LETTER FROM LEBANON: A Crucial Year for Democracy in Lebanon Opens With a Warming of U.S.-Lebanese Relations
Positive signals have been sent to Lebanon during the last months, despite some important setbacks on the economic level as well as in the media policies `of the government. In a much publicized move, Saudi Arabia deposited $600 million with the Lebanese Central Bank for a period of three years to activate the country's monetary reserves. Viewed as a "shot in the arm" by some economists, the Saudi initiative (that came through Saudi al-Ahli Bank), was welcomed by Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who said it should help Lebanon overcome its financial problems and strengthen its currency. The Saudi deposit eased the tension that was affecting the Lebanese pound at the end of 1997. Lebanese businessmen were concerned about the slowdown in economic growth and a ballooning national debt, estimated at between $13.5 and $15 billion, that was threatening the stability of the currency amidst a set of corruption scandals that had reached the highest political circles. One of these became known as "the Middle East Airlines (MEA) case." It involved MEA chairman Khaled Salam, who had leased from Singapore Airlines three not-so-new Airbuses at a particularly high cost, despite the Lebanese national airline's budget deficit of $53 million for 1997. Under pressure of a media campaign that suggested kickbacks had been paid to MEA officials to sanction the deal, the MEA board resigned and a new board was established, including a former president of Air France. The MEA now has embarked on a complete restructuring process.
U.S. "NEW MOVES" IN LEBANON
It was said that the Saudi financial contribution had been encouraged by the U.S. administration, and discussed between Saudi officials and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Martin Indyk during his Mideast tour last December.
At a time when U.S. policy in the Middle East is stalled because of Binyamin Netanyahu's intransigence, and when U.S. special envoy Dennis Ross has failed repeatedly in his attempts to revive the peace process, fostering stabilization in Lebanon and avoiding any major economic or political crisis seems to be of renewed American interest. Martin Indyk's meetings in Beirut included, beside President Elias Hrawi and Prime Minister Hariri, Lebanese Armed Forces commander-in-chief General Emile Lahoud and a Maronite opposition leader, Dory Chamoun.
Indyk's visit and discussions with the Lebanese leaders triggered a media debate over motivations for what was viewed as the "sudden U.S. interest in Lebanon." Hezbollab Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah viewed it as an attempt to "separate both Lebanese and Syrian tracks."
He also scorned announcements of financial contributions by U.S. Ambassador Richard Jones, and compared them to the U.S. annual budget for Israel. "It is ridiculous that the ambassador donates $10,000 to this or that institution or distributes some cows to farmers in the Bekaa while the U.S. offers $3 billion each year to the Israeli enemy," he said.
However, the Hezbollah leader was the only major political figure in Lebanon who expressed fear of a certain amount of American involvement in Lebanon on both the economic and political levels. According to local analysts, he was reflecting Syrian concern about possible "competition" between Damascus and Washington in Lebanon or "use" by the United States of mainly Christian political elements hostile to Syrian hegemony in Lebanon to put pressure on the Damascus regime.
This concern is diminishing, however, since most observers view the U.S. role as either a neutral one in regard to Syria, or even reflecting Syrian-American coordination in Lebanon. In fact the U.S. presence in Lebanon has been an active one lately.
Ambassador Jones launched some meaningful economic and development programs in various regions of the country, including the Bekaa Valley, met and received leaders and representatives from a broad political and social spectrum of the country, and has emphasized the necessity of holding the municipal elections, scheduled for May, on time -- a "hope" also expressed by President Clinton to President Hrawi two months ago. …