THE BLOG

How Can Lebanon Survive the Syria Crisis?

Today, June 16, 2013, parliamentary elections were supposed to be held in Lebanon. Instead, after political parties failed to reach an agreement on an electoral law, they were postponed for 17 months under the pretext of avoiding a political vacuum.

Lebanese decision makers favored a fake sense of stability over democracy. The current "wait and see" policy until a Syria resolution is reached will only exacerbate Lebanon's fragile position. The inflow of refugees to Lebanon will increase, economic conditions will worsen, the security landscape will deteriorate, and political gridlock will persist.

This is why it is urgent that Lebanese, leaders and citizens, actively think of ways to shield Lebanon from the Syrian crisis.

The future of Lebanon depends on the ability of Lebanese to compromise and reach an agreement to safeguard the country during this critical phase.

There are three ways to enable compromise and build consensus in Lebanon.

The first option is a foreign-brokered compromise. Foreign countries, such as the United States, France, Saudi Arabia or others could sponsor an agreement around elections and stability. This would be similar to the foreign backed 1989 Taef Agreement, which ended the fifteen year Lebanese civil war, and the 2008 Doha Agreement, which ended an eighteen month political crisis.

Unfortunately, Lebanon's stability does not seem to be a top priority for international powers. They seem to tie Lebanon's future directly to the success of their resolution efforts in Syria. In this circumstance, enlisting the help of foreign mediators will require local politicians to actively pursue diplomatic channels and plead their help to shield Lebanon from regional developments.

Geopolitics and external forces are key determinants of internal Lebanese dynamics. However, there are domestic driving factors that should not be underestimated.

The second option is a grass-root driven compromise. Imagine a true national public movement pressuring politicians to come together. It would be a grass-root, all citizens-included movement forcing the political class to bridge party and sectarian lines and meet their responsibility to protect Lebanon. Lebanese citizens who traditionally have taken on the role of followers have the opportunity to be leaders and shape a new political narrative.

Citizens and civil society will need to mobilize, organize and break from traditional political patterns. They should shift the Lebanese political debate from the anti-Assad March 14 coalition versus the pro-Assad March 8 coalition to a choice between conflict and stability; auto-destruction and survival.

The third option is a voluntary national reconciliation approach. The national dialogue roundtable called by caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati could provide the right platform for such an initiative. But in order for it to succeed and avoid the failure of the dozens of national roundtables Lebanon witnessed in the past eight years there is merit in considering new methods to facilitate dialogue.

According to Donna Hicks, a conflict-resolution specialist at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, the biggest barrier to resolving conflicts is anchored in an emotional undercurrent to any political conversation that is so powerful it derails all productive solutions. Each party considers its dignity violated by others which hijacks most political dialogues.

In the Lebanese context, the Christian community feels marginalized. Shiites have long felt neglected during Lebanon's civil war and Israel's occupation of the South of Lebanon. The Sunni community has been feeling targeted since the assassination of several of its leaders starting in 2005. And the list goes on, and the nuances are stark amongst political parties and individuals.

All Lebanese factions need to move away from auto-victimization tendencies and self-centered points of views and take into account the perspective of others.

This is why incorporating Donna Hick's approach to dignity should be a preliminary requirement to the national dialogue roundtable called by Najib Mikati. It involves Muslims and Christians, March 14 and March 8, old and new rivals to start acknowledging their respective mistakes towards each other and genuinely commit to mutual change.

While idealistic and unlikely to some, this remains a realistic option to achieve a productive outcome out of the national dialogue roundtable.

In summary, a foreign-brokered agreement, a grass-root movement calling for compromise, and a national dialogue roundtable facilitated by effective conflict resolution methods are all suggestions that hopefully provoke a constructive debate on how to protect Lebanon from the conflict in Syria and the wider region. A strategy pursuing all three paths at once may be Lebanon's best bet.

Responsibility for change in Lebanon lies first and foremost in the hands of its citizens and politicians. Now is the opportunity for Lebanese to pursue their collective interest and set an example to the rest of the Arab world.

Georges Pierre Sassine is a Harvard Kennedy School alumnus. He is a political activist and writes about Lebanon's public policy issues at www.georgessassine.com.

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