Summer in Lebanon: Prudence vs. Recklessness

04/12/2013 10:02 am ET | Updated Jun 12, 2013

Every time signs of a political détente appear in the country, people in Lebanon like to ask, "And what will the summer be like?" The question is not at all superficial, but rather one that touches directly on the dire need to save the economy from collapse by reviving tourism, and the essential income it used to bring to the Lebanese. Tourism requires stability; it necessitates reassuring visitors to the country that no booby-trapped surprises are waiting for them there. But this depends most of all on a political decision that is not in the hands of the Lebanese state alone, but rather in those of local, regional and international players, because Lebanon has always been an arena for "proxy" battles that proceed in line with the prevailing political and military balance of power. In such battles, the economy is a weapon. There are those who go as far as believing that impoverishment is a deliberate policy, rather than a byproduct. Today, Lebanon stands at yet another crossroads, which part of its people seize with their yearning for a normal life, enjoyment and prosperity, while another part views it as the extension of the battle in Syria. Yet all of the Lebanese have another vital question they have grown accustomed to asking, namely, "What do they want?" Here, "they" for some means the major powers, and most prominently the United States, while for others it means the Islamic Republic of Iran, which considers its alliance with Hezbollah to be its biggest regional asset and views the war in Syria as a fateful one for Tehran's regional role.

Lebanon's situation nearly resembles that of women in the Arab region, who have become constant victims, even in times of change and aspirations for freedom and justice. Indeed, women are being raped, being made hostage in battles of "honor" and dignity, and being used in an astonishing new phenomenon that has been dubbed the "Sexual Jihad" - that is, becoming merchandise following fatwas that have turned women's bodies into instruments that can be freely exploited. Yet just as women are refusing to submit to being exploited this way, so is Lebanon refusing to become an arena of absolute exploitation. And both are wrestling with fragility.

In the past two weeks, after the "necessary" resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, now the head of the caretaker government, Prime Minister-designate, Tammam Salam obtained near unanimous support and assumed the post as a consensual premier. This development allowed some optimism over the coming summer, while sparking questions about possible international cover for his mission. The premier-designate has repeatedly asserted that the main task of the government he seeks to form will be to hold elections, and stressed the country needed a government without delay as holding the elections was the major concern. He also said that the "guarantee" of a positive stance by countries in the region and beyond was "the extent of our good conduct". Salam dubbed the prospective government one of "national interests" and made clear that he neither has any interest in polarization nor seeks after permanent power or a seat to cling to.

Salam's designation has brought relief that helped alleviate the tension that had nearly set the country ablaze, drove it to civil and confessional wars, and imported the Syrian war to its midst. Perhaps those who reluctantly approved of Salam's designation are preparing hurdles in order to thwart his task. To be sure, they see Salam's selection as a coup against them and a threat to their resolve to prevent the legislative elections from being held, so as to maintain the balance of power in their favor. Those are members of the March 8 Alliance, which includes Hezbollah and its main partner, General Michel Aoun's movement, and they are most likely preparing a counter-coup. Their assent to a consensual prime minister seems like a tactical move they were forced to make, rather than a strategic one that reflects a radical change in their stances.

This is where the "local summer" intersects with the "international umbrella". It is clear that the decision of the international community, if one may call it so, is to make sure not to allow Lebanon to slip into civil wars or wars by proxy on behalf of regional players. There have been numerous attempts to ignite Lebanon at the hands of local and regional players, as a secondary arena for the Syrian conflict and to divert attention away from Syria. Yet the major powers, led by the United States and Russia, have clung to keeping Lebanon away from a full-blown deterioration. However, it should be noted that Washington and Moscow have been very negligent in terms of protecting Lebanon against the collapse of its infrastructure, which does not have the ability the contain the influx of Syrian refugees and the likelihood of their staying there for many years to come. Nevertheless, since the decision of the international community is to provide an umbrella that would protect the country, the Lebanese consider this to represent the most important investment in stability, particularly on the part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Iran.

The United States and Russia are still engaged in discussions, not just about Syria today and Syria the day after, but also with regard to Iran and its nuclear program, the role it plays inside Syria, and its relations with Israel - be they relations of truce or of confrontation. Lebanon represents an immediate arena for the Iranian-Israeli equation, in view of Hezbollah's alliance with Tehran. Thus the "decision of the international community" takes on a great deal of importance, as it is directly related to the possibility of a war with Israel erupting in the Lebanese arena. The decision of the international community is so far not one of escalation, but rather of containment. This explains the international umbrella to protect Lebanon from its two immediate neighbors, in terms of the effects of the Iranian-Israeli relationship, as well as the conflict in neighboring Syria.

Regionally, the battle for Lebanon rages on between Iran and certain Arab countries. The current climate indicates is that no one, at the regional level, wants Lebanon to erupt, nor does anyone want to use it as a battlefield. Tehran seems preoccupied with its own domestic battles, with walking the tightrope in nuclear talks with the major powers, and with waging the war in Syria - a war considered fateful for Iran's regional ambitions. Moreover, Hezbollah represents for Tehran a valuable ally and an asset of the utmost importance, both regionally and internationally, which it does not want to squander. This is why Iran is being patient, and advising others to be patient as well. Indeed, Iran's leadership is skilled at waiting for the right moment, and it looks at a losing battle as merely one battle in a war, not as a losing war.

Iran has ostensibly taken the decision to neither escalate matters within Lebanon nor with Israel through the Lebanese gateway. Furthermore, Tehran seems to be in need of some space to reassess its options. It also seems to prefer avoiding an Israeli war against Hezbollah, one in which Israel threatens to destroy Lebanon and destroy Hezbollah within it this time. A truce with Israel is preferable for Iran at the moment, at least temporarily. Perhaps discussion over Lebanon has been finding its way over the recent period between Iran and some countries in the GCC, each for their own unspoken reasons. Yet the common ground between the two seems to rest on the reality that no one wants further disputes, or dangerous mobilization that could lead to sectarian strife. For one thing, sectarian tension between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon - as in other countries - portends a terrifying fate that a mere spark could unleash. A certain amount of wisdom and change were therefore imperative.

The countries of the GCC resolutely escalated a few weeks ago, when the Secretary-General of the Council headed to Baabda Palace accompanied by the ambassadors of the six GCC member-states to convey a clear message to the Lebanese Presidency: the countries of the GCC would not maintain their relations as they are with Lebanon if Hezbollah were to continue to manipulate the official stance taken by the Lebanese state of dissociating itself from the battle in Syria. European powers similarly informed those concerned that they could not continue to provide Hezbollah with protection and to resist adding it to the "terrorist list" due to claims of its involvement in terrorist activities in Europe. These were staunch messages from the Gulf and from Europe, which those concerned heeded very seriously.

Najib Mikati had threatened to resign several times then changed his mind and repeatedly, believing that he could hold the countries of the GCC with his right hand and hold Iran and the regime in Damascus with his left. But he finally realized that this was not possible, and ultimately resigned, having found for himself a way to do it without losing face. As soon as this happened, the countries of the GCC made their move through the Saudi Arabia, conferring their "blessing" on Mikati's resignation and Salam's designation. And as soon as the resignation and designation took place, the situation improved at the security level, at least in the minds of those keen on visiting Lebanon.

Arrivals from Gulf countries increased, with airplanes filled with visitors, and the Lebanese began to hope for a good summer and a good tourist season that would save people from bankruptcy and from nerve-racking tension. All of this remains contingent on two main elements, however: the pledges of Lebanese authorities to keep the security situation in check and to prevent families from returning to take control of the decisions of the state, in addition to preventing the kidnapping of nationals from the Arab Gulf states. Indeed, what is at stake is the economy of a country that is intricately linked to its relations with GCC countries, with both tourism and the large Lebanese expat communities working there. Another issue concerns the necessity for the GCC countries to fulfill their pledges to support the Lebanese state through its vital institutions, not through the donations of GCC nationals to extremist individuals, groups and organizations that inflame sectarian conflict in Lebanon. There is for example a great deal of reproach and harsh criticism for cutting funding to the Makassed Islamic Association.

As for neglecting the issue of one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, it has consequences that threaten to collapse the infrastructure, as well as causing destructive clashes, for reasons both sectarian and economic. The countries of the GCC should thus take heed and resolve the flaws in their relations with Lebanon. It is not enough to demand that the government guarantee that funds are being put to use appropriately. There are procedures for such necessary guarantees, but using them to delay and procrastinate is a dangerous practice, not just for Lebanon, but also for GCC interests in the Arab region as a whole.

Such a fragile phase of relief must be accompanied by the wisdom and resolve to commit to "good conduct", as Tammam Salam said, in order to ensure the good intentions of others. The prime minister-designate will hopefully have the good fortune of forming a government of men and women with the competence to hold parliamentary elections, as only this way can the Lebanese dream of the good summer they are in dire need of.

Indeed, these women whom Lebanon negatively resembles are not alone in the scene. There are also strong women role models, who insist on not being afraid, on being decision-makers, and on refusing to be objectified. Perhaps the slogan for the Beirut Marathon women's race that will be held next month could be useful to stir up enthusiasm and positivity: "She Truly Is Strong."