Fair Trade Lebanon Has a Banner Year Developing Local Communities through Jobs and Business Development

In the past few years, it has been instructive to see the achievements of Fair Trade Lebanon (FTL), an organization dedicated to empowering rural communities and women’s organizations through economic development. At a time when a great deal of attention is focused on megaprojects to advance Lebanon’s economy, FTL works at the local level to change how people build their futures. Given the well-known attraction of Lebanese food products both at home and abroad, FTL came up with the idea of encouraging local cooperatives and farmers to produce food items for local consumption and export with a fair trade certification. Initially directed at the overseas Lebanese, FTL now exports to over a dozen markets.

I caught up with Philippe Adaime, FTL’s CEO on a recent trip to Washington, DC and asked him to give ATFL a report on their progress in 2017. Here is his report.

2017 has been an extraordinary year for Fair Trade Lebanon. Proud of its 12 years of community engagement, the Lebanese non-profit organization is on the path to move forward from “good to great.”

In a country with regionally displaced populations of refugees, facing socio-economic pressures, and increases in unemployment and political instability, Fair Trade Lebanon (FTL) has been able to implement and manage 7 important projects in 2017 and impacted 2,500 jobs. These projects benefit first the host communities and farmers who are the backbone of the rural areas, and includes efforts to help refugees deal with their uncertain future by generating employment opportunities and the seeds for business development.

In 2017, FTL supported 35 women cooperatives and group of farmers to improve their production in order to access local and international markets. In fact, 19 cooperatives received 40 pieces of new equipment and supplies that benefitted more than 540 people. In addition, 1,000 men and women benefited from a MEPI-funded project (A US foreign assistance program) – a number that doubled in 18 months of activities – through the organization of 187 training sessions to support cooperatives and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in improving their production. As a result, cooperatives and SMEs within the FTL network saw their sales increase by up to 40%, which affected 500 new jobs among 20 business units.

Furthermore, this improvement in production and increase of sales led to an addition of 15 new points of sales in Lebanon and 2 new importers. Currently, 35% of FTL’s producers’ production is meant for export; 13 units are certified organic, and 4 obtained the FLOCERT certification, which indicates that they have met international standards for fair trade.

Regarding refugees in Lebanon, FTL supported 900 vulnerable women from host and refugee communities through specific food processing training (preserves, catering, saj), and insured that 55% were Lebanese and 45% Syrian. FTL organized 390 training sessions related to food processing, hygiene, marketing, pricing, and event management. Importantly, 12% of these beneficiaries were youth.

FTL linked 300 Lebanese and Syrian to the private sector by enrolling them in a 2-months internship program where 12% where able to find a decent job. In 2017, FTL intensified its work in Akkar with a group of 30 dedicated Lebanese and Syrian women who established a cooperative in Khreibet el Jundi, and their products can now be found in the well-known Topline supermarket in Halba.

FTL’s target in 2017 expanding its domestic network by organizing 33 awareness sessions in mainly schools and universities reaching 1,300 students. In order to revive and promote authentic Lebanese cooking practices, FTL developed the concept of “make your own saj” and adopted the “shop in shop” channel to get closer to consumers. This created 12 new jobs and revenue of 8,000 USD per month of selling saj.

Concurrently, FTL launched a media campaign all over Lebanon through offline and online platforms, which reached 3,000,000 people all over the country and 18,000 followers on Facebook. FTL took part in 22 events in Lebanon and abroad to promote fair trade practices and market the cooperatives’ products. FTL also attended the World Fair Trade Organization conference in India, where it strengthened strengthed its partnerships with fair trade actors from other countries.

Finally, 2017 was marked by two big events. First, FTL organized the World Fair Trade Day in Lebanon with 2,000 attendees, 45 products exhibited, and 15 live stations to cater friends and supporters. Secondly, in partnership with the Lebanese Embassy in Washington DC, FTL organized an event at the Embassy’s residence under the theme “Authentic Lebanese Culinary Products” where FTL presented its mission and the wide range of products from “Terroirs du Liban.” Over 400 guests attended this event, including 10 importers and 5 media representatives who were greatly impressed with the quality of “home-made” Lebanese products now available in the US.

With a fair and ambitious motto “from good to great,” FTL looks back at 2017 with a feeling of satisfaction and yet a feeling of thirst to grow and inspire everyone they come across. Follow this link to see where FTL works all over Lebanon and this link to see the many products available.

 

 

Russia Benefits from Lack of US Leadership in the Levant

One can argue that America’s absent leadership from the quagmire of Libya to the ongoing shame of civilian casualties in Syria, through to border tensions between Lebanon and Hezbollah and Syria, to the gradual erosion of Iraq’s sovereignty, is a strategic choice by the Trump Administration, in some ways mirroring the Obama posture of light-handed engagement in the region. When one throws in the downturn with Turkey, the weaknesses of our overtures with Egypt and the GCC, and the absence of depth of State Department experts dealing with this convulsive part of the world, then Trump’s genius may be that letting Russia get bogged down, as it did in Afghanistan, will in the long run be the winning hand…but don’t count on it.

The election this weekend in Russia is seen as potentially significant if there is low voter turnout, indicating to some the unhappiness with Russians with its overseas adventurism. Independent polling being what it is in Russia, we may never be able to analyze the election in depth, but it is quite clear that the Kremlin is concerned that its foreign policies seem reasonable and necessary to protecting the motherland.

As Al Monitor reported, “In the Syrian conflict, the tables have been turning quickly. The sense that things aren’t working out properly is strong in Moscow, with even staunch advocates of Russia’s Syria policies now wary and calling for policy updates. Moscow has been cautious not to take any radical steps before the March 18 election day to dodge possible risks. But Russia’s plans to amend its strategy are underway and will have been implemented once Putin receives his fourth-term mandate.”

What this means in Syria and beyond is not clear as the conflict there is a muddle of competing agendas among regional actors, militias, government forces, and assorted non-state actors seeking to move resolution of the war to their advantage. While some players, such as Russia and Iran, are quite clear about their goals, sway over the Assad government and large slices of the reconstruction pie, others, including Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon’s government, put security at the top of their lists.

It was only three weeks ago that, according to Real Clear Defense.com, that only a phone call from Russian President Putin to Prime Minister Netanyahu prevented a large-scale Israeli engagement with both Syrian and foreign forces as a “lesson” about Israel’s resolve. In reality, it mirrored the long-standing US role in cautioning Israel to stand down, now it is Russia that “has the ability to limit Israeli freedom of action.”

The article went on to say that “At a minimum, without strong American leadership to deal with the Iranian threat in Syria, Israel must stomach the presence of Russia as a major power. Indeed, Russia offers little help in solving the Israeli security dilemma. After all, Russia’s involvement in Syria enabled the Iranian expansion that presently undermines Israel’s security.”

It is troublesome that Russia has generated its own arms race in Syria, going beyond what Hezbollah has amassed from Iran in Lebanon, including advanced surface-to-air missile systems and stealth aircraft. This last engagement made it clear that Israel must think twice before continuing its overflights over Syrian territory. As the article indicates, it is even more worrisome that “Russia has only a marginal interest in limiting Iranian expansion along the Golan, as evidenced by multiple violations and Iranian abuses under Russia’s watch.” Thus while Israel continues to rattle its sabers at Hezbollah in Lebanon, the country with the most to benefit, Iran, continues to collaborate with Russia when its interests are at stake. As the article ruefully concludes, “American cannot cede its leadership role to Russia, particularly while Moscow continues its partnership with Iran.”

With America’s eyes now focused on North Korea, and with the dearth of expertise at the State Department and conflicting signals from the Department of Defense and National Security Council, there does not seem to be any hope of righting the US position any time soon.

So in some ways, if the US was as agile as Russia in influencing elections through social media, there would have been some opportunities for mischief despite the overwhelming odds of Putin’s reelection. As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy opined, “While Putin is assured a victory, the Kremlin appears concerned about its longer-term political future, leading it to rely more on military mobilization and anti-Westernism to bolster its domestic legitimacy and slide back to its authoritarian past. This means the Middle East will likely remain an arena for competing with the West and expanding Russian influence.”

Much like President Bush 43 pulled out a victory in the 2010 mid-term elections by calling up fears of impending foreign policy crises, Putin has adopted this strategy to overcome “a deteriorating economy, growing poverty, and little government interest in development…” Despite its weak economic health, Russia, like Iran, expects to be well compensated for its Syrian adventures, and has extended its reach as the dynamic outlier to Turkey and Iran as well.

It is no wonder that almost every Arab head of state has made the pilgrimage to Moscow in the last two years, giving Putin the leverage to keep US interests out of the region. As the article concludes, “Following the election, Moscow will likely treat the Middle East even more as a privileged sphere of influence similar to the post-Soviet space, with an increasingly aggressive, expansionist, and anti-Western posture all but assured.”

Yet Russia lacks control over its convenient “friends” Turkey and Iran that have their own interests that for hundreds of years have resisted Russian encroachment. One possible liability from this strategy is the lack of control that Russia has over the non-state actors, aside from its own, one the fighting in Syria is in remission. “Senior US officials believe that up to 80 percent of the Syrian army is made up of foreign fighters, many of whom are loyal to international forces, including Hezbollah and other Shiite militias with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU),” according to the Middle East Institute.

There are no straight lines given the proliferation of arms, agendas, and alliances of convenience. As David French noted in the National Review, “It’s imperative that the American people understand the risks, understand the administration’s vision, and approach these potential confrontations with their eyes wide open. We should not stumble into war.”

Rome Donors Conference Supports ISF and LAF Security Efforts, Emphasize Importance of Dissociation

 Some 40 countries gathered in Rome last week to hear details of the updated Capabilities Development Plan of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the first-ever strategic plan for the Internal Security Forces (ISF). The key question from the donors was about the government’s intention to take a more active role in extending its security activities to the south, adjacent to the border with Israel.

It is clear to Western governments that significant levels of assistance are required to support Lebanon’s military and security forces and its financial sector to stall and reduce the growing influence of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed military and political force in the country. In addition, it was expected that Lebanon would reiterate its dissociation policy to avoid entanglements in regional disputes and conflicts to preserve its independence and territorial integrity.

The US has been the leading donor, providing some $1.5 billion in materiel, equipment, ammunition, and training over the past decade, most recently another $120 million for border security and counterterrorism operations this past December.

The delegation, led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri along with cabinet ministers and military leaders, sought to renew and strengthen ties with foreign governments that according to the Wall Street Journal, “want to counterbalance the growing Iranian presence in the country.

The donor side was led by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and European Union foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini. Both were quite explicit in their support for Lebanon and their expectations. In his opening remarks, the Secretary General said that “Preserving the stability and unity of Lebanon is essential for Lebanon, the region, and the world.”

He went on to say that while “Lebanon is headed in the right direction,” that the government has broader responsibilities. “Stability requires a transparent, accountable, and democratic state, rooted in the rule of law and strong and functional institutions,” he emphasized, urging all to remain strongly and visibly committed to stability in Lebanon – “for the sake of the Lebanese people and for the wider peace that is so essential at this time.”

He also mentioned the importance of the dissociation policy, “At a time of upheaval across the region, Lebanon cannot afford to be drawn into conflict with its neighbors,” he added, underscoring that countries in the region should work to avoid any steps that could lead to misunderstanding, confrontation, or escalation.

He concluded that “To support the Lebanese unity and stability is to support the stability in the whole region and to contribute to diminish the dramatic stress in relation to peace that we are facing today in the world.”

In a joint statement, conference participants said Lebanon should “accelerate effective and durable deployments to the South.” Prime Minister Hariri assured the donors that “We will be sending more LAF troops to the south, and we stress our intention to deploy another regiment,” adding that Israel “remains the primary threat to Lebanon.” While we are thinking of ways to move from a state of cessation of hostilities to a state of permanent ceasefire, Israel continues to make plans to build walls on reservation areas along the blue line,” Hariri said.

The European Union pledged $61.6 million to Lebanon’s security forces, and France is providing a $400 million credit facility for military and security equipment purchases, while the UK pledged an additional $13 million. This package includes $57 million for promoting the rule of law, enhancing security and countering terrorism until 2020, and another $5 million in support of security upgrades and Beirut International Airport.

When Federica Mogherini made the announcement during the Rome meeting, she said that “Lebanon can count on the European Union’s longstanding partnership in facing its current challenges, from humanitarian aid to development cooperation, but also on economy and security. With this new package, the EU reconfirms its support to the Lebanese security sector and the strengthening of Lebanon’s institutions, which are crucial to ensure the stability, security and unity of the country, for the benefit of the Lebanese people and of the entire region.”

The US continues to see Lebanon as a bulwark against the push of extremists in the region, and is strongly committed to Lebanon’s security and capability. While Hezbollah’s role in the country continues to enrage some members of Congress and other pro-Israel partisans in the policy community, the fact remains that without Lebanon and similarly Jordan, the aggravated tensions caused by the Syrian civil war and the resulting refugee crisis would have caused even greater issues of immigration and terrorism in Europe and the US.

The next stop for Lebanon is Paris in April, where Lebanese officials are expected to seek $17 billion in economic support in soft loans to invest in infrastructure and development. Given the expected passage of the national budget this week, despite political infighting that has paralyzed economic decision making, Lebanon can ill afford to stall. At 148%, Lebanon’s debt-to-GDP ratio is the third-highest in the world, with annual growth projected at around 2% for 2018, not nearly enough to provide even half of the jobs needed by the Lebanese, let alone the refugee populations.

At a conference in Paris in April, Lebanese officials are expected to seek $17 billion in economic support for Beirut, likely in the form of soft loans to invest in infrastructure and development. The tiny Mediterranean nation has been reeling from an influx of Syrian war refugees, while political infighting has paralyzed economic decision making. At 148%, Lebanon’s debt-to-GDP ratio is the third-highest in the world, with annual growth projected at around 2% for 2018.

Lebanon Needs to Pass 2018 Budget before Paris Donors Conference April 6

Not only is Lebanon’s fiscal health in question as Parliament struggles to pass a new budget, but it can ill-afford to show up at the international donors conference in Paris on April 6 without a strong case for how it will spend funds made available to Lebanon. There are three steps to be taken, starting with approval by the relevant committees, then agreement by the Cabinet and then Parliament. While the initial approvals were completed last week, there is plenty of time for mischief in the Cabinet and Parliament deliberations. Added to this is the challenge of being prepared for the donors conference later in April in Brussels dealing with support to countries hosting Syrian refugees.

The latest news is that the government is likely to approve the budget this week at the latest so that it can be presented, along with its Capital Investment Program at which Lebanon is requesting funding for a 10-year, $16+ billion capital investment program of reforms and incentives aimed at strengthening and accelerating economic growth. The donors summit is dubbed the Paris IV donors conference, which along with summits planned in Rome and Brussels, intend to rally support for building up Lebanon’s and attracting foreign investments to strengthen Lebanon’s economy battered by the consequences of the Syrian refugee crisis and regional unrest.

In a recent comment, the IMF noted that Lebanon’s deficit, already at 150% of GDP, was expected to increase another 10% under the 2018 budget projections, even with planned reforms. The projected deficit of $5.3 billion makes Lebanon one of the three most indebted countries in the world.

A recent statement by Prime Minister Hariri underscored the current negative situation. “It is no secret that the economic situation in Lebanon today is difficult and that we face big challenges. Growth rates are low, unemployment rates have exceeded 30 per cent, poverty rates are increasing, the balance of payments suffers a deficit, public debt is rising at a rapid rate and has exceeded $80 billion and the treasury deficit has reached unsustainable levels.”

Unfortunately, Lebanon’s power-sharing agreement among sectarian parties exacerbates the difficulty in reaching agreement on the budget and recommended reforms as each group seeks to maximize their benefits under the budget while avoiding reforms that would help stabilize the overall economy. Added to the dysfunctional process at the national level are issues such as the battle over who can provide Lebanon with reliable power, when some communities have only 12 hours of electricity a day. Generator owners, tied to different factions, continually block legislation that would allow solar power incentives to help close the gap.

In many ways, the goals of the donors conferences are all interrelated. For example, in 2017, Lebanon spent $10 billion of its funds addressing the Syrian refugee situation in the country, a sum not reimbursed by the donors. According to a report by the Carnegie Endowment, “Lebanon’s national response plan—a joint initiative with the UN to address Lebanon’s challenges related to the Syrian conflict—only received 54 percent of pledged funding in 2015, down to 46 percent in 2016, and 43 percent in 2017.” Some of this, Lebanese officials admit, is due to its lack of organization regarding services to the refugees and supporting local host communities.

So the debate on the national budget carries enormous fiscal consequences beyond allocations for the government, its programs, and its broader responsibilities to the refugees, and regional security. It is an opportunity for Lebanon’s leaders and Parliament to adopt a reform agenda add hopefully make a dent in a system that depends on arguments over assigning benefits by sect rather than the national good.

Another Election in the Middle East – Why It Matters in Lebanon

 Lebanon is bracing for its first parliamentary election since 2009, having extended its term twice since the in the absence of the security and consensus needed to proceed. While no one expects a shake-up in the results based on a new electoral law that may enable newcomers to win several seats, there are strong currents building that may alter future “election results as usual” predictions.

Currently, the Amal-Hezbollah-Free Patriotic Movement is considered the front-runner to secure the largest number of seats, not a majority, but more than enough to have its veto over any Parliamentary actions. But there are cracks in that alliance as well as the new electoral format does not assure them of all of the seats in districts in which they may have a majority of the population. In some districts, the outcomes will depend on real contests among candidates appealing to voters directly rather than through pre-ordained party lists.

Other variables that will influence the results will be the level of voter enthusiasm for Hezbollah’s continued foreign adventures on behalf of Iran, pressures to include more women candidates, participation by Lebanon’s millennial and independents, and pressure from regional actors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

As an article in Lawfareblog recently pointed out, “It is not yet clear how much or how little the new law will affect Lebanon’s elections—a robust debate is already underway. Neither is it clear how the foreign powers aligned with various Lebanese political actors will react to significant shifts in Beirut.  What is clear is that the new electoral law—which many Lebanese welcomed enthusiastically—might disrupt almost 9 years of status quo.”

The specter of a war with Israel, as a result of overreach by Hezbollah or Israel also plays on the minds of voters. From Hezbollah’s continued role as a surrogate for Iran in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere to flare-ups due to miscalculations or probing of Israel’s defenses by Iranian-backed forces along the Syria-Israel border, the majority of Lebanese remember all too well the price they paid for Hezbollah’s adventurism in 2006.

Let the Women Speak

Lebanon is one of the few Arab countries that has not made a concerted effort to ensure greater participation of women in Parliament through mandatory allocations of seats or requiring parties to field women candidates.

As Annaharnet wrote recently, “Despite a comparatively free press, different religious groups, and women in high-ranking positions in the corporate world and the job market, Lebanon ranks shockingly low when it comes to female representation in politics, and politicians have been unsuccessful in acting on a movement to establish a quota for women in parliament.”

When Lebanon’s new government was announced in December 2016, it was criticized for its lack of women members. Even the Minister of State for Women’s Affairs is a man, Jean Oghassabian, such is the reality of balancing the sectarian membership of the government. Yet the Minister has been active in moving forward with promoting the participation of women at all levels of government. “Keeping women from public life is not only a loss for women. It is a loss for the parliament,” he said. In cooperation with the UN and EU, his ministry is working to bring more women into the election process.

On the other end of the spectrum is Rima Fakhry, a senior member of the political bureau of Hezbollah, who told AP in an interview that “the women’s movement considers that women should reach decision-making positions; for them, it is in parliament. We differ with those movements. Hezbollah doesn’t see the role of a lawmaker suitable for a woman in Lebanon. For us, a woman is a woman. She must work to fulfill the main goals she exists for. These are not different from those of men. But the difference lies in the details. She has a home. She is a mother and must bring up future generations. This takes a lot of the woman’s time.”

Hearing from the Outliers

Among various independent groups and coalitions that are maneuvering to join the election process are those who believe that transparency, an end of nepotism, and a greater emphasis on rule of law, providing services such as waste management, clean water, quality education, and respect for human rights are essential. Politics as usual in Lebanon avoids talking about issues except in very general terms. The lack of political platforms from legacy candidates representing the existing power structure may create vulnerabilities in some districts.

As one analyst remarked, “Elections in Lebanon are not based on a clear scientific, ideological, and political track, as much as being founded on the absence of real awareness, which justifies why several candidates disregard presenting their electoral programs and plans, based on which they will be later held accountable.”

Another electoral expert Abdo Saad asserted that “No candidate or political party has ever presented a political program while running for elections in Lebanon because voters do not hold those candidates accountable for their actions, but rather base their judgments on political and religious dependence.”

As with the US electoral map where literally less than 10% of seats not held by incumbents are real contests, the majority of seats will go to party surrogates whose victories will result from affiliations rather than policies. This has not dimmed the enthusiasm of those activists who believe that time in on their side as Lebanon is caught in regional cross-winds that make its role as a multicultural, multi-sectarian, independent, and tolerant country even more critical.

So you Ask, Will there be a War in Lebanon?

Going through dozens of articles over the past month on this issue has convinced me that the prospects for war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in the next six months vary somewhere between 20 and 80%! Not very helpful, I know, which means that there is even a greater need to monitor communications and actions to avoid triggering a miscalculation leading to a conflict. As recently as this week, at least six articles have appeared in journals and media listing the tripwires.

Take Mara Karlin, of Johns Hopkins SAIS, writing in Foreign Affairs that “Another war between Israel and Hezbollah is almost inevitable. Although neither side wants a conflict now, the shifting balance of power in the Levant and shrinking areas of contestation are indicators of a looming showdown. The real questions are how and where—not if—the impending conflagration will occur.”

She goes on to enumerate the calamitous conditions in the region, from the casualties, displaced people, and refugees in Lebanon, the uncertainty surrounding next steps for those temporary allies aligned against ISIS, and the shifting regional balance of power that has a marginal role for the US and outsized Russian and Iranian influence. Karlin writes that “The resulting tensions are likely to bring Israel to the brink of a regional war even bigger than the last one in 2006, when it invaded southern Lebanon.

With ISIS defeated and anti-regime foreign fighters dispersing throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond, she believes that “the resulting shifts in focus will clarify the increasingly complex and dangerous relations between [Israel and Hezbollah]. Hezbollah has lost nearly 2,000 fighters in Syria, damaged its reputation through unfettered support for the regimes in Iran and Syria, and is rumored to face financial trouble. Despite all that, it remains popular with its core constituency, Lebanese Shiites.” This bodes poorly for Lebanon as Hezbollah, which Karlin predicts will win big in the upcoming parliamentary elections, will have even a strong chokehold on government policies.

She concludes however, that “Hezbollah’s and Israel’s long-term strategic goals are thus entirely at odds. Nevertheless, as of today, neither Hezbollah nor Israel wants to trigger a war. A deliberate escalation by Israel or Hezbollah is unlikely to occur in the near term; an inadvertent one, however, is possible, as is an escalation courtesy of other actors currently tearing up the Levant, such as Iran, the Assad regime, or Russia.”

Commenting on Hezbollah’s overwhelming political power in Lebanon, a NY Books article argues that “There is real anxiety about Hezbollah’s domination in Lebanon, and about Iran’s not very subtle aim of expanding Shia power from Tehran to Beirut.”

This theme is echoed in a Washington Institute for Near East Policy article in which the presence of senior Iranian military officials along Lebanon’s southern border sends two messages, one, “so long as Lebanon is kept stable, the group will be left alone to continue its takeover there.”  The other that “Hezbollah and Iran still needed to reaffirm that no one in Lebanon can stop the group from intervening wherever it likes.”

The article takes issue with the notion that the Lebanese official policy of dissociation, by which it commits to not be involved in external conflicts, has any impact on Hezbollah’s activities. “The cover provided by the dissociation policy may buy the group enough time to position itself for victory in the May 2018 parliamentary elections. With the new electoral law that Hariri’s government passed this summer, Hezbollah will probably manage to bring its allies into parliament and consolidate its power democratically. This in turn would allow it to choose the next prime minister and president, make top military and security appointments, and even change the constitution as it sees fit.”

If Lebanon is to survive as an independent entity, the article concludes “The international community should therefore buttress its talk of stability with a focus on reforming state institutions in order to protect Lebanon’s values of freedom and diversity. Perhaps more important, Hariri’s dissociation policy needs to be accompanied by more aggressive measures against Hezbollah and its regional operations, though that seems unlikely given his recent moves.”

Similar pessimism is to be found in the International Crisis Group report on the Syrian conflict. It notes that “’Rules of the game’ that contained Israeli-Hezbollah clashes for over a decade have eroded. New rules can be established in Syria by mutual agreement or by a deadly cycle of attack and response in which everyone will lose. A broader war could be one miscalculation away.”

There is an emerging consensus that the US has relinquished any leadership role in reducing tensions in the area despite the recent pronouncements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his recent trip to the area and the presence of US forces in Syria. Although the seeds for this lack of engagement were the official policy of the Obama Administration, it continues. An article in Al Monitor put it this way, “But despite US President Donald Trump’s sharp criticism of everything his predecessor did to diminish American deterrence in the region, the impression for now is that Washington is stronger in words than in deeds. Yet soon it will have to decide which direction it is going to take.”

CNN focused on Russian perceptions that a war would be disastrous to its objectives in the region as being seen as the power broker. “Russia has no desire to undermine three years of investment in saving the Assad regime, only to see Israel become involved militarily in Syria, which could weaken the Syrian regime and strengthen the United States’ hand against Iran. Iran isn’t looking for war with Israel either, as it could jeopardize its own gains in Syria.”

Sadly the consensus around the marginal role of the US is echoed in the Israeli press, which noted the weak American hand in dealing with the tit-for-tat fighting two weeks ago when the Israelis shot down an alleged Iranian drone in its airspace, bombed a control center in Syria, lost a plane to a Syrian missile, then severely damaged Syrian air defense positions, almost leading to the feared escalation.

A Haaretz article said that It is clear that a call from President Putin to Prime Minister Netanyahu kept tempers in check. “The quiet after the Netanyahu-Putin call shows once again who’s the real boss in the Middle East. While the United States remains the region’s present absentee – searches are continuing for a coherent American foreign policy – Russia is dictating the way things are going.”

For now, the border remains much the same as before although there is concern that the Syrian regime may overstep its restraints and attack the de-escalation zone close to the Jordan-Syria-Lebanon-Israel border. Since not even the Russians are sure what the Assad government will do, as shown by its violations of the so-called 30 days cease-fire announced by Russia, there are far too many agendas and personalities in play to expect that a coherent set of rules of engagement will evolve any time soon.

Another Election in the Middle East – Why It Matters in Lebanon

Lebanon is bracing for its first parliamentary election since 2009, having extended its term twice since the in the absence of the security and consensus needed to proceed. While no one expects a shake-up in the results based on a new electoral law that may enable newcomers to win several seats, there are strong currents building that may alter future “election results as usual” predictions.

Currently, the Amal-Hezbollah-Free Patriotic Movement is considered the front-runner to secure the largest number of seats, not a majority, but more than enough to have its veto over any Parliamentary actions. But there are cracks in that alliance as well as the new electoral format does not assure them of all of the seats in districts in which they may have a majority of the population. In some districts, the outcomes will depend on real contests among candidates appealing to voters directly rather than through pre-ordained party lists.

Other variables that will influence the results will be the level of voter enthusiasm for Hezbollah’s continued foreign adventures on behalf of Iran, pressures to include more women candidates, participation by Lebanon’s millennial and independents, and pressure from regional actors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

As an article in Lawfareblog recently pointed out, “It is not yet clear how much or how little the new law will affect Lebanon’s elections—a robust debate is already underway. Neither is it clear how the foreign powers aligned with various Lebanese political actors will react to significant shifts in Beirut.  What is clear is that the new electoral law—which many Lebanese welcomed enthusiastically—might disrupt almost 9 years of status quo.”

The specter of a war with Israel, as a result of overreach by Hezbollah or Israel also plays on the minds of voters. From Hezbollah’s continued role as a surrogate for Iran in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere to flare-ups due to miscalculations or probing of Israel’s defenses by Iranian-backed forces along the Syria-Israel border, the majority of Lebanese remember all too well the price they paid for Hezbollah’s adventurism in 2006.

Let the Women Speak

Lebanon is one of the few Arab countries that has not made a concerted effort to ensure greater participation of women in Parliament through mandatory allocations of seats or requiring parties to field women candidates.

As Annaharnet wrote recently, “Despite a comparatively free press, different religious groups, and women in high-ranking positions in the corporate world and the job market, Lebanon ranks shockingly low when it comes to female representation in politics, and politicians have been unsuccessful in acting on a movement to establish a quota for women in parliament.”

When Lebanon’s new government was announced in December 2016, it was criticized for its lack of women members. Even the Minister of State for Women’s Affairs is a man, Jean Oghassabian, such is the reality of balancing the sectarian membership of the government. Yet the Minister has been active in moving forward with promoting the participation of women at all levels of government. “Keeping women from public life is not only a loss for women. It is a loss for the parliament,” he said. In cooperation with the UN and EU, his ministry is working to bring more women into the election process.

On the other end of the spectrum is Rima Fakhry, a senior member of the political bureau of Hezbollah, who told AP in an interview that “the women’s movement considers that women should reach decision-making positions; for them, it is in parliament. We differ with those movements. Hezbollah doesn’t see the role of a lawmaker suitable for a woman in Lebanon. For us, a woman is a woman. She must work to fulfill the main goals she exists for. These are not different from those of men. But the difference lies in the details. She has a home. She is a mother and must bring up future generations. This takes a lot of the woman’s time.”

Hearing from the Outliers

Among various independent groups and coalitions that are maneuvering to join the election process are those who believe that transparency, an end of nepotism, and a greater emphasis on rule of law, providing services such as waste management, clean water, quality education, and respect for human rights are essential. Politics as usual in Lebanon avoids talking about issues except in very general terms. The lack of political platforms from legacy candidates representing the existing power structure may create vulnerabilities in some districts.

As one analyst remarked, “Elections in Lebanon are not based on a clear scientific, ideological, and political track, as much as being founded on the absence of real awareness, which justifies why several candidates disregard presenting their electoral programs and plans, based on which they will be later held accountable.”

Another electoral expert Abdo Saad asserted that “No candidate or political party has ever presented a political program while running for elections in Lebanon because voters do not hold those candidates accountable for their actions, but rather base their judgments on political and religious dependence.”

As with the US electoral map where literally less than 10% of seats not held by incumbents are real contests, the majority of seats will go to party surrogates whose victories will result from affiliations rather than policies. This has not dimmed the enthusiasm of those activists who believe that time in on their side as Lebanon is caught in regional cross-winds that make its role as a multicultural, multi-sectarian, independent, and tolerant country even more critical.

Secretary Tillerson Came to Lebanon, Spoke, and Left – What’s Better Now?


It has been an extraordinary week in the Middle East, a region that continues to defy normalcy. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson set out for the Middle East to bring some measure of calm to America’s bilateral relations with Egypt and Turkey, promote funding for Iraq’s reconstruction in Kuwait, and reassure Jordan and Lebanon that the US valued their survival. Against a background of continuing chatter about the lack of US leadership in the Middle East, a rather opaque foreign policy, except for US ties with Israel, and no inkling of what’s next, Secretary Tillerson was not accorded a hero’s welcome.

Regarding Lebanon, even a brief stopover had its complications. First of all, the Secretary spoke out about a maritime and land border dispute between Lebanon and Israel, cautioning both sides to use diplomacy to settle the issues. According to the US News, “The U.S. has been trying to mediate in the dispute, and Tillerson suggested Israel should stop building a border wall until the border between the two countries is agreed on.”

Of course Hezbollah did not escape his radar. Tillerson called its growing arsenal a threat to Lebanon’s security and said that it should cease its military activities in other countries to help draw down tensions in the region. “Hezbollah’s presence in Syria has only perpetuated the bloodshed, increased the displacement of innocent people and propped up the barbaric Assad regime,” Tillerson said, at the news conference with Lebanese PM Hariri, “a western ally whose coalition government includes the group,” the article added.

Hariri made it clear that Lebanon will uphold its position on the border issues. “What is ours is ours and what is Israel’s is Israel’s. We are trying to find solutions that will be fair to us and fair to everyone.” In this he echoed the Secretary’s position when Tillerson said, “Let’s get the border agreed first and then people can think about if they need a security wall or not at that point.”

During his visit, Tillerson reiterated US support for Lebanon’s government and the Lebanese armed forces, which is a major recipient of U.S. military assistance.

Annahar.com reported that “Discussions also touched on the recent introduction of legislation targeting Hezbollah’s financial network.” Lebanon’s President Aoun made it clear that Lebanon has been “abiding by regulations that restrict terrorist money laundering activities,” yet noted that some of these sanctions have hurt Lebanon’s economy, throwing off potential investors. He highlighted that the US reduction in aid to UNRWA from $264 million to $60 million will gravely affect Lebanon’s ability to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis.

“Aoun assured the Secretary of State that Lebanon is committed to its policy of dissociation, whereby the country refrains from involvement in regional conflicts, yet is “not responsible for any regional conflicts that might influence Lebanon, as this out of our control.” In his note in the visitors’ book, Secretary Tillerson said that the US will “stand with the Lebanese people for a free and democratic Lebanon,” while confirming the US’ “continued support for the Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces,” and the article added that the US “yet maintained that it considers both the political and military wing of Hezbollah as terrorist organizations.”

In meeting with Nabih Berri, the leader of the Shia bloc in Parliament and Speaker, Tillerson reaffirmed “the importance of the close US-Lebanese partnership as the “two countries work together to pursue common goals that advance Lebanon’s sovereignty, stability, and prosperity,” according to Naharnet.

So where is the US and what is its game plan?, were questions raised in several articles. For example, New York Magazine said that in the recent crises between Turkey and the US over its support for Kurdish fighters; Iran, Israel, and Syria over the recent cross-border military actions; and Lebanon and Israel’s borders, “Washington is pursuing its interests from the edges, rather than the center of the action.” The article gave several examples of Russia’s ascendant role in the region including its power broker role in Syria, influential relations with Turkey and Iran, and its continuing bromance with Israel.

“Washington has relatively few levers to affect what happens in Syria, not so much because of the limits of its military stance but because it has so little to offer on the diplomatic front. Not aid for rebuilding even post-ISIS Iraq, let alone any part of Syria. Not aid or placement for refugees. Not political leadership at peace talks. Not the ability to cut a deal with Russia or Iran, given the levels of domestic political rhetoric on both topics in Washington,” the article mentioned.

The Atlantic was equally critical of Washington’s lack of leadership while Russia is “a power broker in the Middle East, a spoiler in North Africa, and a partner (of sorts) in Asia, making it at least a global player if not a superpower.” It pointed out that “Russia is learning the lesson of so many imperial powers past: It’s much easier to get into a Middle Eastern conflict than to get out of one. For now, Putin has won his desired role as a geopolitical player. So far, he probably feels he’s winning in Syria. But the game is not over, and the costs are rising.”

Secretary Tillerson’s visit and words of support for Lebanon were welcome indeed, and as Edward Gabriel, President of the American Task Force for Lebanon, a leadership group of Lebanese-Americans who support strong US-Lebanon ties noted, “Without a comprehensive strategy for the region that commits the US to proactive policies that support our interests and our allies, the US risks its larger role of global leadership, a goal that can’t be attained without thoughtful and credible engagement.”

2018 Starts Off Much Like 2017 – Garbage, Mending Fences, and Syrian Refugees Top Agenda

An ill-wind brought trash to beaches north of Beirut that once was part of a landfill
near the town of Jiyyeh. A major storm washed the garbage out to sea and then
returned it to cover Zouq Mosbeh beach. Members of Parliament are crying foul and
condemning a system that has been broken for years, causing the 2015 garbage
crisis, and subsiding only with promises from the government that have yet to be
implemented. The waste management issue is still before the government and
perhaps this latest round of trash terror will bring about some sustainable results.

Aoun visit to the Gulf

President Michel Aoun made his first trip to the Gulf as the head of state, visiting
“brotherly” Kuwait, discussing economic support and cementing agreements on
several issues. According to various sources, President Aoun had very productive
meetings and was accompanied by Gebran Bassil, Jamal Jarrah, Ayman Choukair,
Inaya Ezzeddine, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, and Abdul-al Al-Qena’i, Lebanon’s
representative in Kuwait.

The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah announced that the Kuwait
Fund for Arab Economic Development would issue an aid package “in support of
Lebanon” aimed at enhancing the country’s economy. Kuwait’s support is key both
for Lebanon’s economic development and also dealing with the Syrian refugee
crisis.

Since PM Hariri’s resignation last year forced an earlier planned visit to be
postponed, Aoun’s visit is seen as important to rebuild Lebanon’s relationship with
Kuwait. The emirate has attempted its own “dissociation” policy on several regional
concerns such as Qatar and the Saudi Arabia-Lebanon tension around Hezbollah,
which it has accused of setting up a terror cell in Kuwait.

News reports mentioned that “The two leaders agreed on the need for a unified
Arab stance “in the face of Arab and regional developments because the unity of
Arabs is primary in this case.” Both Aoun and Sabah reiterated condemnation of the
recent US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Aoun also
lamented what he said was the United Nation’s inability to enforce its decisions.

Aoun asked Emir Al-Sabah to participate in the three upcoming conferences on
Lebanon in Rome, Paris, and Brussels to deal with refugees, security, and the
refugee situation in Lebanon. Kuwait’s emir believes his country’s current
membership of the UN Security Council “can help highlight the rightness of Arab
causes.”

Refugees

Refugees weathering a difficult winter with various press stories recounting
deaths due to freezing, limited or no adequate shelter from the snow and cold
temperatures, with worse weather expected in the Beqaa Valley and elsewhere.
Many refugees have gone through this before, some who fled to Lebanon as long as
six years ago.

Being better prepared carries its own drawback since the bulk of the housing
supplies goes to those who are most in need. Recently, a shipment of stoves
arrived from the UAE but with at least a million Syrian refugees in need, it’s a small
comfort for those who are not at the distribution sites.

With limited assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),
access to medical supplies and cash subsidies are also in short supply, going to the
most vulnerable. But the UNHCR is not slowing down its efforts. It distributed cash
assistance of between $225-375 to families totaling some 780,000 people in
November, although the program is not guaranteed to continue through the winter
months.

Working to Grow Lebanon’s Economy through Enabling Entrepreneurs

I recently wrote about the visit of Lebanese entrepreneurs to the US to learn more about how we support the growth of entrepreneurs on the local level. Many of them have met Tony Fadell, the Lebanese-American who is credited as co-creator of the I-Pod, I-Phone, and Nest, and believe that they can only benefit from more interactions with overseas Lebanese. One of the participants, Hani Mawlawi, provided me with information on a program that may be of interest to overseas Lebanese who want to provide concrete encouragement to young people working to advance Lebanon’s economic growth.

Lebanon Science and Technology Park (LSTP) provides support to entrepreneurs to transform their innovative ideas/R&D science or technology projects into successful businesses, creating more job opportunities, and promoting the country’s economic development. Although currently targeting the north of Lebanon, it has aspirations to take its work throughout the country. In order to do this, it is necessary to recruit international donors and specialized agencies as partners who can bring their experiences and resources in support of LSTP projects.

In orders to reach the minimal size and development to become a viable entity, entrepreneurs must rely on an entrepreneurship ecosystem that includes access to technology infrastructure, financing, mentoring, skilled human resources, business and market strategic planning, and testing, marketing, and distribution of the final product or service. In Lebanon, boosting and enabling this ecosystem has been a focus of a number of programs within universities, government agencies, and international donors.

LSTP is collaborating with the UK Lebanon Tech Hub (UKLTH) to make the ecosystem a reality. UKLTH is a joint initiative spearheaded by the Lebanese Central Bank (BDL) and the British Government with a mission of creating jobs and sustainable economic wealth in Lebanon. Since its inception, the UKLTH has supported 77 startups locally, helped 7 enter the UK market and scaled up 3 into the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regional market through Dubai. It is reported that 1257 jobs have been created in the process and the cohort startups are collectively valued at $206 million. Another competitive round to identify new candidates for the program has just closed and there are high expectations that the project will successfully continue to advance entrepreneurship in Lebanon.

At the current time, the UKLTH’s programs include:

  • The Nucleus: Early stage venture-building program focused on product development.

  • The International Research Centre (IRC): Funds and manages applied research projects between Lebanese universities/startups and international partners.

  • The Scale-Up Program: Aimed at internationalizing and expanding MENA based startups into global markets.

  •  GEM: The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor is the world’s foremost study of entrepreneurship that looks at the entrepreneurial behavior and attitudes of individuals alongside the national context and how it impacts entrepreneurship.

The UKLTH wants to hear from overseas Lebanese with an interest in promoting technologies and applications from Lebanon to the world. So if you’re a tech person or someone who markets and distributes technology devices and applications, contact them and see how together you can make a better world for Lebanese entrepreneurs!