Lebanon’s anguish grows

Summary: With another prime minister gone and Hezbollah blocking the effort to end sectarian government, the people of Lebanon continue to bear a terrible price for the failures of political leadership.

It is nearly a month since Mustapha Adib, Lebanon’s highly respected former ambassador to Germany resigned as prime minister, a premiership that itself lasted barely a month. Adib’s attempts to form a government of technocrats foundered on the shoals of the country’s sectarian politics and chief among the villains was Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Hezbollah and its Shia ally in parliament Amal had refused to surrender control of key portfolios including the finance ministry. Lebanon’s political structure, known as confessionalism, emerged from the effort to liberate the country from French colonial rule. It requires a Sunni Muslim prime minister, a Christian president and a Shia speaker with each sect having control of various ministries.

It was a structure that in the best of times brought stability but also enormous wealth to the various political elites who thrived on a culture of endemic corruption. But as the corruption worsened and the economy flagged, the gulf between ordinary Lebanese and the ultra wealthy elite grew. In October of last year, street protests  began, demanding an end to the stranglehold the wealthy held, to corruption and to the sectarianism of the political structure that enables it. The protests, largely peaceful, grew to the point where the then prime minister Saad Hariri was forced to resign. He remained as caretaker until Hassan Diab took over in January. As Diab showed no competence in resolving the grievances, protesters took to the streets even as Covid-19 began to emerge. (Diab resigned in the wake of the 4 August Beirut port explosion.)

A crowd gathers besides the site of the blast (photocredit: Nabil Ismail)

The hope of the protesters was that as the country was gripped by a deepening economic crisis a non-sectarian structure would emerge. Those hopes have been repeatedly dashed and the protesters must feel as if they have gone a long and painful march only to return to the starting point.

After Mustapha Adib threw in the towel, former prime minister Hariri, whose family is deeply engaged in the banking sector responsible for much of the economic collapse Lebanon finds itself in, has said he is prepared to serve once again. “I am definitely a candidate” for prime minister, Hariri announced during a live interview on the MTV television network. “I will not close the door on the only hope left for Lebanon to stem this collapse.”

It will be a bitter irony if Hariri, who proclaims himself as “the only hope”, does return. But many Lebanese who are struggling with hyperinflation – the Lebanese pound has lost 80% of its value in less than a year – food insecurity, the after effects of the harbour explosion, massive unemployment and an escalating Covid-19 epidemic may have nothing left but to give a shrug of indifference to whoever does emerge as prime minister.

It may be too that French President Emmanuel Macron after investing a good deal of political capital into the Lebanese crisis may shrug as well.  He had been quick on the scene of the port blast and had demanded that a government of technocrats be assembled and that the political patronage networks that have bedevilled the country be dismantled. Behaving rather in the vein of a  paternalistic colonial master Macron held out the carrot of enabling billions of dollars of foreign assistance while brandishing the stick of sanctions if his demands were not met. (Macron never made clear how exactly France would impose and enforce sanctions)

After Hezbollah and Amal’s refusal to surrender control of the finance and other ministries caused Adib’s resignation, the president’s fury was that of a stern father thwarted by a wayward child. “I see,” said Macron at a hastily called press conference, “that the Lebanese authorities and political forces chose to favour their partisan and individual interests to the detriment of the general interest of the country.”

And Macron issued a stern warning to Hezbollah that it should “not think it is more powerful than it is…. It must show that it respects all the Lebanese. And in recent days, it has clearly shown the opposite.” He added “Hezbollah can’t be at the same time an army at war with Israel, an unrestrained militia against civilians in Syria and a respectable party in Lebanon.”

Seizing on Macron’s attack, the Israelis see an opportunity to expand their efforts to isolate Hassan Nasrallah and his organization both internationally and within Lebanon. Thus it was that Benjamin Netanyahu in his UN address accused Hezbollah of storing weapons and building weapons factories in civilian neighbourhoods. With the trauma of the port explosion (caused by dangerously stored ammonium nitrate) which killed more than 200 and injured hundreds more still reverberating in Beirut and throughout the country, the claim, though denied by Hezbollah, struck home.

But whether such tactics will dislodge Nasrallah from the firm grip he still holds over the political system, discredited as it is, remains to be seen.  After all, Hariri’s two premierships from 2009-2011 and 2016 -2020 were backed by Hezbollah and Amal. His first collapsed after the two withdrew support. It is only with their backing that he can gain another. It would be, in the circumstances, a perverse marriage of convenience.

As the political impasse continues, the contraction of the country’s economy is accelerating, causing even more misery. The World Bank in its October report noted that real GDP is projected to decline by nearly 20% this year. The report details in stark terms Lebanon’s dilemma:

“Lebanon’s recession is likely to be arduous and prolonged given the lack of policymaking leadership….A key risk is hyperinflationary. The Social impact already dire, could become catastrophic; half the population is falling below the poverty line, unemployment is rising rapidly. Currency deterioration and the resulting inflationary effects are highly regressive factors, disproportionally affecting the poor and middle class.”

As if that wasn’t grim enough, in a health system ravaged by corruption and shortages of both staff and medicine, Covid-19 continues its rampage through the country.  As of 20 October there are more than 34,000 active cases. At the beginning of July that figure was less than 2000.

Michel Aoun, the 85 year old president and very much a part of the old system had said days before Adib quit that Lebanon was “headed to hell” if the former ambassador could not form a government.  For ordinary Lebanese hell is where they already are.

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