“Hello hello hello ho, Gebran Bassil koos emo” – this rhyming ditty blew up on Lebanese social media and graced the walls of government buildings in Beirut after the mass demonstrations against the government began in October. Bassil is the former foreign minister and son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, and the rhyme makes a dirty reference to his mother. It has appeared in myriad forms, including a remix performed by a philharmonic orchestra.
It was Bassil’s dispute with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri that ignited the political storm that led to Hariri’s resignation at the end of October. Bassil ceased to be foreign minister once the new Lebanese government was established under Hassan Diab, but he and his father-in-law, together with Hezbollah and the Shi’ite movement Amal, are the founders of the government now dubbed “the Hezbollah government.” The cabinet consists of 20 ministers. Six are women, and one of those women – Zeina Akar Adra – is the country’s first female defense minister, and a deputy prime minister to boot.
Ostensibly, it’s a government of experts. All the ministers have academic degrees, though not necessarily in the field they are responsible for. The prime minister himself published about 150 academic papers in economics and computer engineering, and is an accredited engineer and member of the engineering associations of Lebanon, the United Kingdom and Australia. But each one is also politically supported by their connection to the leadership of a represented party – or to the leaders personally.
There are no representatives of Saad Hariri’s Al-Mustaqbal (“The Future”) movement, the Druze party controlled by Walid Jumblatt, or any Hezbollah opponents. All refused to cooperate with the prime minister and answer his call to establish a true unity government. The soubriquet “government of experts” has been mocked by opponents who note that the defense minister has no experience in defense, the culture minister is also the agriculture minister, and the health minister is a representative of Hezbollah.
The fact that Lebanon does have a government is an achievement in and of itself in a divided nation, where it usually takes many months to form an accredited government. The question is whether it can run the country and overcome the huge obstacles Lebanon faces. The national debt has accrued to about $90 billion, 155 percent of GDP; unemployment is between 35 to 40 percent among young people. Prime Minister Diab vowed in his inaugural speech to fight corruption, stabilize politics and bring investors who would save the economy from crisis. But when each minister represents the interests of his or her cronies, and with Hezbollah representatives in charge of the economic portfolio, the vaunted struggle against corruption could remain mere words.
Where are the pledges?
The government’s first task will be to convince the donor nations, which have pledged about $11 billion in rescue funds that it can ensure the conditions laid down by the donors are fulfilled. It will have to show that the corruption that feeds on the donations will be uprooted, and that it will cut government spending, which is often funneled into the pockets of party leaders and political movements. This is a highly complex mission vis-à-vis party leaders in Lebanon, who have become accustomed to receiving money without supervision, and vis-à-vis the donor countries, too.
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It recently became public that the European Union is investigating the disappearance of tens of millions of dollars donated to the Lebanese government to help resolve the garbage crisis, which caused unrest starting in 2015. The government's action plan at the time seemed serious, but it ended up being false presentations designed to line the pockets of the prime minister’s associates.
Diab’s administration presents a dilemma for the United States, which will have to decide whether to continue aiding it and allocating money for military procurement given Hezbollah’s pull in the government. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that Washington still doesn’t know whether it will continue to work with the new government in Beirut. The decision will certainly affect Saudi Arabia’s willingness to donate its part of the funding.
Throughout the years during which Lebanon was led by Saad Hariri and his father Rafik (who was assassinated in 2005), Riyadh was the Lebanese government’s main financial sponsor. If Saudi Arabia disclaims the new government, it could enable Qatar – a Saudi rival and Iranian ally – to take its place. On the other hand, Saudi aid to a “Hezbollah government” isn’t exactly on the road map drawn by the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is striving to impede Iran’s regional influence. Without Saudi help and without American backing, the foreign investors Lebanon is counting on to leverage its rehabilitation aren’t likely to flock in to develop economic infrastructure or build factories that could reduce unemployment.
The government is likely to try begging from the International Monetary Fund and other international financing entities, but these institutions make their financing contingent on onerous conditions that would force the government to institute far-reaching structural reforms. Nations stronger than Lebanon, like Egypt or Jordan, have had trouble implementing the IMF’s provisions. Lebanon is unlikely to be able to offer sufficient guarantees to obtain the life-giving loans.
In Lebanon, governments often start planning for the end the moment they rise to their feet. Here, too, the pages of the Hassan Diab calendar are already flying.