation is inexistent. The key dividing line is over what to do with the income from gas and how to share it among the different political parties.
Some of the officials and MP's arrived at the ceremony on the new citytrain, one of the flagship projects of Lebanon 2020, a government driven modernization project. Oil and gas revenues have funded the repair of the National Grid leaving generators a distant memory, as well as a series of touristic mega projects - like the infamous Cedar Island - at the heart of the remarkable tourist boom of recent years. Of course these projects were conducted at the expense of Lebanon's fragile natural environment and its vanishing historical and architectural heritage. Nevertheless, Beirut is now a top citybreak destination and Lebanon at 100 is still an extraordinary, talented, resilient, hopeful, diverse, beautiful and enchanting place. The Eurozone President even commented that Lebanon was now a Dubai with more oil or a Qatar without the World Cup.
PS, My 15-year expatriation in the Gulf is finally coming to an end. A few days ago, I accepted a job offer as a policy advisor to the Syrian Ministry of Environment. In two months, I will be leaving my Dubai Marina apartment to start working in what is now the only real, genuine and thriving democracy in the Arab world. I am also very excited to live in Damascus that now has the world’s first car-free city center and where the effort to discover and renovate ancient ruins is at the core of the new mayor's strategy. Also, since the Masnaa border is open to free circulation, Lebanon is a 1-hour drive form Damascus. I will always be able to drive there to spend my weekends in the company of old friends and enjoy Beirut's nightlife. Sky Bar is not my cup of tea... but once in a while, why not!
A fantasy? Cynical? It depends on you. Tell us what you think. #Leb2020