On October 20, 2010, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion at the Diplomatic Club with Rami Khouri, director of the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and editor-at-large of The Daily Star. The talk dealt with the political turmoil facing Lebanon, as the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon prepares its indictments on the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. The event, which was followed by a lively question and answer session, was moderated by Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, and was attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic, and media communities.
Khouri began his discussion by addressing the tribunal, explaining that it has set off “political fireworks” in Lebanon and may force the country to confront a number of latent political issues. In Khouri’s eyes, the challenges Lebanon faces are “a reflection of trends throughout the region.” The crisis in Lebanon mirrors a new configuration of power emerging across the Middle East. He delineated “three and a half” main arbiters of power in the region: the monarchy, representing political authority, the mosque, representing religious, cultural, and tribal identities, and the market, representing economic forces, as well as the media. These factors, which operate locally and on the regional level, are all evolving at the same time. In Khouri’s view, “Lebanon is the best microcosm we have of all the forces at play.” Khouri sees in the current Lebanese crisis “extraordinary dynamism,” which could prove to be productive or destructive depending on how it is handled.
Khouri also outlined five underlying issues at play in both Lebanon and the broader region. First, countries are facing the question of implementation and organization of constitutional power-sharing agreements. Second, the issue of identity is being confronted on the individual, collective, national, and transnational levels. Third, relations between Arab and non-Arab governments are being affected by three main non-Arab players: Israel, Iran, and the United States with its Western allies. Fourth, governments are seeking to maintain stability and sustainable socio-economic development. Fifth, the question of the relationship between the citizen and the state, particularly the role of the rule of law, has grown in importance.
These five challenges represent great hurdles or extraordinary opportunities, or both. Indeed, Khouri noted that the current turbulence may be an indication that the people, institutions, and governments of the Arab world are seriously grappling with the issues of identity, sovereignty, legitimacy, statehood, and human dignity for the first time since the 1930s. Furthermore, with the waning of American influence, we are seeing “for the first time in Arab history… a certain balance of power that is heavily indigenous.” Actors are being forced to devise local solutions, reflecting what Khouri dubbed “the birth of Arab politics.” This renewal can be seen most clearly in open states such as Lebanon but is also evident in countries like Egypt. With that in mind, Khouri argued that the region may very well be at a crossroads: “In most places, countries are in a position to make a transition from a legacy of authoritarianism to a more pluralistic mechanism.”
In his concluding remarks, Khouri returned to the subject of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s forthcoming indictments, calling it a “moment of reckoning,” as well as a an opportunity for Lebanon and other Arab countries to prove their ability to address issues of sovereignty, legitimacy, and governance. He also views the tribunal as an indicator of the likelihood of a resolution to the three great conflicts in the region: Arab-Israeli, Iranian-Arab, and Middle East-United States. In Khouri’s view, then, this is a “crucial moment,” at which the Lebanese will choose either the relative stability of the status quo or justice that may lead to political change but possibly at the cost of renewed civil conflict. He added that “nobody knows” which way the country will go.
Following Khouri’s presentation, the question and answer session covered a range of issues, including the effect of political instability in Lebanon on the situation in Iraq, its possible impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the role of outside powers in Lebanon and the region. Moderator Salman Shaikh asked about Syria’s role in the region in the context of America’s waning influence and the emergence of new powers. Khouri answered that Syria is “the most important political actor in the Middle East right now,” as it is the only nation linked to every conflict and major player in the region. In fact, Khouri dubbed Syria, along with Iran and Turkey, examples of a new phenomenon. They are all predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern countries which are resistant to the status quo and willing to confront the West, which is uncertain about how to handle these new types of states. The key, Khouri explained, is not to look at Syria vis-à-vis its relationship with Lebanon, but rather as a “master of political engagement in the region.”
One audience member asked how much influence the Special Tribunal’s findings would have on the situation in Lebanon, as the court does not have the ability to make arrests. Khouri responded that the tribunal represents political consensus in the Security Council and was supported unanimously. However, despite strong international support, the tribunal may not have immediate on-the-ground effect; after all, the indicted Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir still sits in power.
Another audience member asked whether the involvement of external actors would decrease only when the Lebanese domestic situation stabilizes and internal forces are united. Khouri explained that Lebanon has sought outside support since the 1870s. Therefore, issues of statehood, legitimacy, and sovereignty have never been fully defined. There is no concrete view on what the relationship is or should be between citizen and state. These issues are only being grappled with now, thus signaling that the coming period will be a critical and perhaps unprecedented one for Lebanon and the rest of the region.