A functioning Lebanese government is in Europe’s interest
A Lebanese media outlet reported last week that contact had been lost with a boat carrying 250 migrants soon after it left the shores of the city of Tripoli. This came just three weeks after a boat sank while trying to make the trip across the Mediterranean to Europe. Luckily, the armed forces were able to rescue most of the passengers in the latest incident. However, illegal migration has become a chronic problem. The catastrophic situation in Lebanon will be the source of a new wave of refugees to Europe. As much as the international community tries to help Lebanon, there is no alternative to a functioning government.
Today, Europe cannot handle another wave of refugees. It is already struggling with Ukrainian refugees and there are no clear signs that the end of the war is nearing. Hence, it is in Europe’s interest to have a stable Lebanon, with an economy that can cater to the needs of the country’s residents and ensure they do not venture to the sea.
Nongovernmental organizations are very active in Lebanon, but their work is full of inefficiencies as they cannot replace a state. They help in terms of emergency responses, but it is very difficult for them to conduct the real development the country needs in the absence of a functioning state. For people to stay in Lebanon, they need to have work. How can an NGO help people in their livelihoods on a sustainable basis?
It is very simple. If Europe wants to spare itself the hassle of accommodating a new wave of refugees, it needs to push for a functioning state in Lebanon. However, there is no way to do that unless pressure is applied on the regime’s gatekeepers. Unless they are coerced into accepting reforms, they will not carry them out. Popular pressure by itself is not enough. The protests that erupted in 2019 did not make them blink. Elections did not make them go away, as they still control people’s livelihoods by controlling the so-called state and its so-called institutions. Hence, they have access to any services citizens seek to get from the state.
The West, Arab states and the wider international community accommodated the corrupt system for a long time. Now, they realize this is not sustainable. Saudi Arabia, which has always been very generous with aid, has announced that it will not send money to any country unless it conducts reforms.
And, for a change, the Europeans have altered their style and are adopting a more assertive attitude. They have sent investigators to Lebanon who have been digging in the files and questioning officials as part of the central bank anti-corruption investigation. One of central bank governor Riad Salameh’s main brokers, Nabil Aoun, decided to give his testimony in Luxembourg. Does that mean he has accepted a plea deal? Probably, but we are not sure.
The street has been galvanized again after a long period of depression and inactivity.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
However, the corrupt system in Lebanon is like glass — hard but fragile. One crack might break up the entire system. Where will this investigation lead? We still do not know. But the political class is nearing its end for sure. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berry, who is the godfather of the political regime, is in his late 80s. In last year’s bid for reelection for the role, he barely made it. The position he has held for three decades, which everyone took for granted as being his, suddenly was at risk for the first time. The system just needs a final blow to collapse. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, who was accommodating and thought after the Beirut blast that the country’s leaders would straighten up, recently made an announcement saying that the political class needed to be changed.
However, the street has been galvanized again after a long period of depression and inactivity. The change group’s deputies are spending their nights in the halls of parliament to put pressure on the speaker to elect a president.
The pressure is increasing domestically and internationally, but it has not reached the point of forcing a change. France and the rest of the European community should use targeted pressure. This means they should go to each block in parliament and put pressure on the head. And they can. Lebanese politicians were not hit by the banking crisis as their funds were secure in European banks. Their money is their last safety valve, so they cannot risk losing it.
Also, the international community now understands that those people are unwilling and incapable of conducting any reforms. They thrive on corruption. They use government departments as platforms to provide employment to garner the allegiance of their supporters and as a cash cow for the inflated contracts their companies benefit from.
The good thing is that the pressure has started and this time it is serious. The important issue is how this pressure will be used. The international community should have specific demands — demands that they push to the politicians, not general demands that the corrupt class can turn around. For example, when they demand that they elect a president, they should be specific as to who they would be willing to deal with and what would be the shape of a government they could accept. This is the time to be blunt and precise. They should be specific with their demands, as well with the repercussions for failing to comply.
Some Europeans will shy away from such behavior, as they would consider it to be infringing on the sovereignty of another nation. However, they have to understand that a functioning state in Lebanon is integral to their own security and that there is no alternative to keep the residents of Lebanon inside the country’s borders.
• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is president of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.