Political Crisis

Lebanon: Endless Bickering as the Boat Goes Down

Eight months after the blast at Beirut port and the resignation of Hassan Diab’s cabinet, and six months after Saad Hariri was asked to form a new one, Lebanon is still without a government, as the country plunges deeper into the crisis.

Beirut, 16 October 2020. Activists set up a metal monument in front of the devastated port with the inscription “October 17”, the date of the beginning of the anti-government protest movement
Joseph Eid/AFP

The most common and obvious metaphor being applied to Lebanon nowadays is equating it to the Titanic, the world’s biggest ship at the time, which four days into its maiden voyage hit an iceberg and sank with the loss of more than 1500 lives on 15 April 1912.

One of the first to seize on the theme was French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “Lebanon is the Titanic without the orchestra,” he said in December, referring to the fact that the ship’s band was assembled to play cheerful tunes as the vessel slipped slowly beneath the freezing waters.

More recently, as the 109th anniversary of that disaster approached, the veteran Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, reprised the image. “The whole country is in danger, the whole country is the Titanic. It’s time we all woke up because in the end, if the ship sinks, nobody will survive.”

Yet despite such warnings and the mounting evidence of impending disaster, the country’s half dozen or so sectarian factional leaders continued to behave as though it was business as usual. To carry the Titanic metaphor further, they were haggling over how many and who should sit where at the officers’ dining table, while the kitchen was already waist-deep in icy water.

Stalled negotiations

At the core of the blockage was a standoff between the President, Michel Aoun (Maronite Christian), and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri (Sunni Muslim), locking horns stubbornly over how many ministers should be in the new cabinet, and who should nominate them—although under the formula agreed by all factions with the French President, Emmanuel Macron, back in October, the government is supposed to be one of qualified technocrats not affiliated to the political parties.

Clearly, the factional leaders are continuing to insist that, technocrats or party loyalists or whatever, the cabinet ministers should be beholden to the political barons for their appointments, for fear that the government might slip out of their control in pursuit of the reform programme, agreed with Macron and insisted on by the IMF and others, that would be its raison d’etre.

There was cautious hope that an 18th meeting between Aoun and Hariri on 22 March might finally produce agreement on a formula. A huge amount of political and diplomatic effort and contacts had gone into preparing for it. Aoun had supposedly given up on his insistence on retaining a “blocking third”—control of 1/3 of the ministerial seats plus one extra to give him veto rights over anything he did not like—and Hariri had apparently relinquished his insistence on a cabinet of only 18 ministers. The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrullah, had signalled that he would accept whatever they agreed on, though he would prefer a politically injected cabinet on the grounds that it would have the clout to carry through unpopular measures such as lifting subsidies from basics like flour, fuel and medicines.

But the meeting failed, spectacularly, leading to barrages of open and vicious recrimination. Hariri published the list of 18 cabinet nominees he had proposed back in December. Aoun retaliated that Hariri should stand down if he could not do the job. Hariri retorted that early presidential elections should be called if Aoun was incapable of signing off on a government.

Central bank in the crosshairs

The blame game widened, with Aoun accusing the central Banque du Liban (BDL), its Governor Riad Salameh, and the banks in general of responsibility for the financial crisis which has bankrupted the country and brought the currency crashing to barely 10% of its previous value against the dollar. The Bankers’ Association retorted that it was the corrupt politicians who borrowed vast sums of money at ridiculous interest rates from the BDL and drove the country onto the rocks. At Aoun’s insistence, a snagged forensic audit of the BDL by the New York-based Alvarez and Marshal company is again under way after parliament passed a bill suspending banking secrecy laws, which could produce some politically embarrassing revelations.

The deadlock, and all this mind-boggling nitpicking and intransigence, prompted numerous denunciations of the Lebanese political class by an appalled “outside world”, led by the French, whose initiative remains the only game in town despite its floundering. On the ground, the ambassadors of the US, France and Saudi Arabia joined a flurry of visits to the squabbling political bosses, as did a delegation from the Arab League, the Egyptian foreign minister, and an Iranian team headed by Hamid Shahriari, a cleric close to the Supreme Leader. All were calling in exasperation for the Lebanese leaders to come together and save their country.

Whether all these outsiders were singing from the same sheet was another question. Being Lebanon, there are always outside factors involved, with regional and international proxy struggles never far from the surface. Through Hezbollah’s alliance with President Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement, the Shia movement and its Iranian backers have a controlling stake in the power set up, which they are reluctant to give up. Conversely, there are signs that Saad Hariri was being encouraged by regional Sunni leaders, especially Egyptian President Abd al-Fattah Sisi and the UAE, to stand firm against compromise, mindful that the Sunnis have lost out in Iraq and Syria, making Lebanon a symbolic battleground for a pushback against Iranian influence.

Threats of unenforceable sanctions

Everybody knows that Hezbollah is by far the strongest military force in the land, and fear of the country being drawn wholesale into the Iranian axis haunts many, especially among the Sunnis and Christians. That was one of the motivations for the initiative launched by the Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Beshara al-Raai, who proposed that Lebanon should declare itself neutral in regional struggles and that an international conference should be held to sponsor some sort of UN role in guiding the country’s affairs. For Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrullah, that was tantamount to drawing Lebanon into the “US-Israeli axis”, but the idea did not go away, with Hariri seeking an audience with the Pope later in April and the Arab League signalling support for Lebanese neutrality.

A phone call from President Macron to his Egyptian counterpart seems to have produced some flexibility on the part of Hariri. As frustration reached fever pitch, the French also floated with the EU the idea of imposing targeted sanctions—asset and travel freezes—on the recalcitrant Lebanese leaders. Some have homes and bank accounts in Paris and elsewhere in Europe and might actually find that painful, but as one well-placed observer put it, “The threat of sanctions is important as a threat, but not practical in implementation.” To be effective it would have to apply equally to all, and Hezbollah, for example, would have far less exposure than some of the other players.

On the local level, much of the blame for the deadlock was allotted to President Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, whose position was seen as having hardened since US sanctions were imposed on Bassil last November because of his faction’s proximity to Hezbollah. The ageing President (86) is also generally seen as trying to ensure a legacy for his son-in-law and the movement, with parliamentary elections coming up next year. Many of the visiting would-be mediators avoided meeting Bassil. But he remains a significant player. President Macron is reported to have tried to get Bassil and Hariri together in Paris to hammer out their differences, but Hariri refused, and it did not happen. “It’s a vicious circle,” said another of the players.

What about the Revolution?

Perhaps the rapacious leaders are complacent because the “Revolution”, which saw hundreds of thousands of citizens across the board take to the streets to denounce them all in October 2019, fizzled out after a few impressive months. Now the Revolution has fragmented into a number of WhatsApp groups hoping to contest the elections next year—if they happen.

Despite ever-worsening socio-economic conditions, there is no sign of a real resurgence of that spontaneous mass movement. As the Lebanese currency slumped to record lows against the dollar, there were some angry demonstrations and the blocking of main roads in early March, but they appear to have been largely manipulated by some of the political factions (especially Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces) to pressure others and came to an end when the army moved in to remove them.

The excitement of the long-gone Revolution days has been replaced by sullen despair, disgust, and disillusion. “There’s no future, there’s no security, you only have misery around you. And there’s no light, I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t believe in any solution for Leb under the current structure, it’s hopeless,” said Antoine al-Khoury, a businessman who supported the Revolution and is now moving his family abroad. “Anybody who is worth anything has either left the country, or is on the way,” said another. And one of my neighbours: “That’s all we can hope for now, to leave.”

From decay to chaos

Many of the country’s most-needed personnel, especially doctors and nurses, have gone or are going. They cannot survive when their salary has lost 90% of its value. Among the factors feeding into the disgust and disillusion with the political class is the fact that the enquiry into the port blast has got nowhere despite a change of investigating judges, and everybody knows that the investigation into the brutal murder of liberal activist Lokman Slim on 3 February will suffer the same fate. He was abducted and killed in Hezbollah territory and his family and supporters believe the faction, of which he was publicly critical, was behind his slaughter, despite denials.

But the corrupt politicians may not have the luxury of time. The BDL, coffers nearly empty, can only manage to keep up paying subsidies on fuel, flour and medicines—much of which is being smuggled across the border to Syria and elsewhere—for another couple of months or so. What will happen when the subsidies come off? According to the World Bank, 55% of the Lebanese are already under the poverty line.

There has been much talk of Lebanon simply “collapsing”, but countries do not really do that. More likely, there will be a steady decline into poverty, chaos and lawlessness.

“Without a credible government, in a few months, things will get worse and worse,” predicted Ghazi Wazni, Finance Minister in the outgoing caretaker government. “Poverty, misery and unemployment will rise even more, prices will keep soaring, and there will be chaos.”

“We won’t have a civil war, but we’ll have a decaying situation where chaos and murder can happen, thugs in the streets, maybe attacks on people with money,” said Walid Jumblatt, who has led his minority Druze community since his father’s assassination in 1977.

Security forces drained

In times of disorder people look to the men in uniform to hold the line, but they too are in a worsening situation. A soldier’s pay is now worth only around $60 a month, and there are rumours of desertions. The army commander, Gen. Joseph Aoun, angrily chided the politicians, saying they had created an explosive situation. “Soldiers, too, are suffering and going hungry,” he said.

As for the police, “security forces are being drained daily, we have reached rock bottom… I am talking about 90% of our duties, we are no longer able to perform them to protect the people and the nation,” according to caretaker interior minister Mohammad Fahmy.

Perhaps because there are no massive street riots—not yet—the political bosses continue to behave as though there is no great urgency to the crisis, although they must be feeling pressure from their own followers who are all feeling the pinch. It is like a pressure cooker under which the heat is being turned higher by the day. Nobody knows in what way it will happen and when, but one way or another it is certain to explode.