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Posts Tagged ‘Sami Atallah

Law and Politics of “Safe Zones” and Forced Return to Syria: Refugee Politics in Lebanon

January 12, 2018 | 43 Pages | English | Sami Atallah and Dima Mahdi

The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies

This paper—funded by the European Regional Development and Protection Programme for the Middle East—aims to assess how political developments in Lebanon could amplify calls for the forced return of Syrian refugees to Syria or the establishment of “safe zones”.

Based on interviews with key stakeholders such as Lebanese government officials, political party members, security sector experts, and humanitarian actors, as well as a review of media reports, this paper features three main arguments.

First, the Lebanese state does not intend to formalize a national response toward the humanitarian crisis unless it is focused on the repatriation of Syrian refugees to Syria.

Second, Lebanese political discord has paved the way for non-state actors, particularly Hezbollah, to take the lead in the promotion of safe areas in Syria and negotiate the repatriation of Syrian refugees to Syria.

Third, in the absence of a national framework, refugee policies are de facto dictated by municipalities and security agencies.

Recognizing these factors, this paper calls for the development of a structured national response plan that outlines roles for stakeholders and bestows upon refugees their rights under international and Lebanese law; agreeing upon a rubric by which the repatriation of Syrian refugees can be discussed nationally and ensuring that such a policy would be carried out in a manner that respects refugees’ human rights and dignity; and introducing viable accountability mechanisms between local and national governments.

May 8, 2016: Beginning of municipality election in Beirut and the Bekka3 Valley

Note: Since 2010, the parliament has extended its tenure twice under the excuse of security problems, and the head of most administrative posts in the institutions have Not be replaced.

Why You Should Not Vote for Byerte’s List (alliance of all the political parties in Beirut, with No exception, against secular candidates)

Sami Atallah, LCPS executive director. May 2016 

The municipal election in Beirut, scheduled for May 8, is heating up. For the first time ever, a group of civil society activists and experts came together several months ago and formulated a thirty-page platform with ten objectives to improve Beirut.
Instead of lobbying the political elite for change, they have decided to do it themselves by running for office. They have formed a list of twenty-four candidates, and while keeping the sectarian balance, have reflected the true fabric of society by ensuring primarily gender equality, age distribution, and that candidates are from a range of professional backgrounds.

This move actually reflects the maturity and confidence of CSOs in Lebanon.

Almost 20 years ago, in 1997, CSO successfully managed to lobby the government to hold municipal elections that were being regularly postponed for no good reason.
Since then, many attempts by CSOs to lobby, demand, and draft legislation to change our society have fallen on deaf ears. This time around, CSOs decided to take on the structures that prevent them from penetrating the decision-making process by competing against the political elite and attempting to produce change from the inside.
In fact, this initiative, commonly known as Beirut Madinati (BM), has provided voters for the first time with a real alternative, a vision for the city. Its decision to nominate twenty-four candidates, which effectively means they are not willing to negotiate with other parties, shows confidence, coherence in the team, and seriousness in maintaining the right balance in the composition of its list.
In other words, they do not seem interested in trading votes or striking alliances to win the election, rather, they want to win to develop the city. Furthermore, BM, which comprises more than 1,000 volunteers including experts, candidates, and others, has shown great organizational capacity in developing a program, creating a consensus over selected candidates through well-established criteria, and resolving internal conflicts that often engulf many CSOs when they start working together.

In fact, the hope and vision of BM has captured the imagination of many Lebanese living here and abroad. Its program spoke to many citizens and its campaign messages went viral over social media. Even former ministers, some of whom previously served the political establishment, seem to have crossed the fence to support BM.

It is too early to say whether this support will manifest into enough votes to win the election but BM has definitely shaped the electoral debate and scored many points against its political opponents.

In parallel, governing political parties have, as expected, formed a common list that distributes the twenty-four municipal seats to fourteen different factions. These include six from the Future Movement; two representatives from the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb, Tashnag, Ashrafieh leader consensus; and one representative from the Makhzoumi Foundation, Jamaa Islamiyeh, Amal Movement, Shiite families, Progressive Socialist Party, Bishop Elias Aoudeh, Al-Hashnag, and the Patriarchal Syriac community. (And how many for the Tayyar Horr?)

This list, which is celebrated by the appointed head of Byerte’s list Mr. Jamal Itani, as both coherent and representative of the political establishment is in fact contradictory.  It is precisely this kind of representation that has been impeding the work of many institutions, including the current municipal council. When asked on the talk show “Kalam Ennas” how he would deal, if elected, with political party bickering in the council, he had no answer.

What is worse is that Byerte’s list is intellectually bankrupt.

It does not have its own program but it does parrot, albeit poorly, several elements of BM’s program including having a public garden, garbage sorting, and preserving the city’s heritage. Byerte’s list is not the only one inspired by BM’s program. In fact, the parliamentary committee on Public Works, Transportation, Energy, and Water—headed by a Future Movement MP—has suddenly found it urgent to formulate a one-month roadmap to implement a public transportation system.
With an integrated plan for Beirut by BM, one cannot blame Mr. Walid Junblatt for supporting it. Even the son of the former Prime Minister Mr. Fouad Sinyoura seemed initially to be a supporter of BM. If so, this is a serious acknowledgment of the failure of his father’s political party in managing the city. Unless of course Wael’s support was more cunning. That is, by openly supporting BM on his FB page, he meant to signal that BM was his father’s creation and hence undermine BM’s support.

In his final push, Hariri’s attempt to boost the chances of Byerte’s list during his speech in Tariq Jedideh a few days ago reveals why, if elected, the new council is doomed to fail. He attributed the poor performance of the current municipal council to the fact that he was away during this period.

This is interesting for three reasons. One, he openly admitted the poor performance of the municipality, which was of his own making six years ago. Two, the fact that he attributed poor municipal performance to his absence from the country shows that he is not interested in building an institutional mechanism to hold the municipal council accountable, a key pillar of development. Three, Hariri claims that this time is different because he plans to be in the country, alluding to the fact that he plans to interfere in the work of the municipality. If so, he has made clear his intention to undermine the municipality and position himself as the guarantor of people’s needs. He sounds so out of touch.

What Hariri does not get is that it is precisely his intervention and that of the other political parties which is undermining the work of municipalities.

It is precisely because of this that people should not be voting for Byerte’s list, as such interference will undermine the very last institution that could promote development. Only by empowering the internal and external mechanisms of accountability will the city be better off.
Can Municipalities Take on the Refugee Crisis?  
Five years into the Syrian crisis during which more than 1.5 million refugees have flowed into Lebanon, two things are apparent:
One, the Lebanese central government has been largely inept at dealing with the refugee crisis, as its policies have ranged from denial and indifference in the early phases of the crisis to forming a ministerial committee that has yet to develop a strategy to confront the problem head-on.

And beside closing the borders and imposing legal restrictions on Syrian refugees, the government’s ineptness is largely due to bickering among political parties that has led, like other issues facing the country, to paralysis.

Two, in the meantime and as a consequence of the first issue, refugees became de facto a local problem, leaving many municipalities with the tremendous challenge of not only governing for local Lebanese residents but also refugees.

Sami Atallah, LCPS executive director. February 2016 

Some government officials have welcomed the larger role of municipalities in the crisis, saying that municipalities are now “tools of development”.

As much as this ought to be the case, the question is: Are municipalities able to handle the refugee crisis, especially in areas where their number considerably exceeds those of Lebanese?

More precisely, do they have the administrative capacities and fiscal resources to address these challenges?

Municipalities’ ability to handle the refugee crisis is largely constrained by two factors:

1. Weak administrative bodies that are unable to provide adequate services  and

2. low municipal revenues.
These two constraints feed into each other, with weak administrations constraining local revenue collection and poor financial resources hindering the establishment of sound administrative bodies.

Before dwelling on these problems, it is essential to highlight that municipalities suffer from a structural problem, in that there are too many small municipalities with a weak tax base to be able to perform their responsibilities as stated by law and be fiscally independent, which are two key elements of decentralization.

Lebanon has more than 1,200 municipalities, which is 25 times more than Cyprus (which has forty municipalities), a country with nearly the same surface area as Lebanon, and more than twice the number of municipalities as Croatia, which is five times larger than Lebanon.

Moreover, 70% of these municipalities have a registered population of less than 4,000 people.

Effectively, these municipalities have almost no tax base to be able to generate their own revenues.

After all, 90% of the revenues for such small municipalities come from the Independent Municipal Fund (IMF). With such a low revenue stream, these municipalities are not capable of building administrations and hiring the personnel needed to perform their duties, if they wished to.

Looking more closely at existing municipal administrations, one can deduce that many municipalities cannot provide developmental services either because they have weak administrations or suffer from a bloated bureaucracy.

Those with weak administrations have a small number of full-time employees, averaging four.

Many municipalities suffer from vacancies: 400 municipalities have only one employee and 87% of municipalities have up to six employees.

Only 13% of municipalities—which is around 130—have more than six employees, a number considered standard for carrying out the duties of a municipal administration. Also, only half of the municipalities have bothered to generate a reliable cadre of employees

Based on a relatively new survey, 70% of municipalities are in need of new employees.

In brief, municipalities have too weak an administrative structure to be able to handle the excessive number of refugees that are on municipal door steps, let alone deal with their own constituencies.

Furthermore, many municipalities rely on part-time workers rather than full-time ones, which exacerbates the pressure on the administrative and institutional capabilities of municipalities. The share of temporary workers to the total number of employees is about 50% compared to 28% of full-time employees.

While many municipalities are unable to provide services due to weak administrations, others face the same fate for a different reason:

They suffer from having an excessive number of employees, who end up consuming a large portion of their budget, hence hampering their ability to undertake development.

This is the case in the municipalities of Sour, Bourj Hammoud, and Dekwaneh, whose total number of employees—both full-time and temporary—exceed one hundred, far above the national average.

The average share of administrative to total expenses of these municipalities is about 60% compared to 20% in the other under-staffed municipalities.

Having a weak administration is a function of low revenues, which in Lebanon hovers around 6% of central government revenues, a low number compared to the average of more than 25% in other countries.

To boost municipal revenues, most of the talk concerning revenue rests on the IMF and whether the government has distributed money from it or not.

However, the focus should be elsewhere.

For one, even though the focus on the distribution of the IMF is important, one must also highlight the size of the fund i.e. how much money has gone into the fund in the first place, which remains a state secret.

Also, there is a need to discuss the distribution criteria of the IMF, which is currently based on the registered population and revenues collected in the last two years. The current criteria favor municipalities with a large registered population and correspondingly larger revenues collected directly.

Since the latter is highly dependent on real estate—rental value fees on residential and commercial units—this means that the criteria favor urban rather than rural areas.

Boosting local revenues should also be a local affair.

That is, municipalities must exert effort to directly collect their own fees.

As stated earlier, municipalities rely on thirty-six direct fees, of which three form 85% of total collected revenues.

The weak direct revenue collection faces its own sets of challenges that include valuation of real estate, collection of the fees, and managing accounts.

For instance, most municipalities are unable to revalue properties—both residential and commercial—to revise rental value fees, which is an important source of revenue. Municipalities should have the ability to count the number of both residential and commercial units, develop valuation criteria, and revise the values of properties every three to five years.

None of this is happening in most, if not all, municipalities in Lebanon.

The problem is not limited to revenue but also budget preparation and execution, as municipalities are unable to separate the different functions of administrative and executive jobs to ensure there is not an obvious conflict of interest.

For municipalities to play a developmental role, there is a need to undertake major reform on various levels. Municipalities must be able to raise enough revenue to build a capable and efficient administrative body.

But they need an administrative body to be able to raise revenue. Hence, there is a need to enlist the help of the central government, where it can lead to serious reforms that can improve municipal revenues through timely and better distribution of the IMF, as well as remove constraints in hiring municipal staff.  If the central government has finally seen the light and considers municipalities to be tools for development, it ought to take the next step and empower them so they can effectively shoulder the burden of development.

Kinds of Decentralization Law? And what Lebanon political parties prefer?

Sami Atallah and Michèle Boujikian, LCPS posted this November 2015

Recent demonstrations and calls for political reform in Lebanon have stemmed from and focused on the government’s inability to address a national waste management crisis. One key demand of demonstrators is that local municipalities be given greater control over waste management and how money is spent collecting and processing waste.
Such calls beg a broader question: What kind of decentralization law would Lebanese political parties really want?
According to recent findings by LCPS, Lebanese MPs would favor a more restricted role for regional councils, sectarian quotas for elected officials, and an electorate comprising the registered population under a new decentralization law.
Following the release of the decentralization draft law in April 2014 by a committee that was established by former Prime Minister Mr. Najib Mikati in November 2012 and led by former Minister of Interior and Municipalities Mr. Ziyad Baroud, LCPS interviewed 120 opinion leaders to hear their thoughts on decentralization in general and on various elements of the decentralization draft law.

What Kind of Decentralization Law Do Political Parties Really Want?

Among those interviewed were MPs on the National Defense, Interior and Municipalities Parliamentary Committee and the Administration and Justice Parliamentary Committee, senior political party members, mayors, religious leaders, experts, and members of civil society organizations.

They were asked about different facets of the law which fundamentally transformed qadas (small department) into elected councils endowed with the mandate to provide a wide range of services as well as the fiscal resources to do so.

The survey, which was largely closed ended, focused on 5 key areas: The respondents’ understanding of decentralization, elections, the prerogatives and financing of the qada councils, and the financial transfer system.

Using this survey we have been able to get a clearer picture of what MPs think of decentralization.

Although more than 90% of them support decentralization, this high level of support masks serious issues.

In brief, they seem to prefer a more confined role for the qada councils, favor sectarian quotas, and prefer that they are elected by the registered rather than resident population. It appears then that their position highlights their desire to not only keep sectarian quotas intact but in fact to prevent political reforms.

For instance, a key pillar of decentralization is giving elected councils wide prerogatives and fiscal means that they would otherwise not have.

Although more than 88% of politicians and senior party members think that elections and financing are key elements of decentralization, their support for wide prerogatives for councils drops to 60%. This contrasts sharply with the 96% of other respondents who think that prerogatives are key to decentralization.

Furthermore, only 34% of politicians and senior party members think that qada councils should have wide prerogatives and the authority to collect taxes compared to 58% of others surveyed.

In fact, party leaders and politicians (63%) prefer that the qada councils’ responsibilities be confined to a coordinating role among municipalities.

The political elite appear to be in favor of entrenching sectarianism in qada councils.

When asked whether they support sectarian distribution in qada council seats, 69% of politicians and senior party members said they are in favor of such a measure compared to only 28% of others.

Political parties appear to have no appetite for serious reform as they seem eager to replicate the parliamentary experience by having the registered rather than resident population elect their representatives.

In fact, 40% of party leaders and politicians compared to only 26% of others surveyed want the election to be based on the registered population. A key part of financing the qada is through an intergovernmental fund.

Based on best practices, this fund should establish clear criteria for distribution to prevent favoritism. When asked about the criteria of distributing the fund, 40% of politicians and senior party members preferred it be done on an ad hoc basis compared to 19% of other respondents. (And what ad hoc basis means?)

Finally, in order for politicians to make sound decisions, one would expect them to be familiar with facts and figures about municipalities and municipal spending.

None of the MPs, including members of committees, knew how much money is transferred from the central government to local governments through the independent municipal fund or how much municipal expenditures amount to as a share of central government spending.

When political parties and politicians call for decentralization, one should be cautious of what their real intentions are.

After all, MPs do not seem interested in decentralization as a first step toward larger political reform but only as a way to consolidate their own power.

Accountability: A “National Security Threat” to Lebanon’s Elites

Sami Atallah, October 2015

Two months into protests over Lebanon’s garbage crisis, the government has taken a hard stance: It will not be held accountable by the people.

It has unleashed state institutions against protesters, which used unnecessary violence against them, arrested some of them while leaving armed party thugs to go free, and more recently, sent protesters to be prosecuted in military courts. The Lebanese state, which often is absent when needed most, is flexing its muscles against peaceful citizens whose crime is to demand better services, starting with waste management.

Little did we know that such demands represent a threat to ‘national security’. The government and political elite are not the only culprits; business organizations and some media outlets have joined their chorus in defending the failed political system.

As for the protesters, one can disagree with them on many tactical issues. However, the core of their demands, which is accountability, is legitimate and their persistence so far must be celebrated and encouraged.

For one, accountability (with no attribution to the movement ‘badna nhasseb’) is not only a foundational pillar of democracy but also key to securing better public services. Putting it differently, without accountability, Lebanese citizens will not receive better services because politicians have no incentive to provide them.

Putting it even more bluntly, those who think they will receive better services if they are governed by leaders from their own sect are wrong. No politician or political party has served the people they claim to represent.

In fact, in the name of sectarian politics, politicians have managed to enrich themselves and their colleagues at the expense of the population. To them, citizens are only useful in that they cast votes during election season.

For the last 25 years, successive Lebanese governments and the political elite have worked hard to undermine all shapes and forms of accountability in our political system.

For one, they have crafted electoral districts in such a way that most seats are distributed by those in power rather without being subjected to any serious competition, hence rendering elections meaningless.

As a consequence, the parliament has failed to exercise its two crucial roles: Legislating and oversight of the government.

The judiciary has been largely subservient to political demands, including the recent Constitutional Council decision to rubber stamp the illegal extension of the parliament’s mandate.

Oversight agencies which are awkwardly housed in the Presidency of the Council of Ministers remain understaffed and their disclosures of violations are left unheeded.

Labor unions, which could have challenged the dominant sectarian discourse to highlight differences between the haves and the have nots, have been largely decimated since the early 1990s.

The recent emergence of the Teachers’ Union in 2013 to spearhead a drive for public sector salary adjustment managed to incur the wrath of almost every main political party. This was aimed at ensuring the union does not succeed in changing the dominant political discourse from sectarian- to class-based. In brief, politicians have shielded the political system from any hint of accountability.

No doubt, the rise of the recent protest movement, which was sparked by the garbage crisis, took the political establishment by surprise. Political elites from the Free Patriotic Movement, the Kataeb party, and the Progressive Socialist Party tried to exploit protesters initially by supporting them, in an effort to score points with their own constituencies against their political rivals.

Others, such as the Future Movement, dismissed the protesters while Hezbollah wished them “good luck”. In the meantime, many accused them of being leftists, Hezbollah party supporters, American agents, and even stooges of a small Arab country, laying bare their desperate attempt to undermine the protesters’ agenda.

By adopting such courses of action, politicians from all these parties have effectively demonstrated their disregard for citizens’ needs, showing once again how disconnected they are from the reality on the ground. They are unable to conceive of the notion that people should or could hold them accountable.

This concept is vehemently rejected by the elite and the only way they can interpret the protests is through the prism of manipulation and conspiracy; some other party is behind the protestors seeking to undermine ‘my’ power. This is amusing when we remember how some ministers in this government have been hand-picked to head specific ministries by a ‘not so small’ Arab country.

So, the fact that members of this government—that was, at least in part, formed by foreign powers—accused protesters of being foreign agents is quite hypocritical at best.

When accusing protesters of being foreign agents did not work, the political elite were joined by business organizations and some media outlets, who claimed to sympathize with the protesters’ demands but not the methods they have adopted to go about claiming them.

In reality, it is the disregard of citizens’ needs vis-à-vis the provision of water, electricity, waste management, and road networks, among others, that made citizens fed up with the system that has failed them time and again. Additionally, it is the indifference of parliamentarians toward people’s democratic rights to hold elections that triggered people’s anger.

Once again, politicians have failed to feel the pulse of the streets, thinking that they can act with impunity. The protesters did not incite chaos as many elites are claiming. Rather, demonstrators have disturbed the system of distribution of state resources among the political elite.

The other accusation against protesters is that they are damaging public and private property. However, it is important to remember that the political elite and their friends have usurped public and coastal properties, used legal gimmicks to acquire key locations like Dalieh, and privatized public lands in Zeitouneh Bay at a faction of the market price, all while lining politicians’ pockets.

It is they who have closed off public streets and neighborhoods to secure their strongholds—worsening mobility and transportation in the city, and thus negatively impacting the private sector.

It is they who have overseen the mismanagement of public property on a grand scale, leading to theft and grand corruption.

Mr. Nicolas Chammas, the head of the Beirut Traders Association, went further in defense of downtown Beirut, claiming that it is Lebanon’s “civilized” face and that they, the association, will not allow protesters to undermine it.

In fact, for those who have not yet noticed, downtown Beirut has been dysfunctional for some time. This is not because of protesters but because it was ill-conceived from the start, with its actual purpose being to serve the rich few rather than to function as a real city center, open to all, and bustling with life.

In his infamous speech, Mr. Chammas went further, calling for the protection of the liberal economic order that is being threatened by a few “communist” economists.

What he forgot to mention is that the order he is protecting so adamantly is not a competitive market-based economy in the first place.

It is one that privileges the rich through strong government intervention. He should be reminded that our tax system is highly regressive, favoring the rich at the expense of the poor; how our economic organization is controlled by the few rich and powerful through exclusivity licenses; and how this very system has generated major income inequality whereby 0.3% of the population owns half of the country’s wealth.

What he is defending is not the liberal economic order that we aspire for, which is a competitive and productive economy regulated by a strong state, but crony capitalism whereby wealth is generated by the visible hand of the government that dishes out privileges to the few well connected businessmen and not the invisible hand of the market that rewards those with merit.

It is not surprising that any talk about accountability is fought ferociously by both political and economic elites. It is something they refuse to be subjected to. It is a discourse that undermines their very existence and they are ready to go to great lengths to fight it. However, if we do not uphold this discourse, and monitor and hold the government accountable, we are doomed to receive poor services, if at all, and things will worsen if this protest fails.

Lebanon is at a crossroad. This is not about March 8 vs. March 14, it is not about Hezbollah’s weapons vs. the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and it is not about Iran vs. Saudi Arabia.

It is about a political system that uses sectarian discourse to benefit political leaders and the economic elite at the expense of the majority of the population vs. a new social contract where the state serves its citizens, political parties represent the people, and accountability is its foundational pillar.

Choosing the latter allows us to claim back our rights as citizens. Otherwise, people will remain clients, subservient to politicians and their sectarian tools, leave the country, or mourn its demise.

The time is now to make a decision.


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