At the time, it seemed the most at stake was the direction of the country’s economic policy. A Lahoud mandate extension would represent a significant victory for the Damascus-backed president in his long-running battle with his prime minister. Lahoud’s opposition had already left in tatters Rafiq Hariri’s plan to reform the economy by slashing public spending and implementing a sweeping privatisation programme. The populist Lahoud, by contrast, advocated the protection of local jobs.
In September, Damascus successfully engineered a parliamentary vote granting Lahoud a three-year mandate extension. The decision launched a chain reaction of political shocks that has turned Lebanese politics on its head.
The vote triggered UN resolution 1559, which effectively demanded that Syria end its 15-year military presence in Lebanon. One of the prime movers behind the resolution was Rafiq Hariri. The assassination of Hariri in February led to a wave of anti-Damascus demonstrations in Beirut, which in turn preceded the withdrawal in April of Syrian troops. A month later, the Future Movement, an anti-Syrian alliance led by Saad Hariri, son of the former prime minister, swept to power in parliamentary elections. The ‘Cedar Revolution’ reached its zenith in late June, when former finance minister Fouad Siniora, one of Rafiq Hariri’s closest allies, was appointed prime minister.
The wheel has turned full circle. Siniora is now faced with exactly the same political and economic challenges faced by Hariri: a crippling $35,500 million public debt which represents about 186 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP); a costly and inefficient public sector that employs about one third of the Lebanese population and is riddled with political appointees and corruption; and, of course, a hostile president. This is not to mention the thorny issues of how to deal with Hezbollah, the status of Palestinian refugees and relations with Damascus.
Yet as Siniora surveys the wreckage of the past 12 months he will be aware that the revolution has presented him with a window of opportunity to deliver economic reform that Hariri was denied in his last years. The Future Movement’s sweeping victory has given Siniora an undeniable democratic mandate to implement his predecessor’s reforms. And, for a brief period at least, it is likely that many of those who were opposed to the reforms because of the inevitable job losses and subsidy cuts will be carried along with the mood for change.
‘The prospects for progress are much better now than before,’ says Kamal Shehadi, managing director of Beirut-based Connexus Consulting. ‘With the Syrian hegemony over Lebanon lifted, the government is responsible and accountable only to the voters. So there is no reason why it cannot deliver reform. There is an overwhelming majority in parliament behind reform. And if the president is seen as responsible for any delay, parliament will turn against him.’
Equally significant is the international goodwill towards Lebanon’s new government. The withdrawal of Syrian forces and the relatively smooth running of the general election – despite the potential for delays caused by Hariri’s assassination – have played well with Western governments, which are eager to help Lebanon increase its political and economic devolution from Damascus. The country will also benefit from Gulf investors eagerly seeking to invest the fruits of high oil prices in one of their traditional holiday destinations.