TESTIMONY OF DAVID EPPERLY
My name is David Epperly and I am testifying on behalf of the American Lebanese
Institute, a member group of the Council of Lebanese American Organizations (CLAO). The
Institute reflects the interests and sentiments of three million Americans of Lebanese
descent. The Institute and CLAO work to further the cause of freedom and sovereignty in
Lebanon commencing with the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all
foreign forces, particularly those of Syria. Both the Institute and the Council act to
promote ties of friendship and cooperation between the United States and Lebanon based on
the principles of democracy and human rights.
With this brief background information, please allow me to outline our concerns and suggestions for this subcommittee. We understand that it is not the task of this subcommittee to involve itself in the complicated internal politics of Lebanon, but we hope that the honorable Representatives on it will factor in this complexity when making decisions regarding Lebanon.
Since our last testimony before you, the situation in Lebanon has unfortunately continued to deteriorate. The country remains subjugated to Syrian hegemony. Instead of bringing much desired stability and prosperity - reasons put forth by the Syrians for their continued occupation of Lebanon - human rights abuses, political intrigue, economic exploitation, violence in the south, and the continued usage of Lebanon as a haven for international terrorism are more defining characteristics. The presidential "elections" last fall changed nothing and were more like a changing of the pro-Syrian guard. Unfortunately, the world remains oblivious to this reality, and consequently Syrian hegemony over Lebanon continues to be open-ended.
Were the Middle East peace process to resume in earnest, a free Lebanon would most certainly have a constructive role to play. However, that could only be possible if Lebanon were released from Syrian control and allowed to determine its own destiny through a government and parliament that truly represent the will of the Lebanese people. If genuine stability and security in the region are to be Lebanon's expected contribution to a revived peace process, the country should be allowed to negotiate peace with Israel free from the obstructive influence of Syria.
Some forty thousand Syrian soldiers and an untold number of clandestine Syrian operatives and agents presently control at least ninety-percent of Lebanese territory. All politics, domestic and foreign, emanating from the Beirut "government" cater to Syrian goals instead of serving the needs of the Lebanese people and Lebanon's national interest. To a man, the Beirut puppet government is subservient to the wishes of Damascus. The hitherto pathetic spectacle of Lebanese "officials" scurrying across the border to seek favor and approval from their Syrian masters, by now embarrassingly well known around the world, has subsided somewhat since the new Syrian installed team took over last fall. Instead of boding well for Lebanon, this development signals, if anything, a tighter Syrian control over the country. So high is Damascus' confidence in its new team of Beirut puppets that it has openly taken to discouraging the two-way traffic of Lebanese politicians between the two cities, referring all would-be callers to the new Syrian-appointed president of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud.
As concerned American Lebanese living in the freest nation on earth, we continue to feel it is our moral duty to speak out on behalf of those in Lebanon or in exile, both past and present, whose voices have been muted or forever silenced by Syrian oppression. We would like to submit the following items of concern for your subcommittee's consideration:
Syrian Occupation of Lebanon:
For years the State Department has emphasized linkage between progress in the Middle East peace process and the eventual de-coupling of Lebanon from Syria. With the peace process at a standstill, the status quo in Lebanon is causing a continued decline of the well being and morale of the population. A progressively worsening economic situation compounded by the weight of the Syrian occupation is the direct cause of an insidious and prolonged attrition of the country's assets both human and capital. There is no real international focus on Syria's debilitating occupation of Lebanon, much less on its breach of a pledge to re-deploy its forces to the Bekaa Valley as stated in the so-called Taif agreement. Instead, the people of Lebanon are beginning to acquiesce to the notion that there indeed exists a double standard in the world today regarding human rights, freedom, democracy and self-determination.
Human Rights Violations:
The body of documentation of human rights violations in Lebanon at the hands of the Beirut "authorities" and their Syrian masters is growing daily. A number of local and international human rights organizations actively monitor these mounting abuses that include abduction, illegal detention, torture, mock trials, and executions. The disappearance and imprisonment in Syrian jails of persons opposed to Syrian occupation and the policies of its puppet government are regular occurrences. The Lebanese judiciary system in recent years has been appallingly militarized meaning that military personnel have replaced civilian judges in presiding over most trials. Furthermore, and contrary to the deceptive impression of calm and security presented by the "authorities" to the outside world, a general state of lawlessness increasingly prevails in Lebanon. To add to an already repressive climate, murders, rapes and robberies (especially auto theft and household break-ins) are on the increase. The 1998 State Department annual report on human rights, released last Friday, amplified on some of these abuses. To date, the U.S. government has done little to pressure the Beirut "authorities" into reversing this disturbing trend of violations which are transforming a once free, open and civil society into a repressed, closed and barbarous one.
Press Freedom and Censorship :
In November 1996, a new law was passed that under the guise of government regulation banned broadcasts by all except five private television stations. Since these stations are owned by key figures in the Beirut regime, this can only be interpreted as a blatant disregard of world opinion and an ominous threat to Lebanon's strong tradition of free expression through the media. Press censorship today makes a mockery of a once thriving liberal journalistic tradition, which made Beirut the freest and most creative capital in the Arab world. A general atmosphere of intimidation prevails reaching at times physical violence against targeted journalists. The Lebanese press is being stood-up before a mirror held by Damascus and forced to recognize an image not of itself but of long subjugated counterparts in Syria. Once again the 1998 Freedom House survey of political rights and civil liberties considered Lebanon not free.
The economic policies of the various post-Taif governments, including the present one, have been dismal failures. Lebanon's national debt today hovers around the $21 billion (USD) level and is rising exponentially. It has overtaken the country's gross domestic product (GDP) which stands at less than $15 billion. An additional two billion dollars is about to be borrowed in an attempt to service the accumulating debt. Most question whether the out-going Hariri government's accomplishments and misplaced priorities - the grandiose new sports stadium and lavish palaces built for the three top figures of the Beirut regime - have taken precedence over such basic needs as providing the country with a first rate infrastructure. Basic necessities such as clean drinking water, reliable electricity and a modern telecommunications system, not to speak of the vital productive sectors of the economy such as agriculture and industry, have taken a backseat to projects designed to enrich a select few while creating a false impression of progress.
Leading credit rating organizations in the world such as Standard and Poor's, Moody's Investors Service, Fitch IBCA, and Thompson Bank Watch continue to grade Lebanon's rating outlook negatively as a consequence of the regime's mismanagement of the country's economy. Lebanon's budget deficit is currently running at more than fifty percent of government revenues. An astounding 42% of the 1998 budget was used to service the public debt.
Lebanon's history of a vibrant middle class, which created an ambitious private sector, characterized by small and medium sized businesses, is on its way to extinction. The country is increasingly polarized between a corrupt class of rich and super-rich plutocrats and a swelling mass of impoverished individuals and families. The much-talked about cronyism in countries like Indonesia could learn a thing or two from Lebanon's insensitive moguls and their Syrian partners. Indicative of the middle class erosion are the dwindling purchasing power brought on by spiraling prices and bloated direct and indirect taxation. New taxes have been slapped on everything from motor vehicles to real estate transactions to local cement production, custom duties and even the price of obtaining a passport. The increases sometimes reach as much as 250 per cent.
An already rotten situation is made worse by rampant corruption in high places, which has surpassed past levels by a quantum leap. Bribery, kickbacks, unlawful revenues, skimming of profits, hush money and much more define the daily state of affairs in Syrian occupied Lebanon. There are an estimated 1.5 million illegal Syrian workers now in the country. This alarming number is nearly equivalent to fifty percent of the overall Lebanese population. The money they siphon out daily - plus the revenues reaped by ubiquitous Syrian partners in every major and lucrative business transaction in Lebanon, constitute a drain on the country's meager financial resources.
In light of the above, we strongly recommend that not a single cent of U.S. taxpayer's money be allocated by Congress to the present regime in Beirut. All appropriations should be channeled directly to credible individuals and institutions in the Lebanese private sector. For example: the American University of Beirut, still the greatest American educational institution outside the United States, and other private universities and colleges in the country, to the many hospitals and other medical facilities that make Lebanon a leading medical hub in the region, and to the scores of hard-working NGO's whose missions support human rights, environmental issues, or charitable causes.
Supporting the Lebanese Army, not as a tool of government repression, but as a true patriotic institution, remains in our view, a worthy American goal. However, close and direct supervision by Washington on how this money is spent is vital. No aid should be given to Lebanon through government controlled agencies until free and fair elections are allowed to take place. The 1998 "election" of Emile Lahoud to the presidency had significance beyond Lebanon. It was the direct result of political changes inside the Syrian regime in Damascus. The Lebanon file was effectively wrenched away from the hands of Hikmat Shihabi and Abdel Halim Khaddam and placed squarely in the hands of Hafez Assad's son, Bashar. This development coincided with the fall of power of Rafic Hariri, a close ally of Shihabi and Khaddam. (Hariri's departure shows no one, no matter how wealthy and influential, is indispensable in Syrian calculations). The Lahoud team, riding to power on a platform of combating the corruption of their predecessors, is comprised of individuals who have firm - in some cases familial - ties to high ranking members of Bashar's group in the Syrian regime.
As gloomy as the picture may appear today, Lebanon's embattled but still resilient civil society will undoubtedly be the ultimate salvation of the country. All it needs is the continued support of the outside world, especially the United States.
The Institute, the Council and I appreciate the opportunity to express our concerns and suggestions before this subcommittee. We strongly urge you to consider and incorporate them in your appropriations decisions and in other deliberations regarding U.S. policy towards Lebanon and we remain hopeful that in the end democracy and justice will prevail.