A deteriorating economy, youth looking to emigrate, the prospect of settling Palestinians here, and calls for reforming domestic politics and ties with Syria a host of political and economic challenges that are largely interconnected.
For the National Bloc’s Antoine Qlimos, it is too early to judge the performance of a government facing such challenges, but defusing a dangerously high level of public frustration should be a top priority.
A leading lawyer who headed the Bar Association, Qlimos was elected late last month to the post of secretary-general of the National Bloc.
Qlimos pledged that after coordinating with the bloc’s leader, Carlos Edde, who has been out of the country, he would begin working to shore up the bloc as an institution and focus attention on youth, which was a special concern.
“The amount of emigration by so many people of 30 and younger is simply frightening,” he said. “Three-quarters of them are going in search of work opportunities, and one-quarter to complete their studies. The country’s existence is threatened by this phenomenon. It’s not a political or sectarian issue, but a socio-economic one: who is going to remain in Lebanon?”
Officials, he continued, would get nowhere by using “poetic” speeches to address the problem. “Invoking these slogans like ‘steadfastness,’ the ‘nation,’ and the ‘Cedars’ just won’t work.”
Qlimos cited the interconnection between the various challenges, stressing that relations with Syria and the status of negotiations with Israel loom large for Lebanon’s economy.
Opponents of settlement object to the fact that the approximately 360,000 Palestinians who might gain citizenship are overwhelmingly Sunnis, which would mean tipping the country’s sectarian balance even further toward Muslims.
But think in terms of economy, not sectarian balance, Qlimos argued. “Settling more than 300,000 Palestinians here is a frightening prospect in the economic, not the demographic sense. The impact of such a move on our economy would be tremendous.”
Another regional concern involves relations with Syria and their economic impact, Qlimos said, citing the latest danger sign an angry protest by farmers in Akkar at the beginning of last week.
“The relationship with Syria has an adverse effect on the economy. Farmers in Akkar are angry about cheap foreign competition and smuggling; the situation is similar in the Bekaa.
“Are these brotherly, privileged relations between Lebanon and Syria?”
Various aspects of Syria’s role in Lebanon, Qlimos said, required addressing. “Syria’s military presence is not strategic … it gives the impression that the security situation here isn’t stable. This, in turn, impacts foreign investment and the economy.” In his view, the government has no choice but to press ahead with meaningful political reform and “dialogue.”
He took exception to Speaker Nabih Berri’s recent claim that Parliament was the proper place to launch political dialogue aimed at boosting national reconciliation. “Dialogue can begin there, but it’s not the only place.
After years of boycotting parliamentary elections under Raymond Edde’s leadership, the National Bloc now counts three allies in Parliament Fouad Saad, Abdullah Farhat, and Salah Honein, all members of Walid Jumblatt’s parliamentary bloc.
But Qlimos indicated that Parliament as an institution left much to be desired when it comes to solving thorny national political problems. “Parliamentary performance is deficient, especially in terms of the loyalist versus opposition dynamic.”
Qlimos indicated that the lack of representative, well-defined, and disciplined loyalist and opposition camps meant that a broad consensus was the only way to solve problems. “It has to be democratic we’re not talking about a consensus among those on top.”
“On the Christian side, you obviously must have the Lebanese Forces and the Aounists involved in dialogue, not to mention others. But there are problems, since the Phalange Party itself, for example, is divided into at least five factions.
“Also, Rafik Hariri can’t monopolize the Sunnis, for example, when it comes to dialogue. In the end, we know who the important players are. What we need to do is get rid of all these political ‘storefronts’ that mushroomed following the end of the war,” he said, referring to the smaller, younger parties that split from other groups.
While awaiting a serious launch of dialogue, Qlimos said that the Bloc would carry on with a policy of standing up for its principles.
“We’ve behaved responsibly and maintain a single stand. With some politicians these days, you have to telephone them and speak with them privately to find out what their real position is on a given issue.”
Although economic recovery, better ties with Syria, and national dialogue leading to political reform have yet to see progress during Hariri’s fourth Cabinet, Qlimos said it was too early to make judgments.
“We’re waiting for the economic measures to have a big impact. It’s still too early, although we expect the open skies policy and the customs duties reductions to eventually produce an impact. We want to see dialogue not in the sense of a conference, but in the sense of daily discussion about issues, rationally and publicly. But what we don’t want is public bickering by politicians.”
Several months ago, the call by Maronite Bishops for Syria to withdraw its troops and general unhappiness with “political” detentions and arrests here were dominating headlines.
Although progress on political reform since has been slow, Qlimos contended that there have been improvements.
“Well, the number of arrests has gone down. In general, an atmosphere that ‘nothing is taboo’ has arisen in the last few months. People now realize that things can’t be covered up anymore. Is it a kind of temporary embarrassment (by the security bodies), or is it something final? I hope it’s the latter.”