Lebanon needs a plan for when system collapses

Lebanon needs a plan for when system collapses

Lebanese anti-government protesters clash with soldiers in Tripoli during protests over a spiralling economic crisis. (File/AFP)
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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week said that the US would prevent Iran from selling crude oil to Lebanon. He had previously promised to help Lebanon if it was “not beholden to” Hezbollah. The US administration’s Caesar Act came into effect last month, further punishing Syria’s Assad regime and anyone dealing with it, signaling a steamy summer. The system in Lebanon will be heavily affected by the new act, as it is interlinked with its counterpart in Syria. A crash in one will lead to the collapse of the other. If the end game is to free Syria from Bashar Assad and Lebanon from Hezbollah, Assad’s ally, how is the US going to achieve that through the Caesar Act?

The sanctions will precipitate the crash of the corrupt Lebanese system, but a crash does not automatically mean a change, let alone a change for the better. And sanctions don’t work on their own. Iran has been under sanctions for 40 years and the regime has not shown any flexibility to change its behavior. Iraq’s oil-for-food program was as counter-effective as any sanctions system can be. The isolated Saddam Hussein regime became more brutal, while the Iraqi people lingered in misery. For the Caesar Act not to turn into a similar program, a strategy is needed to instigate change. If a comprehensive plan is devised, the collapse can be followed by a new system. Without a plan, the crash will lead to the social and political disintegration of the country. If there is no plan and chaos spreads, Lebanon will go back to the rule of the militias.

The current pro-Hezbollah government is terrified by the prospect of the Caesar Act. During the Brussels IV Conference on Syria held by the European Commission last month, the neighboring countries that host the largest numbers of refugees gave speeches. Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised cooperation with the international community on the issue of refugees, but asked for shielding for Lebanon from the Caesar Act. The pro-Hezbollah government is feeling the heat of the sanctions. Last week, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech in which he displayed a conciliatory tone toward the US. Unlike his previous messages, where he took a belligerent stand, he said that looking east does not mean cutting off Lebanon’s ties with the West. He also said that, other than Israel, which is the enemy, Lebanon can deal with any country, including the US.

Hezbollah fears the threat of a total crash that will sweep away the system on which it thrives. Again, what is the US expecting and what is next? What is the plan when the crash happens? It is going to happen soon, as the country is in freefall. The currency is losing its value by the day and people’s savings have dissipated in the Lebanese banking system. The government is unable to provide the necessary commodities. Lebanon is plunging into darkness because of the lack of fuel. It is only a matter of time before the country becomes totally dysfunctional.

If there is no plan and chaos spreads, Lebanon will go back to the rule of the militias.

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

Pressure from the street will likely lead to the fall of the government, but then what? The US destroyed Nazi Germany, but it had the Marshall Plan to help rebuild the country into a prosperous and peaceful democracy. Is there a similar plan for Lebanon? However, Lebanon’s case is different. The US and the wider West cannot be seen as interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs, such as pushing the government to resign and imposing a new one. This is why French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian last week told the Lebanese, “help us to help you.”

Change will happen when the popular will coincides with international pressure. We have to remember 2005, when the assassination of Rafik Hariri sparked nationwide protests demanding the departure of the gruesome Assad forces from the country. The pressure that was imposed on Assad from the international community, coupled with popular demand, compelled the Syrian regime to leave Lebanon after 30 years of forced custody.

The “hirak” protest movement does not present a readymade alternative. It represents many different currents and movements and has not reached the stage of offering a political alternative. Though the popular protests don’t currently have their previous volume, the different groups are showing maturity in their demands. Hirak is now asking for a transitional government that has exceptional powers to conduct reforms. However, who should lead this government? How should this government be formed? If left to President Michel Aoun, he would either choose another insignificant personality like Diab with another puppet government or Saad Hariri, one of the pillars of the corrupt system Lebanon needs to get rid of. In both cases, Lebanon will be back to square one. The only way to break this vicious cycle is to put pressure on the government to declare a state of emergency and name the commander of the army as the head of the government. The government of technocrats should be under a leadership that has the authority to enforce the needed reforms, otherwise the technocrats and their recommendations will be useless.

Lebanon needs leadership — a leadership that has the required legitimacy, capability and integrity. It needs a leader that can navigate the country through these rough times and achieve the requested reforms. It is time for the protesters to get organized and cooperate in order to put forward specific demands. This is when the international community can support the popular demands by putting pressure on the Diab government.

Unless there is more cooperation and organization between the different factions of the hirak movement, coupled with international interest and pressure to be followed by aid, the country is heading toward a long, dark tunnel of chaos of probably 10 years or more, which neither Lebanon nor the region can afford.

  • Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a Ph.D. in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
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