Lebanon remains in a political dead end as the battle continues between President Michel Aoun and appointed Prime Minister Saad Hariri over the formation of a new government even as the country suffers the worst economic crisis in its history, exacerbated by the devastating August explosion at a port in Beirut.
Lebanon’s political class has still failed to form a government, seven months after the departure of Prime Minister Hassan Diab amid outrage over the port blast and despite the country struggling with an economic crisis that has seen the Lebanese pound lose 80 percent of its value since 2019.
A sense of crisis has devastated the Lebanese political class since an unprecedented protest movement broke out over corruption and deteriorating living standards in October 2019, with protesters angry at politicians on all sides of Lebanon’s sectarian divisions.
‘Questions about ego’
Political leaders are strongly divided over the composition of Saad Hariri’s government – even rowing over the exact number of cabinet ministers. As the international community pressured Lebanon for political reforms in exchange for aid following the Beirut port explosion – particularly French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Lebanon twice after the disaster – Hariri agreed to form a new government to implement structural change.
In revolt, Aoun issued an ultimatum to the designated prime minister and former prime minister, urging Hariri to either form an immediate government or resign.
“Lebanon’s political class continues its long habit of fighting and fighting for resources, but – with hyperinflation and unpleasant poverty – it is as if they are struggling over a ruinous field, where there is not much left to divide or steal,” says Karim Émile Bitar , Head of the Institute of Political Science at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut and Assistant Researcher at IRIS (French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs).
“Instead of agreeing to form a government to save what is left of Lebanon, politicians are consumed by issues of ego,” Bitar continued. “They do not worry about future generations. they are always thinking about the next election. ”
Lebanon’s political system, formed as part of the peace agreement that ended the 1975-1990 civil war, divides power between its three main religious communities – requiring a Maronite president, a Sunni prime minister and a Shia speaker for parliament. Hariri, the de facto leader of the Sunni Muslim bloc, and Aoun, the founder of the Maronite Christian bloc, accuse each other of blocking the formation of a new government.
“Hariri wants his 18-member cabinet to consist mainly of technocrats who do not belong to Lebanon’s political class,” Bitar said. “Aoun wants to appoint the Christian ministers himself – while reminding Hariri that the appointed prime minister is largely a member of the political class and not a technocrat, and that he has appointed ministers from his Sunni society.”
The special interests of various Middle Eastern powers in Lebanon are another reason why a new government has not been formed. Bitar said US President Joe Biden’s desire to rejoin Iran’s nuclear deal has prompted Lebanese politicians to adopt a wait-and-see approach to what will happen in possible US-Iran negotiations, as a new nuclear deal could lower tensions in the region and change the dynamics of Lebanese politics.
“The only way we could see the different sides of Lebanon’s political divide coming together is if there is a regional tension that allows the foreign sponsors of Lebanon’s various denominational groups to stop arguing,” Bitar said. “It has been the pattern throughout recent Lebanese history – from the 1989 Taif Agreement that began to end the civil war to the Doha Agreement that averted a potential civil war in 2008: international actors are committed to ending a dispute that the Lebanese cannot resolve themselves. ”
‘Waiting for Godot’
Lebanon has long been a French foreign policy priority due to the strong cultural ties that have existed between the two countries since France’s rule over the country from 1923 to 1946 under a national federal mandate. But Macron’s efforts to encourage reform have gone nowhere. He accused the Lebanese political class of “betrayal” for failing to get the ball rolling with reforms during his second visit in September.
“Lebanon’s political class – which is completely incompetent in terms of governance but very effective at staying in power – played a game in which it pretended to listen to Macron while in the eyes of the world’s attention after the Beirut bombing, without really do everything to follow through, Bitar said.
When Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in the US presidential election in November, there was similar talk that Washington would break the deadlock and strengthen Beirut for reforms, Beitar reminded. But again, nothing happened. “Now we are told that we will wait for the Iranian presidential election in June,” Beitar said. “It’s like ‘Waiting for Godot.'”
“The next Lebanese government will be a poisoned lime,” Bitar continued. “And it complicates things even more – because everyone knows that whoever is in the new cabinet, no matter how good or bad they are at work, will have to deal with a very difficult situation. So the chances are that they will become extremely unpopular very quickly. ”
Hence Diab’s complaint to the Financial Times on Wednesday that the failure to form a new government means he had to remain prime minister with a salary of less than $ 1,000 a month: “It’s the only job in the world where you resign and then you ‘ stuck, he said. “You have to deal with all the problems and you can see the problems and how they unite.
Diab met new demonstrations this week over hyperinflation, with protesters trying to storm the Ministry of Economy building on Wednesday. Inflation reached 146 percent in 2020, official statistics show. With Lebanon registering more than 400,000 cases of Covid-19, economists say the pandemic has exacerbated the economic crisis.
“Many Lebanese are dumfounded when they see their currency collapse longer and more every day as their savings evaporate,” Bitar said. “It simply came to our notice then. Diab’s government has acknowledged that it is completely impotent – with an energy minister announcing that electricity will be cut off in two weeks, an interior minister saying security forces can no longer ensure human safety and a prime minister who has resigned and does not want to do the job . ”
Bits is pessimistic about Lebanon’s future. “One can see a certain revolutionary feeling revived in recent days, but people are tired of all the social and economic problems they have gone through – they are not convinced that demonstrating a mass would change anything.”
“An opposition with a clear vision and leadership has not yet emerged to take over Lebanon if protests develop real revolutionary momentum,” Bitar concluded. “The Lebanese people understand this. But it is worrying, because it means that the country is trapped in its current state – a kind of stunned anger, which can easily turn into either mass depression or an explosion of violence. ”
This article was translated from the original in French.