Failure of Diab’s government would be catastrophic for Lebanon
After more than 100 days of protests that have crossed sectarian and party lines, Lebanon has a new government under Sunni technocrat Hassan Diab. But it is not the government that protesters wanted. In fact, the 20-member Cabinet reflects the hegemony of the so-called March 8 Alliance and the axis of resistance — a coalition of Hezbollah, Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Hezbollah had the final say over the composition of the Cabinet and can, through controlling a third of loyalist ministers, veto unwanted policies.
Diab was never embraced by the protesters, who wanted an independent Cabinet that would draft a new election law and call for early elections. They also wanted to oust President Michel Aoun, who is a key ally of Hezbollah. Mass anti-government protests had forced Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign last October. Protesters wanted to end the decades-old control of the political elite over the country’s institutions and resources. No one was to be spared as protesters denounced the sectarian system that had concentrated power in the hands of the few and resulted in blatant corruption, massive foreign debt, unemployment and poverty.
Violent protests broke out last week as the new government sought to present the 2020 budget to Parliament, even before winning a vote of confidence or presenting its program. With key political players like Hariri’s Future Movement, Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party sidelined, Diab’s government will have a tough time passing laws and launching its reform program. In fact, Diab is already running out of time as the country may soon default on bond payments. He has just a few weeks to convince key creditors like France and the US to provide much-needed funding to rescue the country’s ailing economy. Between $5 billion and $20 billion is needed to save Lebanon’s banks, which have been forced to restrict the ability of clients to withdraw their money, particularly in US dollars.
For the International Monetary Fund to step in, it needs Washington’s approval — something that is unlikely to happen for now. Only France appears to be willing to deal with Diab’s government, while the US views it as Hezbollah’s own. In fact, one wonders why Hezbollah has chosen to alienate its rivals and back a one-shade Cabinet that will certainly be rejected by Washington. The role played by discredited pro-Syria politician Jamil Al-Sayyed in the formation of the government has alarmed Lebanese politicians and ordinary citizens alike.
One explanation as to why Hezbollah has chosen to take a leading role in the new government lies in the fact that Lebanon has become another arena in the open US-Iran showdown. It goes without saying that Hezbollah’s main concern is not the immediate stability of Lebanon, but serving Iran’s regional agenda. Aoun’s only interest seems to be to stay as president, no matter the cost, and his controversial son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who heads the FPM, is bent on remaining a central figure in the Lebanese political landscape.
One threat that Hezbollah’s gambit may bring about is heightened sectarian tensions, as Sunnis and Druze, in particular, feel increasingly alienated. Does Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, now given additional responsibilities by Tehran following the killing of Qassem Soleimani, understand that the failure of Diab’s government would mean the collapse of Lebanon’s economy? More important is the fact that Diab’s failure will be pinned directly on Hezbollah and its allies, dragging the Shiite party to the forefront, when in the past it was satisfied to take a back seat and control from the shadows.
One wonders why Hezbollah has chosen to back a one-shade Cabinet that will certainly be rejected by Washington.
For the US — despite statements that it would want to see genuine reforms adopted as fast as possible in order for it to be convinced to offer credit — political priorities will affect its intentions. The showdown with Iran has reached new levels and Washington is hoping that the strangulation of the Iranian economy will unleash popular protests that will either force Tehran to negotiate a new nuclear deal or bring about the collapse of the regime. Putting pressure on Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Lebanon is part of that strategy.
Time is not on Diab’s side and his efforts to launch genuine reforms will be opposed by the elite political class that has a lot to lose. His failure and possible departure would be catastrophic for Lebanon. Hezbollah may be hoping that, if that happens, it can lure Hariri back to take over. But it forgets one thing: Lebanon, after Oct. 17 and the start of the protests, is a different country. The protesters are not going home anytime soon and their grievances will only increase as the political impasse lingers.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010