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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1993, Page 49

Beirut Bulletin

Reconstructing Lebanon: The Role of President Elias Hrawi

By Marilyn Raschka

"The Lebanese will enjoy free gasoline this spring as a result of President Elias Hrawi's recent visit to the Gulf," announced the news broadcaster with such credibility that he was believed in spite of it being April Fool's Day. For many Lebanese, hope just keeps springing eternal, something akin to Arabian oil wells.

But Hrawi's series of Gulf visits in March and April, designed to raise the funding for Lebanon's $10 billion reconstruction program, were more realistically described in headlines from the Lebanese press such as "Hrawi Returns Home With More Promises But Feels Confident." A straight talker, Hrawi told the Lebanese people that "promises are one thing and implementation is another." This message meant that when it came to gasoline, they had better be prepared to pump it themselves. "Rebuild Lebanon with your own fists," he advised.

Arab reluctance to put the check in the mail, according to sources interviewed for this article, rides on two issues. The first is security. There are 35,000 Syrian troops here backing up Lebanese security forces, and Lebanon's top brass say they can't handle the situation without the Syrians.

The second issue is the widely held belief that the U.S. is influencing the rich Arabs to withhold contributions until the Middle East peace talks reach some conclusion. Both are factors in keeping Lebanese checks out of the mail as well. Money is not rolling in from Lebanese living abroad. The Lebanese aren't keen to invest because they know nothing about the role of Lebanon after a regional peace settlement, according to one editor.

Hrawi is realistic about the uncertainties.

"We can't rely on foreigners, so let's use our own hands so we can depict Lebanon as a good country," he said.

Promises made during his Gulf visits probably included the Saudi Arabian government asking Saudi capitalists to invest in real estate, "but not on a large scale," said one source. Kuwait, the same source predicted, would be the most willing to loosen its purse strings because "it's looking for friends" in the post-Gulf war period. The UAE will also be a good donor, because so many Lebanese live work there.

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia made the most concrete gesture of confidence in Lebanon's improved security when he reportedly instructed his foreign minister to speed up the reopening of the Saudi Embassy in Beirut. The large property, just a five-minute drive from the destroyed U.S. Embassy, suffered much the same fate at the hands of Islamic extremists who burned it in the mid-'80s. Ironically, these two devastated embassies symbolize Lebanon's future financial and political hope.

Back home, Hrawi has worked hard to come across as Mr. Law and Order. Unlike the April Fool's joke about gasoline, his determination to crack down on criminals is serious. "I will not give amnesty to any convicted criminal," he said. "I am waiting for death sentences to be handed down so I can sign them automatically."

Roundups of car theft rings, drug arrests and confiscation of arms caches are covered almost daily in the press. No wonder a judge in the criminal courts put the building of new prisons as a priority.

Hrawi can certainly take credit for bringing law and order to bear on the militias, which are for the most part disarmed. The exception is Iranian-funded Hezbollah, which Hrawi calls a resistance movement as long as it operates in south Lebanon against Israeli forces. When it tangles with its old Shi'i rival, Syrian-aligned Amal, the term "unruly elements" is applied to Hezbollah. But few Lebanese or foreign sources believe the weapons that have caused so much tragedy here have been completely confiscated. Burying the hatchet around here also includes stashing your Kalashnikov in underground stores, mountain monasteries and under the flowing robes of fundamentalist clerics.

However, Lebanon feels secure these days. The only booms that attract attention are sonic booms as the Israelis overfly Lebanon, or the sound of dynamite blasting holes in the ground for new construction.

Improving his own image and that of the presidency rate high on Hrawi's personal agenda. "He is neither a powerful politician nor an economic one," said a member of parliament.

Hrawi heads no nationwide political party as did some previous Lebanese presidents. In all his years in parliament, he was never given a ministerial post.

Hrawi had few followers before he took office and he still doesn't have any," said one journalist. Hrawi, who hails from Zahle in the Bekaa Valley, is often represented as a simple potato grower, lacking the suave sophistication of his predecessors. In fact, the only thing hein common with all who have held the job before him is that he's a Maronite Christian.

Hrawi is the first head of state to serve following the Taif Accords, the 1989 agreements signed by Lebanese parliamentarians, including Hrawi, designed to make Muslims and Christians equal political partners in the running of post-war Lebanon. These power-sharing reforms in part meant taking many powers from the Maronite president and putting them in the hands of an executive council, or cabinet, whose posts are apportioned on a sectarian basis. "The president is no longer a king," summed up one observer.

This loss of power, and hence prestige has not been easy for the Maronites to swallow, and many blame Hrawi for much of it. Maronite leaders accuse him of being a bird of a Syrian feather. "He has no one to lean on so he leans on Syria, " is one common opinion. "Of course he has excellent relations with Syria," says an editor. "He never says no."

Hrawi is a president without a palace. Baabda Palace, the Lebanese White House, was all but leveled when Syrian troops strafed and bombed it in October 1990 in a successful attempt to drive out General Michel Aoun,thearmy commander who had refused to step down from power following Hrawi's election as president in November 1989.

Hrawi lives in a Beirut apartment belonging to Lebanon's billionaire prime minister, Rafik Hariri. One sharp-tongued critic said, "He even eats on Hariri's plates." As part of his image-improving campaign, Hrawi is spending weekends in an apartment in Hazmiyeh, outside central Beirut, in a Christian area. "He's wooing the Christians," surmised one analyst.

To further bolster his image as his own man, as well as the image of the presidency, Hrawi is reconstructing Baabda Palace, which should be ready for occupation before the end of the year. Some Lebanese say Hrawi's friends have provided the money. Others say funds will be drawn from some obscure corner of the government budget.

The project is not consistent, however, with the belt-tightening measures that he recommended when he took a recent stand against raising social security compensation for retired government workers. He argued that money should be spent, instead, on development programs.

A Maverick in Search of Security

"A maverick," is how one political source profiled Hrawi. But as he woos the Christians it appears he's seeking the security of the herd. One Christian crowd-pleaser is his occasional tiff with Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Hariri. Saying "no" to Hariri generally earns Hrawi a round of applause from his otherwise lukewarm fellow Maronites.

The general consensus is that Hrawi deserves credit for his attempts to look comfortable in the Made-in-Taif political suit he wears. It's cut a lot smaller than the clothes worn by his predecessors. But Hrawi won't be the last Maronite contending for the presidency. Even with its new restrictions it is still a desirable position.

Recently, one of Lebanon's top Christian militia leaders was asked in an interview where he would like to be five years from now. His not-too-subtle answer was that he is looking forward just a few years to when presidential elections will again be held. Clearly he's not reluctant to don that very tight suit himself.

Marilyn Raschka is a free-lance writer who lives in Beirut, where she is an editor of theAmericans for Justice in the Middle East newsletter.