December 12, 2020
Despite external and domestic pressure to form a new Lebanese government, endless jockeying for key ministerial posts continues while the country remains on a slow path to implosion.
If it is not the financial crisis that wiped out savings, it is an economic crisis that has decimated jobs and the viability of most small businesses. If it were not the Aug. 4 port blast that made thousands of homes uninhabitable and shut down hundreds of businesses, it is a pandemic that has shattered mobility and overwhelmed a dismal public health system. If it is not the governance crisis that has eroded confidence in political leadership, it is worsening sectarian fragmentation justifying a defense of the status quo instead of efforts to secure a future all Lebanese can share.
All these issues affect every Lebanese regardless of age, sect, religion, status, political affiliation, level of education or any other demographic division. Yet surprisingly, there is little momentum and even less political will to find solutions.
Decades of close French-Lebanese ties have placed Paris at the forefront of developments in Lebanon’s political leadership. Virtual donor meetings are reminiscent of the post-civil war aid conferences; now, as then, funds will vanish, without any reforms against a backdrop of further civil unrest.
Granted, French President Emmanuel Macron’s carrot of funding in exchange for reform does indicate wariness of a repeat of the 1990s post-civil war reconstruction fiasco if the same faces remain in power. Unfortunately, the changes Macron seeks are doomed to fail given the glacial pace of Lebanese governance crippled by incessant political wrangling. No carrot or stick can guarantee the Lebanese political elite will implement the desperately needed reforms in governance, finance, politics and the economy.
Demanding the formation of a government of independent technocrats, however, necessary, will simply exacerbate gridlock and political wrangling. The same applies to calls for judiciary reforms and a commitment to elections within a year under new election laws. They run counter to how Lebanon’s political “old guard” have consistently tied their legitimacy and fortunes to how much political power they can wield in defense of their own interests.
No carrot or stick can guarantee the Lebanese political elite will implement the desperately needed reforms in governance, finance, politics and the economy.
Macron will return this month but this visit, like the others, will not move the needle in terms of securing change. Instead, it is up to the same warring political factions who view reform as an existential threat, since it requires them to cede power to people unanswerable to and not aligned with them. However, most Lebanese are still hopeful of stronger French involvement, despite their unease at foreign-sponsored initiatives that leave the same political elite in the driving seat of recovery efforts. This is perhaps the source of Macron’s optimism, justifying his expending what little political capital he has left given recent developments in France that have destroyed his centrist credentials and rendered him a divisive figure. Such an indirect declaration of French commitment to Lebanon’s recovery does make for good headlines.
Unfortunately, optimistic statements can only go so far when there are no matching demands for political elites to make tangible progress within specific time frames. Instead of a December visit to celebrate the appointment of a fixer government after a three-month impasse, the more publicized portion of the trip will be an inspection of French troops serving with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in south Lebanon.
In a way, it demonstrates a lack of confidence in professed claims from Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri’s office that progress is being made. There are still unresolved differences between Hariri and President Michel Aoun about who would pick the nine Christian ministers in the proposed interim Cabinet. Aoun’s reservations are supported by Gebran Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement, which holds 24 of the 168 seats in parliament and leads the majority coalition that also includes Hezbollah. This disagreement has already derailed efforts to form a new government and it is not clear how the expected meeting tacked on to the French president’s visit will resolve these differences.
At some point, the lack of tangible upsides for Paris will prove exasperating, and instead of its traditional commitment, France may just opt for apathy and indifference — leaving Lebanon untethered. For now, such a scenario is unlikely given how much Paris has invested in its relationship with Beirut, promoting internal dialogue, organizing humanitarian aid and mobilizing international economic assistance efforts alongside boosting the Lebanese army’s capabilities.
The growing pressure on the political class is very much line with French interest in Lebanon’s stability, safeguarding its sovereignty and preventing external interference in the country’s internal affairs. Unfortunately, without the political will for reform and repeated failures of the French to corral the disparate voices over what paths lie ahead for an embattled Lebanon, Paris may just resort to cutting its losses.
After all, France’s attentions are also needed in the eastern Mediterranean, Libya, the Sahel and more importantly, within the EU itself, given as yet unmitigated risks of fragmentation. Should the formation of a reform-minded interim government fail or its work be hindered, Lebanon’s last lifeline might just run out of patience.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
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