Lebanese unlikely to welcome Diab’s government

Lebanese unlikely to welcome Diab’s government

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Hassan Diab, Lebanon’s prime minister designate, centre, at the presidential palace in Baabda. (Reuters)

A few days after the killing of Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, Hezbollah exhibited, all along the road to Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, posters bearing the portrait of the leading member of Iran’s Quds Force, who was responsible for killings, massacres and troubles in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. This was a shocking scene to a Lebanese patriot.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, said Iran’s missile attacks on Iraqi military bases that host US troops was just “a slap” and promised they were only the beginning of the actions that would be taken in response to the US‘ killing of Soleimani. Nasrallah, Iran’s man in Lebanon, made an aggressive speech, in which he presented the goals of his party and his Iranian sponsor: Attacks on American targets in the Middle East with the aim of removing US military forces from the region.

At the same time, Hezbollah MPs and ministers in the caretaker Lebanese government made it publicly known that the party wanted the quick formation of a new government at any cost. However, despite their support of the designated prime minister, Hassan Diab, they failed to obtain a quick understanding between their allies, namely the caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who wanted seven ministerial positions for his followers, and Nabih Berri, the Shiite Speaker of Parliament, who disagreed with Bassil.

Meanwhile, the demonstrations have resumed in Lebanon, with protesters objecting to Diab and all the political class, who they describe as “corrupt and responsible for the disastrous economic and financial situation that is wrecking the lives of the people, young and old, in the country.” Violence erupted near the Central Bank on Tuesday. Some accused Hezbollah and its ally the Amal Movement of having infiltrated the peaceful demonstrators, breaking windows and causing injuries. Hezbollah and Amal deny this.

Caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri was back after a 10-day absence and he urged the quick formation of the Diab government so the country can call for help from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Hariri was Hezbollah and Amal’s first choice to be redesignated prime minister because, according to many observers, they wanted him to be responsible for the collapse of the country, rather than bearing it themselves.

The Lebanese population is suffering from banking restrictions, with people restricted to withdrawing only a very small amount of dollars per week. They also have to cash their salaries in Lebanese pounds, the rate of which is not the same as at the exchange agents. However, after a meeting between Central Bank Governor Riad Salame and the exchange agents, the unofficial rate of the Lebanese pound dropped from 2,300 to the dollar to 1,900.

The country’s financial situation remains very dangerous in the absence of a new government. When a government is formed, it will have to show the international community within its first 60 days that it is carrying out the reforms needed to get help.

Diab will supposedly form a government on Friday. It is being presented as a government of technocrats linked to main supporting political parties like Hezbollah and its Christian allies Michel Aoun, Bassil and Suleiman Frangieh. Berri was not initially happy with the nomination of Diab who, according to many well-informed observers, is the choice of his Shiite rival Jamil Al-Sayyed, a pro-Syrian Hezbollah deputy who was security chief at the time of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination. However, he finally received him for lunch on Thursday to discuss the final government formula.

The top UN official in Lebanon, Jan Kubis, on Wednesday criticized the political class’ management of the country’s deepening economic crisis, saying that the people handling it are irresponsible and are overseeing Lebanon’s collapse. His criticism was shared by the major Western and Arab diplomats in the country. Their opinion is crucial in terms of the international assistance to Lebanon. But the political class is busy with its own interests.

The long time it is taking Diab to form a government proves that Hezbollah, which is described as the most powerful force in Lebanon, is weakened. The strategy of the pro-Iranian party to prevail as the controlling force in the country is failing. The confrontation with peaceful demonstrators — people asking for basic rights such as electricity, water and health care — is proving to be problematic for a party that is used to solving problems with the threat of a strongly armed militia.

When a government is formed, it will have to show the international community that it is carrying out the reforms needed to get help.

Randa Takieddine

Even though the designated prime minister may at last be about to form his government of 18 technocrats linked to the parties who chose them, this will probably not satisfy the demonstrators, since Diab is seen as a member of the political class they despise. They may give his new government a chance, but a majority of protesters wanted somebody like international judge and former ambassador to the UN Nawaf Salam to be prime minister. He is well respected for his independence and honesty, but Hezbollah does not want a PM with such a profile, accusing him of being an American agent. Such a self-made, highly educated judge who is well respected in the world is surely needed to convince the international community to help Lebanon avoid economic collapse.

Will the new government convince the people and the international community of its independence? Will it be able to maintain a distant attitude in case of a more acute crisis between Iran and the US? What if Hezbollah pushes the government of Lebanon to take a stand with Iran? All these questions are crucial to Lebanon gaining the international help it needs. And will the expected new foreign minister, Nassif Hitti, the well-respected former Arab League envoy who is a smooth and intellectual university professor, be able to resist Hezbollah’s pressure on Lebanese diplomacy? It will be his mission impossible.

  • Randa Takieddine is a Paris-based Lebanese journalist who headed Al-Hayat’s bureau in France for 30 years. She has covered France’s relations with the Middle East through the terms of four presidents.
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