The many models for long-awaited change in Lebanon
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made a one-day visit to Beirut on Thursday, but his series of meetings with Lebanese politicians failed to produce any concrete concessions that could lead to the formation of a government. That is because it is impossible to form a government with the current configuration and it is impossible to reach a consensus. Most importantly, it is impossible to conduct the reforms the country badly needs to avoid imminent collapse. Hence, the country needs a transition. But there is also no consensus on the form of this transition.
There is a general agreement that the current political elite is broken and the country needs to produce a new political class or at least a new majority in parliament to conduct change. The Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party, the two main Christian groups, are banking on next year’s elections to eat up some of the Free Patriotic Movement’s votes and switch the majority. Through this change, they aim to remove the political cover from Hezbollah.
In addition to its regional role as a pawn for Iran, which reflects badly on Lebanon and has led to a quasi-boycott by Arab countries, Hezbollah is seen as the protector of corruption. There is a quid pro quo between Hezbollah and the rest of the political class: It protects them and turns a blind eye to their corruption, while they provide the group with political cover for its arms. The Christian groups’ rationale is that, if Hezbollah’s political cover is removed and the party gets cornered and pressured on the issue of its arms, this will automatically weaken the corrupt politicians and allow reforms to happen. They are also banking that the new majority will elect a president and choose a prime minister who are not in Iran’s pocket.
Meanwhile, a coalition of civil society groups and opposition parties met with Le Drian last week and put forward a set of demands. They demanded a government of transition. Unlike the French initiative, which asks the current political elite to conduct reforms, the opposition’s plan only accepts the current elite for a transitional period leading to elections. And this is only as long as the government does not have the funds to conduct reforms and is solely in place to prepare for elections, with the reforms left for the next government. They hope for a flip in the seats at the next election. In the meantime, the international community would help with the armed forces, social security, education and healthcare.
This approach faces many challenges. The first is that the country cannot last without reforms for a whole year. Also, support for the sectors mentioned needs to be channeled through state institutions — it is very difficult to support the healthcare sector or education across the entire country solely through nongovernmental organizations or private institutions. Another challenge is that, as long as the corrupt elite is in power, it will create an inertia that prevents change. The same way that these politicians use state institutions and services to buy people’s loyalty, they will do the same to replicate themselves. Therefore, this approach risks giving legitimacy to the same corrupt elite.
This initiative also bets on the upcoming elections, with the hope that the Lebanese people have enough awareness to elect an alternative to the current elite. The most important point in this initiative is that the international community is starting to show a willingness to listen to the groups emerging from the protests and is receptive to alternatives to the current corrupt elite.
Another option for transition is to appoint Nawaf Salam, the Lebanese judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, as prime minister. Salam is a favorite of the protest groups. The plan would be to give his government exceptional powers to neuter the president and allow him to form a Cabinet of non-partisan specialists. The first challenge here would be that the political class would want to choose the Cabinet to stay in control. By law, ministers are only confirmed after compulsory consultations with parliament. Therefore, parliament could block the formation of a Cabinet. In this solution, there is space for the political elite to play the confessional card and claim that the new government has degraded the role of the Christians by sidelining the role of the president.
A further option presented is the model of 1952 and the transitional government headed by Fouad Chehab, which prevented the country from sliding into chaos and prepared it for presidential elections. In this scenario, the president resigns and, in effect, the prime minister-designate’s mandate expires, with the commander of the army placed in charge of a transitional government. He would then appoint as his deputy a Sunni to keep the confessional balance. However, the proposed government differs from that of 1952, as this one would be responsible for reforms in addition to preparing for elections.
Here again there are challenges. The first is that there is sensitivity among the civil groups regarding what they perceive to be the army taking over, even if the proposed model is a civilian government. The other challenge is the animosity the political class has toward the commander of the army, who has the respect and trust of the Lebanese people and the international community. To add to that, the political class would not want the army commander to choose the Cabinet. Similarly to the previous proposition, this one would also likely stumble in parliament.
As long as the corrupt elite is in power, it will create an inertia that prevents change.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
The last proposed model for a transitional government is for one chosen based on a petition signed by Lebanese citizens. This is the least feasible solution, as a petition cannot replace elections. It could provide additional evidence of endorsement by the people, but it cannot give legitimacy.
However, any solution requires pressure from the international community on the political elite. The protesters and opposition groups should put the option of the president resigning and the army commander leading the transitional government, as well as the president staying but appointing Salam as prime minister to lead the transition on the table when they talk to the international community. These are the two most feasible solutions as they cater to the urgent need of conducting reforms.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.