Could one famous Arab American's radical idea to save Lebanon work?

Taking Lebanon's fate entirely out of the corrupt elite's hands may be the only solution left

A protest against Lebanon's ruling elite in Jal El Dib, north of Beirut, in January 2020. Three years, little has improved. AP Photo
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Without exaggeration, Ralph Nader is one of the transformational figures in recent US history. Because of efforts he helped lead, we drive safer cars, have cleaner water and air, and have a range of safety protections in our homes and places of work. It wasn’t easy. To build the movement for change, he had to confront major US corporations, banks and powerful political lobbies, all of whom had entrenched interests in maintaining the status quo.

I also know Mr Nader to be a deeply committed Arab American of Lebanese descent who is a tireless advocate for justice for Arabs and against discrimination here in the US. For months now, he and I have been discussing the continuing crisis in Lebanon and what, if anything, can be done to pull the country back from the abyss and create viable institutions that can provide needed services and earn public trust.

I am prompted to share some of his ideas after reading a lengthy paper recently released by the American Task Force on Lebanon and the Middle East Institute titled “US-Lebanon Relations: Setting a New International Framework for a More Responsive Government". Both groups have established a record of making valuable contributions to US foreign policy discussion. But while their diagnosis of the problems facing Lebanon are on target, some of the recommendations they offer leave me confounded.

The ATFL-MEI report correctly begins with the ominous warning: “Lebanon is on a tragic trajectory, never before seen in its history … Lebanon’s failings can be attributed to endemic corruption by the political class and the ‘state within a state’ impunity of Hezbollah.” This is all true, but then, without even a hint of irony, the report continues: “Lebanon’s leaders must take the necessary risks to reverse their country from falling into the abyss of an economic and political meltdown.” It then goes on to make specific and needed reforms for the Lebanese government, parliament, ministries and political parties to implement.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Apr 01, 2013 - Ralph Nader US consumer rights activist and former US presidential candidate speaking at the Dubai World Conference on Consumer Rights at Dubai World Trade Centre. ( Jaime Puebla / The National Newspaper )
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Relying on Lebanon's sectarian leaders to find a way out of the mess they have created is a non-starter

What’s troubling is the futility of calling on the very same corrupt sectarian leaders who have driven the country to ruin to reform themselves out of business – with the US and other international bodies offering incentives or sanctions to motivate them to adopt these measures.

There is nothing new in all of this. Recall French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Lebanon in 2020, shortly after the horrific ammonium nitrate explosion in the Port of Beirut that killed hundreds, left thousands homeless, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and inflicted $15 billion in property damage.

Mr Macron’s visit to the site of the devastation was inspiring, in large measure owing to the fact that no Lebanese leader had done so. He used the occasion to issue an ultimatum that Lebanon would not receive the international aid it desperately needed unless it made significant economic reforms. The problem, of course, was: to whom was the ultimatum directed? Who was to be the agent of reform? When, in the following days, we witnessed the same political leaders responsible for Lebanon’s plight meeting to discuss Mr Macron’s challenge, it was clear that nothing would happen. And nothing did.

Reflecting on this conundrum, Mr Nader sent me a memorandum providing both an analysis of the Lebanese crisis and a radical proposal for a way forward.

He begins by observing that “Lebanon is a failed state … its staggeringly corrupt, sectarian government enriches a cabal of leaders … at the expense of the Lebanese people … many of Lebanon’s political pathologies are enshrined in its constitution which … prescribes sectarian divisions".

But, Mr Nader continues, there is a way forward because “the Lebanese constitution also acknowledges that … the people are the source of power and sovereignty”, leading him to conclude that “the people collectively retain the right to dispense with the current constitutional dispensation and provide for a successor better suited for their liberty, safety and happiness".

Based on this, Mr Nader calls for “representatives of a broad spectrum of Lebanese public opinion petition the UN Security Council under Chapter VII to establish a UN Transitional Authority for Lebanon headed by a designee of the Secretary General and entrusted with the short-term governance of Lebanon with apolitical experts (drawn from vast pool of accomplished political and business professionals in the Lebanese emigre community) … and tasked with organising and conducting an election of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution with a subsequent referendum".

There are two observations that can be made with certainty. In the first place, there is no doubt that Lebanon‘s sectarian leaders will reject such a radical proposal, as will Hezbollah, since it threatens their power and sources of wealth. But, as we have seen in the past, relying on these leaders and groups to find a way out of the mess they have created is a non-starter. A radical proposal to save Lebanon may be the only way forward.

Second, based on our three decades of polling in Lebanon, we know that substantial majorities of Lebanese, across all regions and religious groups, have little confidence in the traditional sectarian parties and leaders and, more importantly, want to rewrite the constitution to provide for one-man/one-vote representative elections. We saw a manifestation of this during the October 2019 uprising, in which more than 1 million Lebanese took to the streets demanding that all of the old guard elites go.

The key to Mr Nader’s proposal for saving Lebanon is the empowerment of two groups of Lebanese who up until now have been forced to sit on the sidelines while watching a country they love dying a slow death – haemorrhaging its people, wealth and hope. The proposal provides the opportunity for Lebanese civil society to petition the UN and then vote on a referendum to write a new constitution. And by engaging the Lebanese emigre community in the Transitional Authority, the proposal invests this extraordinarily successful group of Lebanese by inviting them to help reform and rebuild the institutions of the country.

Even with such broad public support, it will not be easy to upend entrenched interests, but as Mr Nader demonstrated in the last century, neither was fighting major US corporations, banks and political lobbies. What he proposes for Lebanon is a path that should be seriously discussed to spur a far-reaching debate about what it will take to save the country.

Some may dismiss this proposal as radical. But because Lebanon is worth saving, radical ideas, as improbable as they may seem, demand to be tried, if only because all other options have failed.

Published: January 12, 2023, 7:00 AM