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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Promoting Political Reform in Lebanon: Opportunities and Challenges

Tamara C. Wittes
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
Beacon Hotel
Washington, DC
September 29, 2010


Remarks (as prepared) 
Good morning, and thank you for inviting me here today. I am honored to be in the presence of many esteemed colleagues, including Minister Baroud and Richard Chambers.

I want to first take this opportunity to commend Minister Baroud for his contributions to electoral participation and democratic values in Lebanon. I am also pleased to offer you my sincerest congratulations on receiving the Charles T. Manatt Democracy Award yesterday from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

The award is given to those who “shape the democracy landscape at the global level.” Your work in Lebanon deserves that recognition.  As Lebanon’s Interior Minister, Ziad Baroud is in charge of one of his country’s largest ministries. He is responsible for everything from managing elections, to overseeing Lebanon’s internal security institutions, to investigating human rights issues.

Minister Baroud came from a background of championing the rights of Lebanese citizens from outside of government. In coming to politics through work in civil society, he shares something with my boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Like Secretary Clinton, Minister Baroud has brought his commitment to citizen empowerment, and his patriotic spirit, into his work in government. His work has earned him wide admiration, and this prize is richly deserved. I look forward to our continued partnership.

The United States has long been a partner to Lebanon and a stalwart supporter of Lebanese democracy, sovereignty, and independence. The United States believes that all Lebanese deserve the same rights as people elsewhere: to live in peace and security, to have a say in how they are governed, and to have their human rights respected, and protected. The United States is a strong partner, supporting national Lebanese institutions, including the LAF, and supporting Lebanon in growing its democracy.

Lebanese know, better than most, the challenge of building a democracy in a diverse and sometimes divided society. The Lebanese people, in fact, have paid a dear price and undergone many years of tragedy and strife along their path to sovereignty, independence, and democracy. The United States salutes their efforts and their progress.

That progress was strongly borne out in Lebanon’s two recent elections – Parliamentary elections in 2009 and municipal elections in 2010 – elections which Minister Baroud oversaw. The elections rightly earned international praise for their solid administration, and for the rseulting strong voter participation and public confidence in the process and its outcome.

Little more than a year ago, before I joined the Obama Administration, I was a member of an international election observer delegation to Lebanon. I spent a beautiful day in the Chouf Mountains, watching people stream back from Beirut to their home villages to vote, party banners waving and horns honking. In the smaller villages, the day was like a local festival, with people dressing up in their best to walk down the street and cast their vote, then sip tea together. To see such a peaceful, free and fair election, in which citizens were excited to participate, in which the outcome was truly contested and no one knew who the winner was going to be – that was an honor to observe, and an experience I will never forget.

Watching that election day, it was clear to me how elections, at their best, are a mechanism for citizen empowerment – not just for voters, but for the poll workers, the party representatives watching the vote counting, and the domestic election observers – all of them participating in choosing the direction of their country’s future.  But as we all know, elections are only one aspect of democratic society. Principles of equality, pluralism, and individual empowerment all contribute to help democracy flourish. And in Lebanon we have also seen evidence of a vibrant civic spirit and much hopeful progress.

As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, I coordinate our bureau’s work on democracy and human rights, and I oversee the office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative, or MEPI.  The United States is a strong supporter of democratic values, in the Middle East and around the world. They are not the entitlement of the few, or the fortunate, but the birthright of every man, woman, and child.

As President Obama said last week in his address to the UN General Assembly, “we stand up for universal values because it’s the right thing to do. But we also know from experience that those who defend these values for their people have been our closest friends and allies, while those who have denied those rights -- whether terrorist groups or tyrannical governments -- have chosen to be our adversaries. Lebanon’s democracy and independence are the universal aspiration of Lebanese citizens –they are also in the interests of the United States, and will contribute positively to the whole region.

MEPI Support for Democratic Principles in Lebanon

The mission of the Middle East Partnership Initiative, or MEPI, is to support citizen empowerment across the region – to help the peoples of the Middle East in their efforts to build more participatory, pluralistic, and prosperous societies. Through our work in MEPI, I have been honored, and delighted, to support Lebanese who are committed to active citizenship, who are building their democracy – and who are doing truly amazing work. Let me highlight three examples of the work being carried out right now by courageous and visionary Lebanese citizens, with whom we are proud to partner.

Last December, 2009, Mrs. Barbara Shahin Batlouni walked into the headquarters of the Bank of Beirut and the Arab Countries and opened a bank account for her child. That everyday act – one that many of us might take for granted – happened to be the first time a mother in Lebanon exercised the right of guardianship over her child’s financial future. Previously, men were the only guardians allowed to open accounts for their children.

The driving force behind this simple, but powerful change was Wafaa Abed, the President of the Institute of Progressive Women (IPW) in Lebanon and, I’m proud to say, a MEPI alumna. She wrote petitions, raised awareness, advocated, and worked with an attorney to draft the laws necessary to realize this right.  Ultimately, the Association of Banks in Lebanon endorsed Abed’s initiative and announced that Lebanese women were no longer prohibited from opening bank accounts for their minor children.  It is people like Wafaa Abed who inspire us, and show us the power of citizen action. When individuals gather together to advocate for their needs, society, as a whole, benefits. And, as this example also shows us, the role of women in this process has proven to be particularly important.

One of our women’s empowerment programs, in fact, had an unanticipated consequence. Roula El Derbas, who was the Managing Coordinator for MEPI’s Women in Law project in Lebanon, came home to El Mina, Tripoli, after a WILpower leadership training inspired. The workshop, which was held in Amman, focused on the importance of volunteerism and giving back to one’s community. So Roula started asking women around El Mina what they needed from people in the legal and business sectors. After visiting numerous impoverished and struggling areas of the city, and listening to many of her fellow citizens, she decided to run for a spot on the board of the local municipality. She dove into campaigning, practicing many of the skills she learned through our leadership training. Elections were held during the last weekend in May, and she won by an overwhelming majority of votes.

Another way we in the US government seek to support the empowerment Lebanese citizens is through supporting partnerships between Lebanese and international NGOs, as we did through the recently completed Citizen Lebanon project with the National Democratic Institute. Citizen Lebanon brought NDI together with a range of Lebanese civil society organizations, across sectarian lines, to implement citizenship education and action throughout Lebanon. This project built a core group of skilled facilitators, who conducted public forums for Lebanese to address issues of common concern in advance of the parliamentary and municipal elections. This is just the kind of communication and public advocacy that builds a sense of citizenship, and helps democracies to deliver for their citizens.

Another example of our partnership with Lebanese civic activists is a project that just wrapped up, and that will affect Minister Baroud’s future work. The Shabab Al Balad Youth Parliament of Tripoli designed and implemented an advocacy campaign, supporting the demand for a new electoral law that would lower the voting age in Lebanon from 21 to 18. In part as a result of these activities, Members of Parliament recently signed a petition in favor of lowering the voting age, and the shabab hope to see an amended law in effect for the 2013 parliament elections. These examples are evidence of a strong and growing civic culture – Lebanese citizens, working across the lines of family and sect, to building their common future. Lebanon’s democracy is still a work in progress – indeed all democracies remain works in progress – but it is democratic freedoms and democratic practices that allow us to correct our errors and move forward stronger than before.

Underpinning all of our activities in Lebanon is a firm commitment to partnership – with the people and with the government – to build a better future. Together, we strive to build a more pluralistic, a more participatory, and a more prosperous Lebanon.  To that end, the United States complements Lebanon’s own efforts by providing assistance and support that aim to help empower people by providing greater access to opportunities and greater enjoyment of basic rights. Through USAID and MEPI, we have contributed more than $500 million to this effort since 2006.

The partnership between the United States and Lebanon is predicated on our mutual interest and mutual respect. And MEPI’s partnership with Lebanese civil society is one manifestation of this broader relationship. Just let me just reiterate my appreciation for Minister Baroud’s work and his leadership in building Lebanon’s democratic institutions and demonstrating, personally, how government dialogue with civil society can produce outcomes that benefit all. I applaud Lebanon, again, for its successful elections, which demonstrate the depth and breadth of the Lebanese people commitment to democracy.  The United States is committed to providing whatever assistance we can to amplify the voices of those, like Minister Baroud, who are working for positive change – in Lebanon, and in countries and communities across the Middle East.

Moving forward, the United States stands ready to assist the Government of Lebanon and its people as they continue to realize and strengthen their independence and democracy.

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