About eight months after Hassan Diab was appointed Lebanon's prime minister, his government dissolved on Monday became a caretaker one. Corruption in the country, explained the computer engineer and former education minister, is "bigger than the state," in a brief televised speech formally announcing his resignation.
Diab did not name any of the mechanisms of corruption he was referring to, but they're well known in Lebanon as it is: political leaders, top banking officials, tycoons, agents, cronies and the system as a whole.
Diab’s government was born out of hardship following the resignation of Lebanon’s previous prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, who left his post in the wake of large-scale protests last October.
Diab inherited the worst economic crisis Lebanon had ever known, alongside the "traditional" array of pressure that determine how the regime operates and how it makes its decisions.
The powerful Shi'ite group Hezbollah – together with President Michel Aoun – dictated the government’s agenda; ministers began their day by leveling criticism at the prime minister and other ministers. The coronavirus pandemic did its part, exposing the country's gaping fiscal hole, and the banks put a stop to withdrawal of dollars. Salaries were paid late, if at all, and hospital debts swelled into billions of dollars, with the penniless country shut out of funding resources.
The Lebanese government was on the verge of collapse even before the Beirut blast. Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti resigned a day earlier, followed by more ministers and seven members of parliament in the wake of the diaster.
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The Beirut port was a corrupt institution in its own right; it financed mobsters and politicians, and the government saw only some 40 percent of its income, despite being its owner. It was the final straw that put an end to the government, and one of the purest symbols of the country’s corrupt system.
The mass protests that erupted on Monday, as the prime minister was giving his departure speech, and spilled into violence, are a clear sign that his resignation would not calm the Lebanese public. The army and security forces are hardly able to reign in the demonstrations or disperse them, and on the streets there are already calls to use weapons. The distance between vocal confrontations and armed clashes is narrowing.
The demonstrators demand not only to replace the government, but also to kick out all those in parliament, who are accomplices in what is being described as a crime against the nation. Diab already mentioned early parliamentary elections last week, but at a time when Lebanon badly needs a stable government that could negotiate with donor state and secure significant aid that would pull it out of its crisis, which has only deepened following the blast, it seems its resignation would only make it worse and stall aid. But faced with a growing civil unrest, Diab had no choice but to hand over the government's keys to the president.
President Aoun can now quickly appoint a new prime minister who would form a government, one that would calm the public and manage the crisis. But agreeing on a government at this point in time sounds like science fiction. Any prime minister that may be appointed would have to get the support of those same corrupt elites the public has lost trust in, without really having any of the tools needed to enact even the slightest bit of reform to convince international donors to pool funds and efforts for Lebanon.
True, French President Emmanuel Macron managed to raise about $300 million in international aid rather quickly. But these funds are meant for those directly affected by the Beirut port blast, find shelters for about 300,000 residents left without a home, repair businesses that were damaged by the explosion and support struggling health services, working beyond their full capacity.
Before accepting this aid, the Lebanese government and donor states will have to establish mechanisms to oversee its use, as a condition for transferring funds is that it won't be banked by the government or any of its representatives, but go directly to those affected or to aid organizations. These funds can't be used by the government to repay its $90-billion debt – about 170 percent of the country's GDP, rebuild the national electricity company, the country's industry or Beirut's port.
Long way to a vote
Any new government would start from the same point Diab's outgoing government left off, serving the remainder of its tenure as a caretaker cabinet without any authority to make actual decisions on budget or policy.
But calling early parliamentary elections, as the public demands, would be a far more complicated and exhausting process. The fundamental question is what law would govern this ballot.
The law passed in 2017 disadvantaged the Sunni parties while benefiting Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah. Thus the Sunni bloc, led by Hariri and his Al-Mustaqbal party, is expected to object to using that law and demand changes that would help the Sunnis increase their representation in parliament.
But even if agreements were reached over the electoral system, holding a vote during the coronavirus pandemic, with all the technical arrangements and social distancing the virus necessitates, could run into real or fabricated problems, since the stronger parties, such as Hezbollah and Aoun’s party, will try to thwart any step that could undermine their political power.
Thus the most realistic solution would be to form a new government that would commit to holding an election within a specified time period. But even this path is a minefield, because any such government would have to implement a series of major economic reforms if it wanted to obtain the long-term assistance that the country needs.
The Syrian model
When Macron visited Beirut after the explosion, he made it clear that any aid would be conditional on carrying out reforms. These would include reining in government expenditure, conducting a transparent probe of the central bank and its decision-making processes, reforming the banking system, passing stringent anti-corruption legislation and adopting a “new political pact,” whose import the political leadership is still trying to understand.
Did Macron mean abolishing the current sectarian method of divvying up the country’s power centers and instituting a new method? Did he mean removing Hezbollah from the cabinet and parliament? Did he mean creating avenues for political cooperation with the protest movements?
Each of these questions would lay the groundwork for a bitter political dispute among the interested parties who have milked the country for decades and brought it to the economic abyss in which it is now trapped.
Whatever decision is made cannot be disconnected from the loud voices arising from the city streets. The Lebanese public has already proved its power to alter reality through demonstrations. Protests are what led Syrian forces to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005; they have also toppled governments. Now, the protesters will serve as a kind of shadow parliament that will monitor the activities of whatever government arises.
But without permanent, organized aid and an economic safety net under international auspices, Lebanon may well become an arena for international competition in which countries like China, Russia, Iran and Turkey would try to obtain economic, and of course political, footholds. That is exactly what happened in Syria and is now happening in Libya.