A long line of cars at a gas station in Beirut, extending for several miles on a July day, is stuck in a “humiliating queue,” as it is now commonly called by the Lebanese people. Crowds of residents are desperately hoping to buy a few liters of scarce gasoline. The price of gas has rapidly doubled over the last few weeks, along with almost everything else sold in the country: medicines, baby formula, and other basic commodities. Every day, people of all ages are crammed into their cars for hours, in the sweltering heat, just to get gas. In the midst of Lebanon’s devastating economic crisis, some appear to not even have the energy to complain.
Silence falls as people wait in the queue, only interrupted by the familiar voice of Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of Hezbollah, on the radio. Nasrallah declares that the following days will be “crucial for forming a new government.” This umpteenth promise to form a long-awaited government – pending since August 2020 – stirs a debate between two men.
“Good, perhaps the country’s affairs will improve a little,” says one in an optimistic tone. The other sharply refuses to trust the words of a man who is, according to him, among the six leaders responsible for the economic collapse that has plunged half of the Lebanese into the abyss of abject poverty.
Indeed, 23 percent of the population reached extreme poverty in 2020 (up from 8 percent in 2019), and more than 55 percent of the country’s population is now trapped in deprivation, according to a study released last year by the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (UNESCWA).
Meanwhile, when then-Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri returned to Beirut in early July after a short and relatively unsuccessful trip to the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Egypt, he declared his intention to resume discussions for the formation of the next government. Sources revealed that he would meet with the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri and influential former Prime Ministers, before presenting a new government proposal to the Head of State Michel Aoun. Yet, in a somewhat predictable move, Hariri announced he was stepping down as Prime Minister-designate on July 15, throwing Lebanon’s political state into further chaos.
“It is clear we will not be able to agree with his excellency the President,” Hariri stated to reporters after a brief meeting with Aoun the same day. “That is why I excuse myself from government formation.”
The rivalry between President Michel Aoun and former Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has created endless obstructions.
The Lebanese constitution establishes that the formation of a government takes place by agreement between the Prime Minister and the President of the Republic. Therefore, the rivalry between President Michel Aoun, allied with Hezbollah, and former Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, who belongs to the axis opposing Hezbollah, has created endless obstructions. Hariri’s resignation will likely perpetuate, not resolve, the current paralysis.
The complex games of ego and rivalry have prevented the implementation of the structural reforms demanded by the international community for the granting of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan and the much-needed financial assistance for the bankrupt Lebanese economy.
Iran Nuclear Deal and Foreign Interference
The delay in forming a government in Lebanon is likely due to both international and internal factors that are impeding an exit from the current political stalemate. This political paralysis occurs in the context of the biggest economic and social crisis afflicting the country since its independence, and the public’s pervading feeling of discontent and mistrust towards the political establishment—particularly, since the mass protests on October 17, 2019, and the explosion of the Beirut port in August 2020.
Lebanon has historically been an arena for settling international scores, considered as a pawn in the hands of powerful foreign actors to strengthen their position at the regional level.
Lebanese political forces are by nature dependent on foreign alliances and interference. Almost one year ago, French President Emmanuel Macron, through his “French initiative,” tried to seize the momentum of the Beirut explosion to internationalize the Lebanese political crisis and impose a reform plan but has been unable to achieve any significant progress.
The French initiative did not gather a lot of international support either when it was proposed, and former US President Donald Trump refused to join Paris at the time, preferring a tougher stance—notably in regard to the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia. The election of Joe Biden, who does not believe in the necessity of a confrontational stance towards Iran and is more open to European countries, has restored collaboration between the United States and France.
This does not mean that the United States has necessarily changed its strategic goals in Lebanon, which is summarized in neutralizing Iran’s influence in the region – represented by Hezbollah – and preserving the security of Israel from the threat posed by Hezbollah. As for France, it has toughened its stance after the failure of the French initiative, and now threatens the Lebanese political elite with sanctions, using the financial weight of the European Union (EU) in this regard.
Biden’s arrival at the White House opened the door to a US return to the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump pulled the country out of in 2018. Amid the current negotiations, observers will probably perceive Lebanon as a strategic asset currently held by Iran. This perception persists despite the escalating popular resentment directed against Hezbollah, even in South Lebanon and Bekaa, areas where Hezbollah has historically held a lot of influence.
Hezbollah constitutes the most powerful political party in Lebanon.
Still, Hezbollah constitutes the most powerful political party in Lebanon, controlling a large number of seats in Parliament and the Presidency of the Republic, and holding a de-facto veto power on the formation of the government.
The Lebanese political elite have excelled at securing their own survival by gaining time through betting on regional transformations. In this sense, the election of Joe Biden and the prospects of US negotiations with Iran constitutes an opportunity to continue postponing much-needed reforms and the establishment of a government in Lebanon, as power balance in the region is likely to shift at any time. Thus, in many ways, the country’s future remains stuck at the American-Iranian negotiating table, whose results are not guaranteed to be to the advantage of Lebanon.
Furthermore, the European Union, with the leadership of France, has recently emerged as a key player in the Lebanese political crisis, perhaps hoping to counter Turkish influence and securing a foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean. But the EU seems unable to move effectively to impose its vision, and France’s efforts to impose sanctions on Lebanese officials collides with the Hungarian opposition.
The imposition of sanctions requires the approval of the 27 members of the European Union, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stands by the head of Lebanon’s Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, to prevent any embargos. A right-wing Christian ideology instrumentalized for political goals has succeeded in bringing together prominent politicians in Budapest and Beirut, despite the absence of any political, cultural, or historical ties between the two capitals.
In the Arab world, Syria remains preoccupied with its own internal war, and Egypt’s role has declined since it aligned with the Saudi-UAE axis. The Arab regional powers are thus absent from the search for a solution to one of the most dangerous government vacuums in Lebanon. Even the Gulf countries – traditional sponsors of Lebanese factions – are distancing themselves from the Cedar country.
Saudi Arabia’s Stance
Saudi Arabia has always been the most active on the internal scene in Lebanon, yet it has been dealing coldly with Beirut since King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took over. Although the Hariri family was traditionally considered an ally and even holds Saudi citizenship, the Saudis have seen Saad Hariri – who just vacated his Prime Minister-designate position – as a liability. Saudi Arabia holds him responsible for the failure to impede Hezbollah’s growing control over Lebanon’s internal affairs, and it seems Riyadh was not interested in investing in him again. Saad Hariri is also accused of squandering billions of dollars that Saudi Arabia spent in Lebanon in the past two decades with no tangible results on the Iran-Hezbollah front.
Since 2017, Saudi Arabia has tended to reduce its involvement in the internal problems of countries a bit more distant such as Syria and Lebanon.
Since 2017, Saudi Arabia has tended to reduce its involvement in the internal problems of countries a bit more distant such as Syria and Lebanon, focusing instead on protecting its interests in countries that are on its borders, such as Yemen, Bahrain, and Iraq. It is hence possible to understand Saudi Arabia’s indifference to the French initiative towards Lebanon. Although the scheme proposes forming a technocratic government with no politically affiliated ministers, which would remove Hezbollah from the government.
Karim Bitar, Director of the Institute of Political Sciences at the Saint Joseph University of Beirut, believes that the Saudi position has slightly shifted with the election of Joe Biden. The Kingdom now strives to “reconcile with Qatar, push towards de-escalation in Yemen, and reduce hostility with its neighbors,” Bitar told Inside Arabia. Nevertheless, he points out that “Saudi decision-makers did not change their policy toward Lebanon.”
This lack of interest towards Lebanon extends to Saudi Arabia’s main ally, the United Arab Emirates, which does not appear eager to enter the quagmire of Lebanon’s internal politics.
Karim Bitar underlines the specific stance of Qatar, which “seems more prone to act as a mediator in the Lebanese political crisis than its neighbors.” Indeed, Qatar has previously played a major role in the Lebanese arena, ending three years of political stalemate and security tension in Lebanon through the 2008 Doha Agreement, from which a national unity government emerged at the time, headed by Hariri himself.
Qatar, which is slowly reconciling with its Gulf neighbors after the end of their three-year embargo against Doha, is also on good terms with Iran and has the potential to be a powerful intermediary between opposing sides. The end of the Trump administration, which had compelled regional players not to support Lebanon financially, could also trigger a significant change in Qatar’s position in Lebanon. The Qatari Foreign Affairs Minister’s visit to Lebanon on July 8, may mark a positive shift in this regard, as Doha has already promised food and other aid to the country.
What’s Next for Lebanon?
Nonetheless, international factors, although real, have been used by Lebanese leaders to avoid accountability for the situation and shift the blame on regional conflicts instead of their own mismanagement and corruption. Indeed, observers believe that Hezbollah is capable of overcoming these geopolitical differences by putting pressure on its allies and opponents as it did in the past, while Hariri, Aoun, and Berri could have reached a minimal agreement if there were a real political will.
Lebanese political parties currently do not want to form a government, as it would bear the responsibility of carrying out unpopular measures.
Lebanese political parties currently do not want to form a government, as it would bear the responsibility of carrying out unavoidable and unpopular measures such as lifting subsidies on basic commodities—which could also be one of the factors behind Hariri’s abrupt resignation. They loathe paying the price in the upcoming elections scheduled to take place in 2022, that is if they are not postponed by the political establishment fearing an electoral defeat.
In summary, as Hariri’s sudden departure highlights, there seems to be no end in sight to the Lebanese crisis, as the financial reserves of the central bank of Lebanon (Banque du Liban) are almost depleted, car lines at gas stations get longer, and the Lebanese currency has collapsed— shrinking the purchasing power of the Lebanese people who can now barely afford basic commodities. In the midst of this debacle, it is unlikely that a new government will be formed soon. And even if it were to be formed, the question remains: Will it bring solutions or more deadlock, impoverishment, and starvation?