Lebanon is grappling with myriad crises of gargantuan proportions, but the country’s political elite can’t seem to look beyond personal ambitions. More than three months after the explosion in the port of Beirut and a month after Saad Hariri was backed by French President Macron to become the struggling country’s prime minister once again, there is still no government.
The French initiative, agreed upon by all political factions, called for the next government to consist of nonpartisan specialists – honest and effective men and women unaffiliated with existing political parties. It was the leading demand of the protestors who shook the country in October last year. But even as the economy collapsed, the currency plummeted by 80 percent, and the capital was hit by one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions anywhere in the world, the political elite are protecting the old sect-based power-sharing system.
During conversations with politicians cutting across party lines, Inside Arabia learned that while most put up a tiring charade of wanting to usher in economic and political reforms, they are clinging to the idea of religion-based politics.
While most put up a tiring charade of wanting to usher in economic and political reforms, they are clinging to the idea of religion-based politics.
A leading Shia politician stated that his party accepted Hariri as Prime Minister (PM) to assuage the concerns of the Sunnis in Lebanon. According to the Lebanese constitution, the prime minister of the country must be a Sunni, the speaker a Shia, and the president a Christian.
“Hariri is the biggest name among the Sunnis, he is their biggest leader,” said the Shia politician, “that’s why we accept him. This way we can ensure there is no civil war and there is a balance.” The politician did not think that people had moved beyond sectarianism and said every community wants its own leader and share of power.
His views may sound outdated but in a country of four million that witnessed a brutal civil war, it is hard to ascertain either way. However, if the protests are anything to go by then the over a million-plus who gathered expressed themselves as citizens first and not Shia, Sunni, or Christian.
The real reason for backing Hariri as PM, according to experts, was to ensure the status quo and the survival of a sect-based system.
Over the last few months, the political establishment has been squabbling over ministries. Each wants to nominate members of their respective sects, whom they can control, for various positions.
Over the last few months, the political establishment has been squabbling over ministries.
It started with the insistence of Hezbollah – the Shia party and militia – and its ally the Amal Movement, when they asked for a Shia finance minister. Soon after, Michael Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), under the leadership of Aoun’s son-in-law and former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, started to create roadblocks.
Officially Bassil says that the appointment of Saad Hariri as PM is against the idea of a technocratic government because Hariri himself is the leader of a political party. But the real source of tension is ministerial positions.
Bassil is reportedly insisting on picking half of the ministers in Hariri’s cabinet and wants to use Hariri’s return to stage his own comeback. His ambitions of becoming president after Aoun are well-known. Moreover, being sanctioned by America has made Bassil even less willing to cooperate. Political sources stated that Bassil does not have much to lose any more in Western opinion and will do all he can to stay in control of several ministries in the next government, even as he blocks reforms and leans towards his ally Hezbollah.
The patriarch of the Maronite Christians in Lebanon, Bechara Boutros Rai, has long expressed a neutral position and advocated urgent reforms. He too has been dismayed by the political elite’s reluctance to leave power and said that they are obstructing the formation of the next government. “The Lebanese people are all tired of waiting for a new government that will rescue the country,” the patriarch said during his Sunday sermon on Lebanon’s 77th Independence Day anniversary.
“The Lebanese people are all tired of waiting for a new government that will rescue the country.”
The French roadmap calls for reforms that are anathema to the political parties with vested interests. For instance, Bassil’s FPM has controlled the electricity sector for years; hence if it is reformed, the party might lose control over its operations. Similarly, Hezbollah sees the ports of entry as strategic assets and worries about customs reforms that may limit its activities. The plan also talks about restructuring the banking sector, cleaning the balance sheet of the central bank, and introducing a new monetary policy. All of which are deeply divisive policy challenges, according to political analyst Sami Nader.
“They have said they will set up an ombudsman to hold the corrupt accountable. But until now they have not set it up,” Nader told Inside Arabia. “The second example is introducing reforms to make the judiciary more independent. For instance, letting judges elect their leadership or the top judiciary instead of the politicians meddling in the selection. But they know that if they implement this, they won’t be able to abuse the judiciary.”
On November 22, Lebanon celebrated a gloomy 77th Independence Day. The country is under a Covid-19 lockdown which didn’t allow the protestors to get out in numbers but they drove their cars on the streets while waving the national flag and chanting revolutionary slogans. They demanded that power be returned to the people and institutions reformed. The protest, however, was more ceremonial than hopeful of change. Many demonstrators now acknowledge that they are up against stubborn politicians who are in no mood to listen.
Professor Steve Hanke, an economist at John Hopkins University, perhaps put it most succinctly when he tweeted: “While #Venezuela continues to hold the top spot in my world #Inflation table, #Lebanon has finally passed #Zimbabwe for 2nd place. It’s rather shocking to watch Lebanon’s politicians fiddle, while Beirut burns.”