Christina Foerch Saab studies politics and Spanish and moved in 2000 from Berlin to Beirut. She is a fimmaker, journalist, advisor for NGOs and Head of Programmes at Fighters for Peace.
Ziad Saab is President of the Lebanese organisation "Fighters for Peace" and a former combattant of the Lebanese Civil War.
ifa: In your opinion, what are the requirements for reforms in the country?
Ziad Saab: Lebanon has a system based on sectarianism. This kind of regime cost Lebanon the lives of 150,000 persons during the civil war. The war was ended with the Ta’if Agreement in 1990 but this agreement was never fully implemented. The Ta’if Agreement had identified certain steps that need to be taken to make a true transformation from war to post war to ultimately building a modern nation state. These steps, as stated in the Agreement, included a national committee to abolish sectarianism, a Senate with representatives of the different religions, a non-sectarian election law, and a decentralized administration.
During the transition period, the former war lords were included in the political decision-making process and became key political leaders. This involvement was supposed to be transitory but it is in place until today, 30 years after the war ended. One of the key demands of the protestors during the 2019 uprising was to fully implement the Ta’if Agreement, which would transcend the sectarian system and create a modern nation state with a civil constitution. Why to create something new? The Ta’if Agreement already exists and we should pressure the authorities to implement it.
ifa: Who are the key actors?
Saab: First of all civil society, especially the activists from the 2019 uprising, because they are the ones to fight for reforms, and as I already mentioned, one of the central demands of the protestors was to implement the Ta’if Agreement. Other key actors would be progressive religious figures, some representatives of independent trade unions, (young) progressive representatives of the traditional parties – they should all form an alliance and lobby for the full implementation of the Ta´if Accord. Such efforts could be supported by international organisations such as the UN and the EU. However, Lebanon can never be seen isolated from interests of bigger powers such as Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Russia and Europe. Lebanon has always been part of the international powers seeking hegemony in the Middle East….
Christina Foerch: … and this is why it would be important to integrate existing militias and their weapons into the regular Lebanese Army and into a national defense strategy. Also, it would be important to find a way to either collect or legalize all small arms and light weapons existing in private households…
Saab: … which is something not part of the Ta’if Agreement.
ifa: What support do these actors need?
Foerch: The protest movement was very powerful in terms of mobilizing a large part of the Lebanese population. What seems to be missing is a representation of the movement and an overarching, powerful narrative and vision for a future Lebanon. Maybe a mapping of the protest movement with its different actors and different perceptions of a future Lebanon could be a first step. Then, once a representation of actors and their corresponding vision is identified, they could be brought together in the form of citizen councils. In those citizen councils, the representatives should come up with a shared narrative which should be powerful and convincing for the majority of the Lebanese, and with a clear vision of a future Lebanon. The demand for the full implementation of the Ta’if Agreement should form part of such an overarching narrative. This representation could also be the basis to form a genuine opposition, which then could be part of the next elections.
"We cannot underestimate the role civil society has played over the last decades"
Saab: We cannot underestimate the role civil society has played over the last decades to prepare the ground for such mass protests which took place in 2019 – in a peaceful way - and in influencing peoples’ perceptions of their rights and their demands for transitional justice processes in Lebanon in order to properly deal with the legacy of the civil war, demands for a modern, democratic state with transparent and functioning institutions and with leaders who can be held accountable. These efforts by civil society need to be supported in the long run. Reforms and system change are long processes and therefore the change makers need long-term support. We should start with some smaller reforms. For example, Lebanon would need a reform for the constitution of political parties – they should be non-sectarian. Sectarian parties ultimately lead to the creation of militias.
Foerch: One crucial question which also arises with all the immense corruption that has occurred would be how to handle urgently needed donor money when the authorities can’t be trusted? These funds should be allocated with the active participation of citizens, again, for example, through citizens councils. Another way could be to make partnerships on a municipality level between municipalities of the donor country and the municipality of the recipient country, with a close cooperation and supervision of funds. And last, but not least, the international community should do all they can do to support the Lebanese people to get their life savings back – money that needs to be brought back to their rightful owners. Why not freeze and seize offshore accounts ? Returning the life savings to the Lebanese people would restore some hope and some trust, showing that there’s a way forward.
ifa: Which scenarios are realistic? What are the hopes, risks and doubts?
Saab: No one can foresee the future right now in this volatile situation. More protests could be possible, armed conflicts could be possible, paralysis could be possible. One reason why it is wise to stick to the Ta’if Agreement is that it is a framework the war leaders had agreed upon. Any other new profound system change could imply new conflicts.
Foerch: I wish I could be more hopeful, but with the multiple crisis that hit Lebanon all at once, most Lebanese have lost hope and are currently in a state of paralysis and depression. The assassination of Lokman Slim, who was an intellectual, a publisher, a key figure of Lebanese civil society and a friend shows that the spaces for dissent, freedom of speech and expression as well as for civil disobedience are rapidly decreasing because persons like Lokman challenged those in power. Additionally to this horrific event, the increasing brain drain of young, qualified Lebanese, including those who were very active during the mass protests in 2019, is very demoralizing and I see it as part of the destruction of Lebanon’s social fabric.
Saab: And there is the danger that crimes like Lokman’s assassination will go unpunished. So many other political murders before his assassination ended up in impunity. There is an urgent need of accountability and justice in our country, and these needs have never been met since the end of the civil war.
"Without transitional justice, the country will not move forward."
Foerch: Many civil society organizations, including Fighters for Peace, have been lobbying for a transitional justice process in post-war Lebanon in order to deal with the legacy of the civil war as well as with the crimes that occurred more recently. This has never happened. Without transitional justice, the country will not move forward.
ifa: What is the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon?
Foerch: The situation of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon remains dire. Most live under the poverty line and solely depend on aid from international organizations. Some refugee children and youth are involved in formal or informal schooling. Most Syrian refugees are employed on an informal and irregular basis or have no employment at all. COVID-19 has made schooling and work almost impossible for the impoverished refugee population.
ifa: Are there conflicts between Syrian refugees and the locals?
Foerch: Yes, there are sporadic conflicts between the Syrian refugees and locals. Some weeks ago, there was such a conflict and locals burned a refugee camp. With Lebanon undergoing a severe economic crisis, and with Syrians pushing into the already very restricted labor market, there are conflicts between the refugees and the locals. Especially with the rapid financial and economic decline in 2020, which plunged over 50 percent of the Lebanese population into poverty, there is now also a “competition” for assistance between the Syrian refugees and the (newly) impoverished Lebanese population for basic needs assistance and this is a source for conflict. Also, a tiny minority of the Syrian refugee population turned towards violent extremism and suicide bombings occurred in various regions in Lebanon.
ifa: How are Syrian refugees being integrated?
Saab: From my point of view, there is no will from the authorities to actively integrate the Syrian refugees into Lebanese society for the sake of maintaining the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon.
Foerch: Of course, there are also Syrians from the middle and upper class living in the big cities. Many of them have businesses or found work and actively contribute to society. They are well integrated.