Freedom in the World
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The year 2004 witnessed the rapid and decisive erosion of tacit international support for Syria's control of Lebanon, culminating in an unprecedented UN Security Council resolution calling for the immediate departure of Syrian forces. While the unconstitutional extension of Lebanese president Emile Lahoud's tenure in September underscored that Syrian resolve to continue dominating its smaller neighbor had not wavered, the rapid growth of a broad-based, pro-democracy movement during the year, fed by a steady stream of defections within the country's once-quiescent postwar governing elite, left the world's sole remaining satellite state teetering on the brink of political collapse.
For more than a thousand years, the rough terrain of Mount Lebanon attracted Christian and heterodox-Muslim minorities fleeing persecution in the predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab world. After centuries of European protection and relative autonomy under Turkish rule, Mount Lebanon and its surrounding areas were established as a French mandate in 1920. After winning its independence in 1943, the new state of Lebanon maintained a precarious democratic system based on the division of parliamentary seats, high political offices, and senior administrative positions among the country's 17 officially recognized sectarian communities. As emigration transformed Lebanon's slight Christian majority into a minority, Muslim leaders demanded amendments to the fixed 6-to-5 ratio of Christian-to-Muslim parliamentary seats and to exclusive Maronite Christian control of the presidency. In 1975, war erupted between a coalition of Lebanese Muslim and leftist militias aligned with Palestinian guerrilla groups on one side and an array of Christian militias bent on preserving Christian political privileges on the other.
After the first few years of fighting, a loose consensus emerged among Lebanese politicians regarding a new power-sharing arrangement. However, following the entry of Syrian and Israeli troops into Lebanon in 1976 and 1978, the various militias and their foreign backers had little interest in disarming. The civil war lost much of its sectarian character over the next decade, with the bloodiest outbreaks of fighting taking place mainly within the Shiite, Christian, and Palestinian communities. Outside forces played a more direct role in the fighting. The Syrians battled Israeli forces in 1982, attacked a Palestinian-Islamist coalition in the mid-1980s, and fought the Lebanese army in 1989 and 1990, while the Israelis combated Palestinian and Shiite groups.
In 1989, the surviving members of Lebanon's 1972 parliament convened in Taif, Saudi Arabia, and agreed to a plan put forward by the Arab League that weakened the presidency, established equality in Christian and Muslim parliamentary representation, and mandated close security cooperation with occupying Syrian troops. After the ouster of General Michel Aoun from east Beirut by Syrian forces in October 1990, a new Syrian-backed government extended its writ throughout most of the country.
In the years that followed, Syria consolidated its control over Lebanese state institutions, particularly the presidency, the judiciary, and the security forces. However, in return for tacit Western acceptance of its control of Lebanon, Damascus permitted a degree of political and civil liberties in Lebanon that exceeded those in most other Arab countries. While those who openly condemned the occupation risked arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, criticism of the government was largely tolerated. The motley assortment of militia chiefs, traditional elites, and nouveaux riches who held civilian political positions in postwar Lebanon were persuaded to accept continued Syrian hegemony, primarily through a system of institutionalized corruption fueled by massive deficit spending on reconstruction during the 1990s. By the end of the decade, Lebanon's government debt far exceeded its gross domestic product and the economy was in deep recession. Consequentially, public disaffection with the postwar political establishment rose to an all-time high and demonstrations against the occupation, primarily by secular nationalist university students, grew steadily in size and frequency.
In 2000, following the death of Syrian president Hafez Assad and Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon (which invalidated a frequently cited official rationale for the occupation), vocal opposition to the Syrian presence rapidly spread from university campuses to the editorial pages of leading Lebanese newspapers and began to span the political and sectarian spectrum. After the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Western pressure to preserve civil liberties subsided for a time, in exchange for Syrian and Lebanese cooperation in the war against al-Qaeda (the terrorist network), and the Lebanese authorities cracked down harshly on dissent. In 2002, the government closed an independent television station that had given voice to political dissidents, invalidated an opposition victory in a parliamentary by-election, and placed several leading opposition figures under investigation for alleged ties to Israel and other foreign powers. At the end of the year, many Lebanese political leaders who had joined the opposition were inching their way back into Syria's political fold.
In 2003, as Syrian-American relations rapidly deteriorated amid allegations of Syrian meddling in Iraq, the U.S. government began openly criticizing the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, a policy reversal that inspired the opposition movement in Lebanon to reassert itself. By early 2004, France had also ended its official silence on the occupation and both Western powers were openly calling for a Syrian withdrawal, leading most other European governments to follow suit. Defying these calls, Damascus moved to consolidate its control by pressing the Lebanese parliament to approve a constitutional amendment extending (on dubious legal ground) the tenure of President Lahoud, a staunch Syrian ally, beyond his six-year term. In September, on the eve of the parliamentary vote, the UN Security Council approved a resolution calling for a constitutional presidential election and the withdrawal of all foreign forces. Syria's decision to push ahead with the amendment provoked an unprecedented international outcry and veiled threats by Western governments to take "further measures."
Inspired by the international community's long overdue attention to Lebanon, many politicians who had long been loyal to Syria began defecting to the opposition. In October, former minister for economy and trade Marwan Hamadeh was severely wounded by a car bomb just weeks after resigning in protest over the extension of Lahoud's term in office - an attack that dampened public calls for a Syrian withdrawal within the political elite, but failed to subjugate it. Three weeks later, Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri resigned. A new cabinet of staunchly pro-Syrian loyalists, headed by Omar Karami, was narrowly approved with only 59 out of 128 votes in parliament (23 members abstained).
Notwithstanding the multitude of factors that skew the electoral process in favor of candidates backed by Damascus, opposition leaders remained confident at year's end that this "rump" pro-Syrian coalition will face a resounding defeat in the spring 2005 parliamentary elections.
The Lebanese people cannot change their government democratically. The president is formally selected every six years by the 128-member parliament. In practice, however, this choice is made after Syrian authorization, known as "the password" in the Lebanese media. Many members of parliament who had publicly declared their opposition to an extension of President Emile Lahoud's term in office (including Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who famously remarked in 2003 that he would rather shoot himself) were pressured by Damascus to vote for it in September 2004.
Syria and its allies also influence parliamentary and municipal elections more indirectly. The distribution of parliamentary seats is skewed in favor of regions where Syrian forces have been stationed the longest, such as the Beqaa Valley, and electoral districts are blatantly gerrymandered to ensure the election of pro-Syrian politicians. There has also been widespread interference during the elections themselves, with Lebanese security forces often present inside the polls. Prior to a June 2002 parliamentary by-election, Interior Minister Elias Murr declared that using voting booth curtains to ensure secrecy was "optional," a remarkably blatant move to facilitate vote buying.
Political corruption in Lebanon is widely considered to be the most egregious in the Arab world. Lebanon was ranked 97 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is limited in some critical respects, but is far more substantial than elsewhere in the Arab world. Lebanon has a long tradition of press freedom, though nearly all media outlets are owned by prominent political and commercial elites. Five independent television stations and more than 30 independent radio stations operate in Lebanon, as well as dozens of independent print publications, reflecting a diverse range of views.
A number of vaguely worded laws criminalize critical reporting on Syria, the Lebanese military, the security forces, the judiciary, and the presidency. Although journalists are frequently questioned and occasionally indicted for such infractions, imprisonment of journalists is uncommon; most, however, practice some degree of self-censorship. Permanent closures of licensed media outlets were rare until 2002, when the authorities closed Murr Television (MTV), a station sympathetic to the opposition. The closing generated palpable anxiety among media owners of all political persuasions. In December 2003, the owner of New Television (NTV) was arrested and briefly detained. In July 2004, a reporter for NTV discovered three hand grenades, and a death threat warning him to stop reporting, on the windshield of his car.
The General Security Directorate (GSD) has the authority to censor all foreign magazines and non-periodical media. In September, authorities pulled a best-selling American novel, The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, from shelves after Christian religious leaders objected to the book. In March, the GSD pressured popular Lebanese singer Najwa Karam to cut out portions of a music video that showed footage of clashes between security forces and student demonstrators. Internet access is not restricted.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Lebanese constitution and protected in practice, though sectarianism is formally enshrined in the political system. Religious leaders frequently come under political pressure from Syrian officials in Lebanon. Shortly before the parliament voted on Lahoud's term extension in 2004, according to the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights practices in Lebanon, Syrian officials pressured Lebanese clerics to delete from an official press release a clause calling for respect for the constitution.
Academic freedom is long-standing and firmly entrenched. The country's universities are the region's most open and vibrant.
Freedom of association and assembly is restricted. Although political parties are legal, a 1994 ban on the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) party remains in place. Nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups, are permitted to operate openly, though the authorities occasionally impose ad hoc restrictions. In June, security officials pressured the owner of a Beirut hotel to back out of hosting a major pro-democracy gathering. Public demonstrations are not permitted without prior approval from the Interior Ministry, which does not rule according to uniform standards, and security forces routinely beat and arrest those who demonstrate against the Syrian occupation. Police and army troops forcibly dispersed several peaceful demonstrations in 2004 and briefly detained dozens of protestors during the year.
All workers except those in government may establish unions, and all have the right to strike and to bargain collectively. Several major strikes occurred in 2004. In May, Lebanese soldiers opened fire on a demonstration called by the General Confederation of Labor to protest fuel price increases, killing five people. Forty-eight people were arrested on charges of inciting a riot and sentenced to short prison terms. In October, two postal service employees were fired for involvement in union activities.
The judiciary is strongly influenced by Syria, which directly appoint key prosecutors and investigating magistrates. Consequentially, trials of dissidents are heavily tainted by political pressure, and acts of violence by Syrian-backed groups in Lebanon are rarely investigated. The judicial system consists of civilian courts, a military court, and a judicial council. International standards of criminal procedure are not observed in the military court, which consists largely of military officers with no legal training, and cases are often tried in a matter of minutes. In recent years, the nominally independent Beirut Bar Association (BBA) has become less willing to confront the judiciary, allegedly because of widespread corruption.
Arbitrary arrest and detention by Lebanese security forces (and, occasionally, Syrian troops and Syrian-backed paramilitary groups) are commonplace, and the use of torture to extract confessions is widespread. According to a 2004 report by Lebanon's Parliamentary Commission on Human Rights, there are more than 1,500 people in prison who have never been convicted of a crime. In July, the militant Shiite organization Hezbollah seized a resident of Nabatieh, Fouad Mazraani, on charges of "collaborating with Israel" and held him for at least a week before turning him over to the authorities. Dozens of Islamist militants were arrested during the year on national security grounds. One of them, the leader of an alleged al-Qaeda cell, Ismail al-Khatib, died in the custody of security forces shortly after his arrest in September. It is widely known that the Syrian-controlled security agencies monitor the telephones of both cabinet ministers and political dissidents.
Nearly 350,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon are denied citizenship rights and face restrictions on working, building homes, and purchasing property - restrictions that reflect Lebanese sensitivities about the impact of mostly Muslim Palestinian assimilation on the country's precarious sectarian balance.
Women enjoy many of the same rights as men, but suffer social and some legal discrimination. Since family and personal status matters are adjudicated by the religious authorities of each sectarian community, Muslim women are subject to discriminatory laws governing marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. Women are underrepresented in politics, holding only three parliamentary seats (and, until the appointment of two female ministers in October, no cabinet positions), and do not receive equal social security provisions. Men convicted of so-called honor crimes against women usually receive lenient sentences. Foreign domestic workers are routinely exploited and physically abused by employers.