Lebanon, Pushed to the Brink, Faces Reckoning Over Graft

Allies, investors and nationwide protests press government to fix corrupt system and enact reform

Lebanese protesters demand an ouster of politicians who have monopolized power and influence for decades, October 21, 2019.
AFP

Lebanon is closer to a financial crisis than at any time since at least the war-torn 1980s as allies, investors and this week nationwide protests pile pressure on the government, demanding that it tackle a corrupt system and enact long-promised reforms.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s government approved sweeping reforms on Monday, hoping to appease the thousands of protesters that had taken to the streets for the previous five days, calling on the government to step down. Earlier the government had backtracked on a plan to tax WhatsApp voice calls.

The country – among the world’s most indebted and quickly running out of dollar reserves – urgently needs to convince regional allies and Western donors it is finally serious about tackling entrenched problems such as its unreliable and wasteful electricity sector.

Without a foreign funding boost, Lebanon risks a currency devaluation or even defaulting on debts within months, according to interviews with nearly 20 government officials, politicians, bankers and investors.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said in a televised speech on Friday that he gave a paper at an economic crisis meeting in September saying Lebanon needed “an electric shock.”

“I also said that what little remains of the financial balance might not last us longer than the end of the year if we do not adopt the necessary policies,” he said, without describing what he meant by financial balance.

Beirut has repeatedly vowed to maintain the value of the dollar-pegged Lebanese pound and honor its debts on time.

But countries that in the past reliably financed bailouts have run out of patience with its mismanagement and graft, and they are using the deepening economic and social crisis to press for change, the sources told Reuters.

These include Arab Gulf states whose enthusiasm to help Lebanon has been undermined by the growing clout in Beirut of Tehran-backed Hezbollah, and what they see as a need to check Iran’s growing influence across the Middle East.

Western countries have also provided funds that allowed Lebanon to defy gravity for years. But for the first time they have said no new money would flow until the government takes clear steps toward reforms it has long only promised.

Lebanese demonstrators during a protest against dire economic conditions, Beirut, October 18, 2019
AFP

Their hope is to see it move towards fixing a system that sectarian politicians have used to deploy state resources to their own advantage through patronage networks instead of building a functional state.

A crisis could stoke further unrest in a country hosting some one million refugees from neighboring Syria, where a Turkish incursion in the northeast this month has opened a new front in an eight-year war.

“If the situation remains, and there are no radical reforms, a devaluation of the currency is inevitable,” said Toufic Gaspard, a former adviser to Lebanon’s finance ministry and former economist at its central bank and the International Monetary Fund.

“Since September a new era has begun,” he added. “The red flags are large and everywhere, especially with the central bank paying up to 13% to borrow dollars.”

The first reform on Beirut’s agenda is one of the most intractable: fixing chronic power outages that make private generators a costly necessity, a problem many see as the main symbol of corruption that has left services unreliable and infrastructure crumbling.

Hariri, in a televised speech to the nation, said he had been struggling to reform the electricity sector ever since taking office. After “meeting after meeting, committee after committee, proposal after proposal, I got at last to the final step and someone came and said ‘it doesn’t work,’” he said.

Presenting the difficulties of implementing reform more widely, Hariri said every committee required a minimum of nine ministers to keep everyone happy.

“A national unity government? OK, we understand that. But committees of national unity? The result is that nothing works.”

Underscoring the pressure from abroad, Pierre Duquesne, a French ambassador handling so-called CEDRE funding, is traveling to Lebanon next week to press the government on the use of offshore power barges, a banker familiar with the plan said.

Duquesne wants the barges included in the electricity overhaul plan, the person said, requesting anonymity.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri at a news conference, Baabda Palace, October 21, 2019.
\ MOHAMED AZAKIR/ REUTERS

Duquesne could not immediately be reached for comment.

The contents of the 2020 budget will be key to helping unlock some $11 billion conditionally pledged by international donors under last year’s CEDRE conference. But a cabinet meeting on the budget set for Friday was cancelled amid the protests.

‘Tax intifada’

Hariri’s government, which includes nearly all of Lebanon’s main parties, had proposed a tax of 20 cents per day on calls via voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) used by applications including WhatsApp, Facebook and FaceTime.

In a country fractured along sectarian lines, the protests’ unusually wide geographic reach may be a sign of deepening anger with politicians who have jointly led Lebanon into crisis.

Fires were smoldering in central Beirut, where streets were scattered with glass of several smashed shop-fronts. Tear gas was fired on some demonstrators.

The newspaper an-Nahar described it as “a tax intifada,” or uprising. Another daily, al-Akhbar, declared it “the WhatsApp revolution.”

“With this corrupt authority, our kids have no future,” said protester Fadi Issa, 51. “We don’t just want a resignation, we want accountability. They should return all the money they stole. We want change.”

As confidence has faded and dollars have grown scarce, new cracks have emerged between Lebanon’s government and its private lenders, according to several of the bankers, investors and officials who spoke to Reuters.

After years of funding the government with the promise of ever higher rates of return, the banks – sensing the country is approaching collapse – are pressing for it to finally deliver reforms to win over donors.

Lebanese protesters rallying in downtown Beirut, October 20, 2019.
AFP

Most said Lebanon would likely feel more economic and financial strain in the months ahead but avoid haircuts on deposits or a worst-case sovereign default.

Yet Beirut’s years of failure to deliver reforms and the new determination among its traditional donors to press for them has left even top officials, bankers and investors divided over whether a devaluation is in store for the Lebanese pound.

“You need a positive shock. But unfortunately the government thinks reforms can happen without touching the structure that benefits them,” said Nassib Ghobril, head of economic research and analysis at Byblos Bank.

Lebanon must promote reforms to increase capital inflows, he said.

“We can’t keep going to the Emirates and Saudis. We need to help ourselves in order for others to help us.”

Clock ticking

This month, Moody’s put Lebanon’s Caa1 credit rating under review for a downgrade and estimated the central bank, which has stepped in to cover government debt payments, had only $6 billion-$10 billion in usable dollars left to maintain stability.

That compares with some $6.5 billion in debt maturing by the end of next year.

The central bank says its foreign assets stood at $38.1 billion as of October 15.

An official told Reuters that Lebanon has only $10 billion in real reserves. “It is a very dire situation that has five months to correct itself or there will be a collapse, around February,” he said.

Lebanese protesters wave national flags during a rally in downtown Beirut on October 20, 2019.
AFP

Hariri’s government may have only a few months to deliver fiscal reforms to convince France, the World Bank and other parties to the CEDRE agreement to unlock $11 billion in conditional funding.

The head of regional investments for a large U.S. asset manager said Lebanese officials are privately saying a plan that addresses short- and long-term electricity shortages will be announced before year end, after which the government will raise tariffs.

But critics say no concrete steps have been taken despite energy ministry statements that the plan is on track.

Hariri left Paris last month with no immediate cash commitment after visiting French President Emmanuel Macron. Likewise this month he left Abu Dhabi empty-handed after meeting Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

Lawmakers in Beirut struggled to explain what happened in Abu Dhabi after Hariri claimed the United Arab Emirates had promised investments following “positive” talks.

Eyes on Hezbollah

Investors, bankers and economists say at least $10 billion is needed to renew confidence among the Lebanese diaspora who for decades have underpinned the economy by maintaining accounts back home.

But so far this year, deposits have shrunk by about 0.4%.

The government has sought a smaller cushion from Sunni Muslim allies to buy some time. But to secure funding from the UAE or Saudi Arabia, Beirut would likely have to meet conditions meant to weaken Shi’ite Hezbollah’s hand in Lebanon’s government, said several sources.

Hezbollah, which faces U.S. sanctions, is seen to be gaining more control over state resources by naming the health minister in January after last year’s elections brought more of its allies into the legislature.

Leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, September 28, 2019.
AFP

Some say Saudi Arabia, UAE and the United States are motivated to hold out on Beirut as part of their wider policy seeking to weaken Iran and its allies which have been fighting proxy wars with Gulf Arab states on several fronts.

“Their tolerance of Iran and Hezbollah has lowered significantly. The ‘Lebanese exception’ is gone,” said Sami Nader, Beirut-based director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.

“The balance has tilted and we are now at odds with our former friends because Hezbollah now has the upper hand politically.”

The former regional head at a major Western bank put it bluntly: “People have lost patience with the corruption in which a frozen Parliament with no authority is simply divvying up the pie among politicians.”

“But at the end of the day the Lebanese political class usually succeeds in convincing allies that they should not let the system collapse and bring civil war again,” he added.

Waning trust

Lebanon, straddling the Middle East’s main sectarian lines, was historically the region’s foreign-exchange hub into which deposits flowed, especially since 1997, when its currency was pegged to the dollar at 1,507.5 pounds.

But after a reckoning in August and September in which the cost of insuring Lebanon’s sovereign debt surged to a record high, things have changed.

Depositors, including the diaspora drawn by rates much higher than in Europe or the United States, are pulling funds in the face of Lebanon’s swelling twin deficits, inability to secure foreign funding, and unorthodox central bank efforts to attract dollar inflows.

Among Lebanon’s six million citizens, trust has worn thin. “I am with the protesters,” said Walid al-Badawi, 43. “I have three children, I am a taxi driver, I work all day to get food for my kids and I can’t get it.”