Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation Tuesday did not come as a surprise. In June he told people close to him that if he failed to win support for his proposed economic reforms, he would return the figurative keys to the government to President Michel Aoun. But Hariri held on, despite the harsh criticism of his proposals and the absence of the support needed to implement them.
Earlier this week he said that if blood were to be spilled in the streets of Beirut, he would resign immediately. Blood was spilled; he didn’t step down. On Tuesday he declared that he had reached a “dead end” and had no choice but to go “to the Baabda [presidential palace] to present the resignation of the government.” The dead end, however, did not begin when the protests in Lebanon did, around two weeks ago.
Lebanon is drowning in a national debt representing over 150 percent of gross domestic product, the state electricity company is bankrupt, its water sources are contaminated, unemployment is soaring and the presence of over a million Syrian refugees is further straining the country’s economic, political and social fabric. Exports to Arab states stalled due to the war in Syria, the hope of a bonanza from offshore natural gas has been held up by a maritime border dispute with Israel, and the promised $16.5 billion in aid from donor nations has been set aside until Lebanon’s political situation stabilizes.
One could well ask why it took eight years, apart from sporadic demonstrations over power cuts and the lack of garbage collection, for protesters to take to the streets. The demonstrators, mainly young university students and unemployed people, aren’t settling for achieving one of their main goals, without bloodshed and without dragging Lebanon into civil war — for now. They want to change the structure of government, to pass a new election law, to root out corruption and stabilize the economy.
Changing the system of government, which entails eliminating the power-sharing quotas among the country’s religious sects, has been a dream since the signing of the 1989 Taif Agreement ending the civil war. The new constitution introduced significant changes that eroded the political monopoly of the major sects, but in practice the confessional system still dictates the political structure and the allocation of resources. It created strange coalitions such as the one that Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, forged with Hezbollah, and the support of some Lebanese Druze for Hezbollah, in opposition to the alliance between the sect’s leader, Walid Jumblatt, with Hariri.
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These alliances have kept the Lebanese government afloat. Since May 2018, when Hariri returned as prime minister, the government has been in chaos, with political alliances based on narrow and often conflicting interests. These include Hezbollah’s pact with the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is also Aoun’s son-in-law. Bassil, who hopes to succeed his father-in-law as president, turned into the political bomb that destroys every initiative Hariri tries to put forward, particularly in the area of economics.
In June Bassil planted two bombs. The first was a demand to repatriate all the foreign workers and Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. The second came when he demanded “the restoration of all Maronite political rights after the Sunni Muslims stepped on its corpse.” He also demanded the dismissal of certain senior government officials and the appointment of others, all aimed at destroying what he called the Sunni monopoly in Lebanon. The support of Hezbollah and of Aoun for Bassil rendered Hariri politically impotent.
His resignation and that of his cabinet theoretically open the door to a new opportunity, but only if the political powers agree to install a government of technocrats, appointed without reference to their religious or ethnic identities. The protesters have made it clear that neither Bassil nor the Hezbollah cabinet members can serve in it. Even if the agreement is obtained, it’s doubtful that the required neutral, untainted technocrats could be find.
Another option is to make Hariri head of a caretaker government and call new elections, a move Hezbollah might support. It’s not clear that the protesters will be satisfied by this. Going on past experience, in the end a compromise will be reached that will satisfy no one but will allow the state to survive until the next crisis.