Analysis |

The French President Has a New Country to Run – Lebanon

Macron’s behavior is reminiscent of France’s colonial past, but even political powerhouses like Hezbollah realize they have no choice but to work with him

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Emmanuel Macron comforts a Lebanese youth during a visit to a heavily damaged neighborhood in Beirut, on August 6, 2020. Credit: AFP

The new prime minister-designate of Lebanon, Mustapha Adib, started his journey to this impossible role on the wrong foot. According to reports in Lebanon, he boarded a plane from Berlin to Beirut without being tested for the coronavirus. The urgent phone calls that flew back and forth between the two capitals eventually ironed out the problem, but the storm had already been touched off, and with it, criticism that the future premier is beginning his term by breaking the law.

Like that flight, arrangements for Adib to take the position were also conducted through hasty phone calls. Adib is not a skilled politician; he is an academic who has been Lebanon’s ambassador to Germany in recent years. His crash course in Politics 101 was his time as bureau chief of former Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati in 2011. It’s unlikely he’ll shake up the political system, accomplish thorough reforms or remake a regime that for decades has been in the hands of the elites who have turned the state coffers into personal assets. His greatest and perhaps only advantage is that the senior politicians could all agree on him.

Adib, a Sunni Muslim, is very close to the Shi’ite Amal movement and Hezbollah. He is friendly with Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, and has received the blessing of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. No less important is Adib’s francophone tendencies, under the influence of his French wife, which ensures France and its president, Emmanuel Macron, an attentive ear in the government. The pressure to appoint Adib stems mainly from Macron’s visit, which began on Monday and continues Tuesday, and from the Lebanese president’s pledge to present to the guest at least a new prime minister to show his commitment to beginning the fixes that France demands.

Macron, visiting a second time in under a month, said he has not returned to Lebanon to overhaul the regime but to ensure that the commitments he received in his first visit on August 6 are implemented. “If we let Lebanon go in the region and if we somehow leave it in the hands of the depravity of regional powers, it will be civil war,” he said before his visit.

His wording is especially cautious. Macron does not name these regional powers, Hezbollah or Iran. There are landmines he knows to avoid. But in Lebanon they remember very well his statement on his previous visit expecting a “new political order” in that country; that is, one avoiding the distribution of power and funding by ethnicity or confession.

That is a key statement that worries the elites because a change in the power structure could mean the end of their control of the financial pipeline, control that mired the country in a $90 billion debt, brought public services crashing down, mainly water and electricity, and indirectly led to the horrific explosion in the port of Beirut. Of all people, it was Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, against whom criticism has risen in recent weeks, who responded to the French demand and said in his speech on Sunday that he is “open to any calm discussion for a new political contract but on the condition it take place with agreement from all Lebanese factions.”

This is ostensibly a conciliatory statement but means in the Lebanese lexicon that Hezbollah will be part of any solution and any regime structure. That is, whoever hoped that Macron’s initiative would remove Hezbollah from centers of power had better not hold their breath. This statement also answers President Aoun’s festive declaration on Sunday that he supports a civil and democratic state; that is, one that does not rely on a religious key for distribution of power.

While this is music to the ears of the guest from France, bringing it about is like the vision of the valley of dry bones coming alive.

Lebanon's newly-appointed Prime Minister Mustapha Adib, center, visiting Beirut's badly-hit Gemmayzeh neighborhood, on August 31, 2020.Credit: AFP

The Taif Agreement of 1989, which ended Lebanon’s civil war, set the distribution of power by faction. It states that Muslims and Christians will have an equal number of members of parliament – 54 each out of the 128 seats; Druze and independent candidates get the remaining seats.

This distribution, denying both ethnic factions the majority needed to form a government, was meant to compel them to cooperate. But this regime created strange coalitions that left the government in the hands of permanent elites and gave Hezbollah huge political leverage in dictating policies. Now Hezbollah is proposing, as part of its show of “flexibility” to amend the Taif Agreement so leadership positions will be distributed among three factions – Sunnis, Shi’ites and Christians. Such a division would inherently grant more power to Muslims in general and to Shi’ites in particular; Christians would have to be comatose to agree to this.

Macron knows full well the political entanglement in Lebanon, just as he understands that to many Lebanese people, he represents Lebanon’s French colonial history. Criticism of the fact that the French “high commissioner” is coming to issue diktats to the Lebanese government that conform to French taste, has already appeared in some media outlets. But Macron also knows how to put on a show to offset this criticism. He invited himself to the north Beirut home of singer Fairuz, a symbol of national and cultural unity that crosses ethnic and religious cleavages not only in Lebanon but throughout the Middle East. A word of welcome and encouragement from Fairuz certainly can’t hurt, but it won’t be enough.

Macron, who raised some $300 million in assistance to the victims of the port explosion, also holds the key to releasing $11 billion in contributions that donor countries pledged in 2018. These commitments, along with loans in the neighborhood of about $10 billion that Lebanon is seeking from the International Monetary Fund, are waiting for an authorized Lebanese government and a true reform program.

These reforms will require changing the status of Lebanon’s Central Bank and the way it is managed, and of the banking system in general, drastically cutting government spending and passing laws to attract investment. None of this can happen before a government is formed. But even assuming a government will be formed quickly, contrary to Lebanese tradition, it will be a caretaker government lasting about a year at best.

One of this government’s purposes will be to prepare the country for general elections according to a new elections law, which will meet the demands of the protest movement that brought down the previous government. If it wants to survive, Lebanon seemingly has no choice but to act according to Macron’s proposed plan. Inflation, which jumped to more than 50 percent; unemployment, which stands at 35 percent; the burden of refugees, the greatest in the world per capita; frozen commerce and industry; and the lira that has tumbled in value by more than 70 percent relative to the dollar are a mere distilled extract of the economic crisis. The money that can save the country awaits, but it lies on the other side of a vast, deep political chasm.

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