As the war in Yemen is potentially coming to an end and the one in Syria is on indefinite freeze, all eyes are now on Lebanon. Once called the Switzerland of the Middle East, the tiny Mediterranean country is on the verge of collapse and possibly, another civil war. People are on the streets, calling for the downfall of both President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri, as the two leaders trade accusations on who is to blame for chaos in the country.
It has been six months now since Saad al-Hariri was tasked with forming a government. To date, he has been unable to deliver, a failure that he blames on President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Gibran Basil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Aoun is insisting on a 20-man cabinet, with the right to name all Christian ministers. He justifies his claim by saying that his allies in Hezbollah were given the privilege of naming all Shiite ministers, so there is no reason he should not be able to do the same with Christians.
Aoun already controls the largest Christian bloc in Parliament, with a total of 29 MPs. According to political norms, a parliamentary bloc of four MPs is entitled to one seat in government. That would give Aoun seven seats in the Hariri cabinet. He is demanding nine.
Aoun is making claims to three important ministries: Interior, Energy, and Public Works. The Ministry of Interior has traditionally been held by a Sunni Muslim, however.
Additionally, Aoun is making claims to three important ministries: Interior, Energy, and Public Works. The Ministry of Interior has traditionally been held by a Sunni Muslim, however, usually an affiliate of Hariri’s Future Movement. Hariri tried meeting Aoun midway, suggesting that the post go neither to a Christian nor to a Muslim but to a Druze, but Aoun did not agree to it.
The Ministry of Energy is on Aoun’s list of demands, given that it will likely play an important role in the future, if and when Lebanon and Israel formalize maritime border talks that allows Lebanon to drill for oil in its territorial waters. So will the Ministry of Public Works, which is expected to attract foreign investment for the reconstruction of Beirut, a city half-destroyed by the port explosion of August 2020. Aoun is also upset that in the cabinet line-up that Hariri presented to him, there was no Ministry of Presidential Affairs. Hariri scrapped it, ostensibly to cut back on public spending.
Portfolios aside, the disagreement between Aoun and Hariri runs much deeper. Aoun is grooming his son-in-law as Lebanon’s next president. Hariri would never allow it though, claiming that Basil is both unfit for the post and marred by US sanctions imposed on him last November for his links to Hezbollah.
During the October Revolution of 2019, young people had taken to the streets demanding change, unleashing their anger on then-Foreign Minister Basil, accused of corruption, nepotism, and misuse of public office. Aoun turned a deaf ear to such criticism, floating the idea of either extending his own term in office (which ends in October 2022) or bringing in Basil to replace him.
An extension of his term requires two things: approval of two-thirds of parliament and the signature of the Prime Minister. If Hariri is at the job between now and October 2022, he will undoubtedly refuse either of Aoun’s dictates. And the ambition becomes even more difficult if Aoun were to attempt to drum up parliamentary support for either of his suggestions.
If Hariri is at the job between now and October 2022, he will undoubtedly refuse either of Aoun’s dictates.
Both Aoun’s Shiite allies, Amal and Hezbollah, think poorly of Basil. They would rather see the presidency go to their other Maronite ally, Suleiman Frangieh, whom they had promised to enthrone back in 2016. Hezbollah was forced to retract its promise in order to accommodate Aoun, saying that Frangieh was young and could wait until 2022 to become president. Otherwise, Aoun, then aged 81, might not have had another chance to fulfill his lifelong dream of reaching Baabda Presidential Palace.
This time around, Hezbollah plans to live up to its promise to Frangieh and might use its parliamentary bloc of 13 MPs to prevent Basil’s bid for office. Technically, Basil, Aoun, and Hezbollah are all part of the same alliance. Aoun only made it to office in 2016 through Hezbollah’s backing, promising to support their quest for arms in exchange for making him president. He lived up to his promise, first during the 2006 war with Israel and then during their military intervention in Syria. Five years later, they lived up to their part of the agreement, swearing him in as president in October 2016.
From Bad to Worse
Until these points are settled, neither side is willing to budge, even as ordinary citizens bear the brunt of their leader’s selfishness. The mere notion of another one or two years of Michel Aoun has sent shivers down the spine of Lebanese society. Since Aoun came to power five years ago, the country has fallen from bad to worse. The exchange rate of the Lebanese lira has dropped to an exceedingly low 15,000 LP to the US dollar. In early October 2019, it stood at just 1,500 LP. That sharp devaluation has slashed the already razor-thin savings of ordinary Lebanese, and their salaries, prompting many to pack up and leave.
There are no American dollars left in the country, as they have either been consumed by the Central Bank, and smuggled into neighboring Syria, or Europe by the country’s political elite. As a result, banks have been unable to provide customers with their deposits, sending millions into financial ruin.
An international donor package of US$11 billion had been promised to Lebanon in mid-2018 but it was put on hold pending serious political reforms, among which was curbing Hezbollah influence. When that loan was delayed the Lebanese state sought a US$9-10 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last summer. That too is on hold until a full-fledge government sees the light in Lebanon and is constitutionally capable of finalizing such a loan.
The standoff is compounded with a volatile security situation due to unsolicited arms on the streets of Lebanon and the massive Beirut port explosion of August 2020.
The standoff is compounded with a volatile security situation due to unsolicited arms on the streets of Lebanon and the massive Beirut port explosion of August 2020, which killed over 200 people, wounded 6,000, and demolished half the city. A court investigation has blamed Aoun’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab, and three of his ministers, all accused of criminal negligence leading up to the blast. Instead of standing trial, they successfully unseated the judge handling the case, a move which Aoun did not admonish.
The Covid-19 pandemic has only made life more difficult for the Lebanese President. The first stage of lockdown in mid-2020 caused many establishments to go out of business and lay off their staff, adding to the country’s unemployment rate. Lax measures in December led cases to peek, now approaching the 450,000 benchmark with a total of 5,903 deaths. Lebanese officialdom cannot afford a new lockdown, given that 55 percent of the population is already living in poverty, according to the UN, making less than US$3.84 per day.
“Lebanon is in deep trouble and, unfortunately, will not last long under this ruling establishment,” said Joseph Kéchichian, Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The gravest error of the past month, he said to Inside Arabia, was refusing to internationalize the problem and seek mediation of the United Nations. “Few understood the dangers of such a refusal, which means that when the initiative collapses, what will be left is renewed civil war that, this time around, might lead to partition,” Kéchichian continued.
“The comings months will be hard. Very hard.”