I never thought I would say it, but Lebanon was one of the most stable countries in the Middle East this past year. Many commentators and politicians expressed regret that Lebanon failed to capitalize on this to attract capital escaping the tumult of Cairo, Damascus and Tripoli. My regret is that Lebanon failed to use this opportunity to finally push forward reforms essential to make it a fairer and more transparent place.
2011 was a year of paralysis. The country had no government for the first six months, and while political life resumed in July following the formation of a new government, there was no progress on many draft laws — some that have been languishing in Parliament’s drawers for years — meant to prevent torture, improve the treatment of migrant domestic workers and protect women from domestic violence. The prisons are as crowded as ever. By the Ministry of Interior’s own account, the country’s main prison in Roumieh — a facility built for 1,500 inmates — held 3,700 in April of this year. Most troubling, 2,757 were awaiting trial. Faced with multiple inmate riots, Parliament finally approved the building of additional prisons in September but failed to tackle the real reasons behind the overcrowding: rampant overuse of pretrial detention and lengthy trials.
Lebanon’s military and security forces may be less intrusive than their Arab counterparts but there are worrying signs of increased harassment of activists and artists who criticize the army and certain high-ranking officials. In July, military intelligence summoned Saadeddine Shatila, of the international human rights group Alkarama, for his work documenting torture at the Ministry of Defense, and detained him for seven hours. Lebanese judicial authorities detained musician Zeid Hamdan — who toiled for years to promote Lebanon’s underground music scene — in July for several hours based on an accusation that he had defamed the Lebanese president in a song calling on him to “go home.”
The semi-naked images of women adorn our overcrowded highways, but when it comes to politics, women seem to have no place. Politicians spent months haggling with the Council of Ministers to ensure that all religious groups were adequately represented, but failed to include a single woman in the 30-person group. Dar Al Fatwa, the country’s highest Sunni Muslim authority, and the Higher Shia Islamic Council, are opposing a law that would protect women from domestic violence for fear that prosecuting husbands who beat their wives would affect the family unity.
Frankly, what harms the family in Lebanon are personal status laws that differentiate between citizens based on the religion into which they were born. These laws discriminate against women in matters like divorce, child custody and inheritance, forcing many of them to stay in abusive marriages. It is no wonder that an increasing number of Lebanese travel to Cyprus to get married.
Instead of finally shedding light on those who disappeared in Lebanon’s turbulent past, the authorities watched impassibly as more politically motivated kidnappings took place in 2011. The February kidnapping of three Syrian brothers from the Jasem family — one of whom had been detained for distributing flyers in Lebanon denouncing the Syrian regime — and the disappearance in May of Shibli Aisamy, an 86-year-old Syrian dissident, are painful reminders of the ongoing risk of politically motivated kidnappings. But even more troubling is what the Jasem case reveals about the state of Lebanon’s judiciary: a leaked police report contained evidence linking the kidnapping to a member of the Lebanese security forces in charge of the Syrian embassy’s security. Yet the judiciary has not investigated the accusations, proving yet again that it is incapable of resolving politically motivated crimes.
So “where do we go now?”, to quote Nadine Labaki’s recent blockbuster movie about the dilemmas facing a divided Lebanese village. Change in Lebanon will not be easy. There is no dictator to topple, no common enemy to rally the country’s youths. It is doubtful that the current political elite can truly reform the system which keeps them in power. But short of systemic reform, they could at least open up the drawers in Parliament and in the ministries and start adopting and implementing many of the laws and decrees that have been left there to rot.
Nadim Houry is director of the Beirut office of Human Rights Watch