Foreign Policy

Usual Hariri, newly traumatized Lebanon

Lebanon has come full circle. A year ago, a million Lebanese people crowded the streets demanding the removal of the entire political class as they sang "Killon yani Killon" – "All of them, we mean all". Now Saad Hariri, the prime minister who resigned shortly after the uprising, is making a comeback. A decision on whether to become the next Lebanese Prime Minister is expected to be made this week.

Other old guard politicians who previously ran the country under its sectarian constitutional system are also using well-known pressure tactics to maintain control of the ministries. Some, like Gebran Bassil – a former foreign minister and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun who was heavily criticized by the crowds of last year and ultimately forced to resign – will support Hariri's return if it paves the way for his return. high-level political sources reported on foreign policy.

Hariri is said to be bringing in a government of technocrats – except, of course, himself in charge – to solve the nation's deepening economic crisis. But even before he was sworn in, he had to compromise on the post of finance minister with Hezbollah and its Shiite ally, the Amal movement. Hariri has agreed that a Shiite will head the crucial ministry. It was already implicit that this would be a satisfactory name for Hezbollah and Amal, but Yassine Jaber, an independent MP for the Amal movement, made this clear. "Hariri has given his approval that he will choose from the proposed names," said Jaber.

The finance minister's signature is required for any government decree that gives him and his supporters a veto on government decisions. In addition, he will have access to official documents required to prove past transplants and wasteful expenses. A puppet finance minister will ensure the immunity of Hezbollah and its allies. The power supply falls under the Ministry of Energy and Water and has been operated, or rather plunged into the ground, for decades by Bassil and Aoun's party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). It devours government revenue and yet does not provide people with 24-hour electricity. The reform of the electricity supply is one of the most important commitments that all political parties have agreed on, in line with the French initiative to save the country that Hariri has announced to implement. However, political sources told Foreign Policy that it was under pressure to choose a candidate for the ministry who would match the FPM's wishes.

Such policies suggest that Lebanon's political class remains untouched by the crises that are swallowing the country and is still busy pulling the strings of a future government. If ever there was any doubt, it is now clear that Lebanon's ruling elite never intended to give up power and only gambled for time.

However, Lebanon has run out of time. Last year, decades of corruption and financial mismanagement culminated in steep and unrestrained economic deterioration, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic. The local currency collapsed almost 80 percent, rendering salaries in Lebanese pounds almost worthless. At the same time, the prices for raw materials soared. Capital controls imposed by banks denied people their hard-earned savings and thousands more were left unemployed as the coronavirus required a series of lockdowns.

Just when you thought it couldn't get worse, thousands of tons of unsecured ammonium nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut. Despite repeated warnings about the danger the explosives pose to neighboring neighborhoods, several government agencies have turned a blind eye and are now responsible for the disaster in public opinion. The explosion destroyed many parts of the city and made them uninhabitable. Billions of dollars will be needed to revitalize the city. On top of the $ 10 billion bailout Lebanon requested from the International Monetary Fund to revive the economy and pay its bills.

In April, an estimated 75 percent of Lebanese people were in need of aid, and many were in need of charitable causes as well as historical government subsidies for flour and fuel. However, these subsidies could soon be withdrawn. According to central bank director Riad Salame, the man accused of playing a key role in triggering the currency crisis, the reserves can no longer guarantee subsidies. This is a dark picture by any measure, and yet there is little apparent remorse or urgency among the political elite.

Even if Hariri is sworn in after all the compromises and calming down shattered egos and pressured by the French to reform, according to over a dozen civil society members, experts and politicians who have spoken to Foreign Politics, they will be minimal in politics.

Last week, on October 17th, several hundred Lebanese gathered in Martyrs Square, the epicenter of the protests in downtown Beirut, to commemorate the year-long anniversary of the uprising. Again they called for the political class to be got rid of, and again they unfolded the Lebanese flag as they sang "Thawra", "Revolution". However, some admitted defeat and admitted that they had not achieved anything that the ruling elite had outmaneuvered. Amani Saleh marched with her compatriots and filmed the demonstration on her cell phone. Her eyes, which were surrounded by auburn and gold eyeshadow, were filled with shame and disappointment when she said, "Nothing has changed so far." But while she thought Hariri was not dealing with the endemic corruption, inefficiency and sectarian politics that created the multitude of crises in Lebanon, she thought he could convince Europe to spend some money. "He has contacts with Europeans, maybe he can bring in dollars or euros," she said.

Others were even more pessimistic. Norma G., who asked not to give her full name for fear of being identified and persecuted by the authorities, said the Lebanese tried hariri "many times", but every time he was told by Hezbollah and the Hezbollah had been taken away from its Christian allies. "He's talking to the same politicians as Hezbollah again," she said. "He's one of them, he's not going to change anything."

Gilbert Doumit, who won the last election in 2018 with a civil society anti-establishment ticket but lost, dismissed Hariri, citing an aphorism often attributed to Albert Einstein. "He can't change anything because no problem can be solved with the same awareness that created it," said Doumit. However, the former candidate took no responsibility for the protest movement's failure, namely the lack of a united front to fill the vacuum created by the failure of the old guard and offer a new generation of leaders. He said setting up a unique leadership of the protest movement would have divided the people and broken their momentum. Despite his caution, this warning has definitely been fulfilled: the movement is divided into many groups of citizens and is leaderless.

Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst, said the expectation for politicians to reform a system that has benefited them for so many years is asking patients to cut off their own oxygen supply. He gave the now well-known explanation of how the Lebanese sectarian system worked: the political elite used the public sector as a personal fief and distributed jobs to co-religionists in order to buy their loyalty and make them dependent on their sectarian overlords and party leaders. The same political parties have run the same ministries for decades, which has enabled them to fill enough gaps to ensure that public money runs the operations of their political parties. "When they divided the economic sectors among themselves, they made sure that they could finance themselves," said Nader. “For example: Hariris al-Mustaqbal or Future Movement control telecommunications so that they have the advantage. Bassil's FPM controls the current so they get an advantage. I repeat, that is why they cannot reform. It's suicide for them. "

Hariri's strategy seems to be to use French support to cobble together a cabinet and then wait for the results of the US election and hopefully for a presidency from Joe Biden. If Biden wins next month and is softer in Iran than his predecessor, he could make it easier for Hariri to get a bailout for the IMF. That would, however, depend on what kind of agreement Biden would make with Iran to allay the concerns of regional allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. Hezbollah is Iran's most effective representative and an avowed enemy of Israel. Containing the group's growing strength in Lebanon and the wider Levant will be an important part of any US government's foreign policy.

Hanin Ghaddar, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, said there was no reason for Biden to give in to Iran. “When Obama made a deal with Iran, he was in his second term and he was in a hurry, the Iranians were in no hurry. This time the Iranians are in a hurry, but Biden is not, ”said Ghaddar. "He has other priorities, so Iran and Hezbollah will be forced to make concessions unless they want to live with the status quo and don't feel the pressure of the economies in their countries that are collapsing."

Hariri's political supporters also hope the poor economic situation could force other political parties to allow him both to form a government and to implement at least enough reforms to force the West to loosen its purses. But the Lebanese, who demonstrated in the streets to warn of the crisis their leaders were driving them into, are now immersed in it. This is the Catch-22 they are facing. Lebanon cannot sign an agreement with the IMF without a government – but as long as the political elite are still able to infiltrate a future government with their own people, last year's revolution will be pointless.

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