Sat, 25 Sep 2021

No easy solution for Lebanon

The Arab Daily News
25 Jul 2021, 05:37 GMT+10

By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz

Lebanese President Michel Aoun is expected to announce next week his choice of a new prime minister designate. Who is willing to assume the task of forming a cabinet to address Lebanon's huge problems? There is talk about the possible designation of Najib Mikati, a former prime minister with moderate views and a business orientation.

Politically and economically, this small country has fallen off the cliff. The state is bankrupt. Private banks and their clients are in big trouble; local currency has lost 90 % of its value against the dollar. There is famine looming, high unemployment, and severe shortage of medicine, fuel, and electricity.There is famine looming, high unemployment, and severe shortage of medicine, fuel, and electricity.

The state has nearly lost its sovereignty. The small republic today is as fragile as it was a century ago - precisely 1920, when France created Grand Liban during the post WWI mandate period. The French created a client - state. The new expanded Lebanon was carved out of Syria. A strange sectarian formula of elections and power sharing gave the Christians an advantage in politics, services and the economy. We are now witnessing the unraveling of the French-made Greater Lebanon.

External intervention is only one factor contributing to state failure. Local political leaders have never been willing to confront corruption and political deadlock. Currently, the badly needed radical reforms are hard to come by for a simple reason: reform would expose those in power and replace them. Citizens are in an existential conflict of interest with their leaders. It is a tug of war, and so far the ruler has been winning. How long will this power game last?

Politicians have lost sensitivity to criticism. It took Hariri as long as nine months to acknowledge his inability to form the next cabinet, which would have been his fourth term as a prime minister - and leader of the Sunnite community.

Cabinet formation is a game of distribution of personal power and benefits. Tension in decision making has been more about personal, party and sect privileges than about responsibility for public office.

It is not total collapse yet. The national army is still functional. There are no signs of a new civil war. The previous 15 year civil war, which ended in 1990, is a reminder that there is no winner in sectarian wars. Moreover, the strong presence of Hezbollah forces enhances the efficacy of the Lebanese national armed forces role in preserving public security, and ironically, this independent "resistance" contributes to the decline of state sovereignty.

During every national crisis, the Lebanese fiercely debate the-chicken-and-the-egg controversy surrounding Hezbollah: is it the weak state which calls for the mobilization of a resistance force against Israel, or a dominant militia presence which weakens the state?

The Lebanese will not regret the departure of Hariri from leadership. The former, long-serving prime minister, President Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and the Governor of the Central Bank Riad Salameh , all four, are equally ( but not totally) responsible for allowing the country to reach such a low level of instability and deprivation. It is time for them to go.

While Aoun acts as the father figure of the state, he has allowed his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, to have too much influence in the affairs of governance. While Berri acts as the champion of reform, he has accumulated too much wealth through public service. While Salameh brags about his technical skills in public finance, he has mismanaged Lebanon's spiraling national debt and contributed to a corrupt system of private banking.

There is plenty of news analysis on what is going wrong in the country, but there is not much insight on how to overcome the political and economic deadlocks. In a recent article (in Arabic, in Beirut's Al Bina'a, July 20) Issam Naaman, an esteemed political scientist captured the political scene and future prospects.

Naaman argues that the departure of Hariri reveals the decline of Washington, Saudi and Western influence in Lebanon. Naaman figures that perhaps, finally, the fratricidal Lebanese factions have come to their senses to allow the formation of a consensus cabinet which would avoid confronting explosive political issues, for the moment, and address the survival needs of the people. For Naaman, Hezbollah, relations with Syria, the share of Christians in political power, and election reforms stand out as highly sensitive issues.

Like Naaman, many citizens believe that if Lebanon is to survive it must distance itself a notch from the West and start cooperating with Syria, Iran, China and Russia. Perhaps Lebanon can no longer remain too dependent on Washington and Europe and too cautious in cooperation with all its Arab neighbors, particularly Syria. This policy of cultural and ideological equi-distance from the East and West may one day serve to unite the Lebanese on diverse ideas and practices which serve the interest of their nation. Egypt's Jamal Abdel Nasser championed this midway approach in nation building. Nasser's ideas are not dead.

There is no immediate solution for Lebanon's predicament, given the immense difficulty of replacing an entire class of political elites who have for too long milked the system without ever facing accountability or isolation from power. There is no hope for Lebanon as long as Washington continues to punish Hezbollah by undermining the Lebanese economy. There is no way of restoring sovereignty to Lebanon as long as it is considered the natural place to indefinitely host a million Syrian and four hundred thousand Palestinians. There is no way of dealing creatively with the political dominance of Hezbollah without settling the Palestinian and Syrian questions. A key factor in the future of Lebanon- and the entire region- hangs on the development of relations between the US and Iran: better relations would open up limitless opportunities for all.

Eliminate foreign interference, install new political figures, secularize elections and personal laws, focus the economy on local production of goods, facilitate the investments of the Lebanese emigres and deal creatively with the Syrian and Palestinian issues, do all these good things, you would see Lebanon revive swiftly.

Absent political miracles at the local, regional and International levels, the best solution is partial and temporary; do not expect spontaneous recovery or international rescue. Are Washington and Tehran listening?

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