French initiative is Lebanon’s last chance
Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib’s bid to form a non-partisan government of experts is about to falter. The deadline imposed by France’s Emanuel Macron has already passed and the French initiative — which is the only one on the table — to save Lebanon from imploding may expire too. If that happens, then all options, mostly dire, will become hauntingly real.
Lebanon cannot afford the luxury of denouncing Macron’s overtures and threats to Lebanon’s ruling elite as “colonial nostalgia.” Yes, Greater Lebanon, created by France 100 years ago, has always had a special rapport with Paris. Most Lebanese politicians have interests in France; including as a second home for some, especially during the civil war and in the wake of various crises. But this dependency is the product of a system of power sharing: The so-called consociationalism, which has sacrificed the greater good of the country for the narrow interests of sects and their leaders.
The result is decades of corruption, self-serving policies and a deepening of a quota system that has led the country to where it is today. Last month’s horrific explosion at Beirut Port, which killed more than 190 people and destroyed large swaths of the capital, while leaving tens of thousands homeless, represented the epitome of the collapse of the Lebanese state.
Lebanon needs reforms — deep, structural ones that would change the current trajectory. Time is running out and, as has been the case for Lebanon for decades, it now finds itself hostage to sectarian squabbling and foreign meddling. Adib’s government should represent a fresh start for a country that some are already dubbing a failed state.
Adib’s mission has been disrupted by the Hezbollah-Amal Movement’s insistence that their nominee holds the finance portfolio. That would defeat the purpose and weaken Adib’s efforts to have a free hand in carrying out long-awaited reforms. It would set a precedent that the allocation of portfolios is carried out on a sectarian basis. Their stance has been altered by a US decision last week to impose sanctions on a leading party member who is close to Hassan Nasrallah and a senior aide to Speaker Nabih Berri. Hezbollah’s alliance with President Michel Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement is now in jeopardy.
Behind-the-scenes negotiations may lead to a compromise, but that is hardly what is needed for Lebanon to break the vicious cycle it finds itself in today. What Lebanon needs, if it wants to avoid civil war and even partition, is a new political deal that would end sectarian power sharing and present a civil and secular system that shuns ethno-confessional arrangements.
But there is a big snag in the way: Hezbollah’s ties to Iran and its regional agenda. The Shiite militia is so entrenched in the deep state that it can never disarm and engage as a political party. This is the conundrum for Lebanon today and, despite all of the white noise coming from the party about embracing reforms and salvaging the state, the reality is that its priorities are at odds with that of the rest of the Lebanese.
Macron, who has visited Beirut twice since the port explosion and was embraced by weary Lebanese as a hero, is said to have solicited the help of Iran in resolving the crisis. But Tehran’s immediate interest in Lebanon is to save its proxy Hezbollah from what both see as a US conspiracy to weaken and defeat the party. Washington is content to see public anger rising against Hezbollah and Iran in its bid to further isolate Tehran.
At a time when as many as 75 percent of Lebanese are living in poverty — the figure has spiked as a result of the coronavirus disease pandemic — and the size of public debt as a percentage of gross domestic product is almost 175 percent, while essential foods and medicines are scarce, the need for a new government of experts that would allow foreign nations to step in and help the country is more urgent than ever.
Adib’s government should represent a fresh start for a country that some are already dubbing a failed state.
But the prospects of that happening are limited. Lebanon’s former warlords continue to believe that power-sharing deals can still be reached and that the old system may yet survive. This is bad news for the Lebanese people, who end up paying the price. Meanwhile, the economy is in freefall and billions of dollars have been smuggled out of the country. One wonders what chances Adib has, even if he manages to form a small government of experts in the coming hours.
A bleak view suggests that Adib may withdraw, leaving the country at an impasse. France may give up on the ruling class, just as the US has, and leave it to the Lebanese to figure a way out of their misery. The situation is volatile and people are angry, and one unfortunate incident may ignite a situation that would certainly push the country to the brink.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010