The big headlines that followed a speech by Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, according to which “Lebanon is facing a social explosion in a matter of days,” did not particularly impress Anne Grillo, the French ambassador in Beirut.
Diab had summoned foreign ambassadors to a special emergency meeting, at which he voiced his plea for saving Lebanon, while at the same time accusing the international community of laying siege to the country. He was apparently expecting international solidarity and a swift commitment to extricate his country from the crisis that has been strangling it for two years. But Grillo, the representative of the country that has done more than any other to help Lebanon, couldn’t restrain herself. Right after the host finished talking, she clarified to him what was the source of Lebanon’s troubles.
“What is frightening, honorable prime minister, is that this brutal shattering is the expected result of failed management and of years of inaction. It is not a result of a siege. You are the one responsible for this result, you’re all responsible, the entire political echelon, that’s the reality,” she said.
Grillo knows what she's talking about, as do the other ambassadors, heads of state and Lebanon’s well-wishers. The most serious crisis ever experienced by Lebanon is the handiwork of its politicians. The “siege” referred to by Diab is the unwillingness of donor states to throw billions of dollars more into the bottomless pit of Lebanon, money which will go directly into the pockets of the elites. Grillo reminded Diab that the fact that a transitional government was managing the state did not explain his insistence on not holding meetings or taking decisions on the implementation of reforms. There is no reason why the current government cannot hold negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and reach some understandings, at least with regard to reforms the IMF demands before it lends money to Lebanon.
“The “lachrymose speech” by Diab, as it was called in some Lebanese newspapers, did not particularly move Arab ambassadors either. Qatar’s deputy foreign minister, Mohammed al-Thani, declared with pathos that his country would always stand by Lebanon and that Qatar would now make an effort to overcome the hurdles that are delaying the establishment of a new government. But with regard to financial assistance, Qatar is for now making do with dispatching 70 tons of food and medicine every month to Lebanon’s army.
The formation of a government is a condition for getting a donation of $11 billion that was promised three years ago, as well as loans from international finance institutions and other aid that Lebanon’s friends might donate. The assumption is that a new consensual government would take the difficult economic and legal decisions that would justify such aid, and establish a monitoring mechanism of the aid that is transparent and devoid of corruption. This is a very ambitious hypothesis, as experience has shown.
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In order for this government to be set up, the deep-seated dispute between Saad al-Hariri and President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil (Hariri’s fierce rival) must be resolved. Aoun rejected the composition of the government proposed by al-Hariri and demands the addition of two more Christian ministers, a demand Hariri opposes. But this is “only” the smaller obstacle. The more volatile land mine is the 86-year-old Aoun’s desire to be re-elected to another term after his present one expires in May 2022, or to ensure that Bassil is the next president.
Lebanon’s president is elected by parliament, requiring the approval of two thirds of the lawmakers. Aoun is worried that if early elections are held, as demanded by al-Hariri, his movement, the Free Patriotic Movement, headed by his son-in-law, would lose strength given the deep erosion in public support that has hurt both of them in the last two years. Aoun has so far relied on the political alliance he forged with Hezbollah in 2006, thanks to which he became a president who can maneuver the government.
Five years ago, Hezbollah persuaded a veteran Christian politician and grandson of a former prime minister to run against Aoun – Suleiman Frangieh. They could change direction and support him again, as he had been a stalwart supporter of theirs in the past. Therefore, the longer the Aouns can postpone the election and the decision on who is president, they believe they’ll better their chances to maneuver one of themselves into the office – the incumbent or the son-in-law. Meanwhile, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who is exploiting the crisis, is presenting a multifaceted position. Along with his support for Aoun he does not oppose al-Hariri as prime minister and even supports the compromise proposed by al-Hariri, although he does not express his positions publicly.
This week, as the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri proposed finding an alternative candidate for forming a government, Nasrallah associates said that there was no point in this proposal since any other candidate would face the same problem, which is why it would be better if al-Hariri formed a government.
Nasrallah faces a dual dilemma. On one hand, he is careful not to be seen as someone who’s foiling the establishment of a government; he even “granted” the government permission to negotiate with Israel over the marking of maritime boundaries. He has been assured that al-Hariri won’t impinge on the status and power of Hezbollah if he forms a government. Hezbollah was therefore angered by reports that Aoun and Gebran Bassil intend to make a pilgrimage to Bashar al-Assad to ask for his assistance in forming a government to their liking. Nasrallah does not want any mediation that does not pass through him, even if it’s Assad.
On the other hand, Hezbollah must prepare for a situation in which international pressure and the economic crisis will dictate an external policy that would demand to remove the organization from government. It’s doubtful whether such an initiative would succeed. The dispute between France, which does not oppose including the organization in a government, and the U.S., which still cleaves to its traditional stance whereby a terror movement has no place in a government, is too deep to allow an agreement to be reached. Even in the international arena, Hezbollah can feel relatively safe.
The political mess is not unrelated to concerns about economic reforms, which could affect the money channels which supply the larger parties and their leaders. Hezbollah is less dependent on state budgets and the Lebanese banking system; its independent sources, particularly Iran, provide it with the financial cushion it needs. Regardless, the organization isn't willing to give up its share in the state budget that comes through the government ministries it is responsible for. Therefore, Hezbollah must ensure that its inclusion in any government is preserved, and that its control of economic ministries is maintained.
The chances of doing the politically impossible depend on whether donor countries agree to move up their financial assistance before a government is formed. Either that or they’ll continue letting the country go under until there is no choice but to provide it with vital aid so that its citizens can at least survive. In both cases, the result will be the same. Another option is to give Lebanon designated and focused aid such as fuel for essential services, a bolstering of electricity supplies through ships, the financing of essential projects under international monitoring, not through Lebanon’s government, and the strengthening of Lebanon’s army, which is on the brink of bankruptcy. All these will not solve the political crisis or advance economic reforms, but they may afford Lebanon some breathing room.