Lebanon’s crisis calls for radical local reforms and a revised US Mideast policy
By Ghassan Micel Rubeiz
When my friends in the US ask me to explain what is happening in Lebanon, I talk about how rampant corruption is, how emotionally dichotomized society is, how the national debt has grown out of control, how much religious institutions are politically co-opted and how the validity of elections is compromised with the influence of dirty money.
With a smile, some of my American friends say: are you talking about the American situation or about Lebanon? I see the point, but I add that the difference is in degree and not in kind. In addition, Lebanon cannot print US dollars and borrow at near zero interest.
The impact of Beirut’s explosion is far-reaching. Lebanon needs a cabinet of salvation before the political vacuum, anger on the street and differences of opinion bring back civil war. A worse scenario may be renewed confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel.
Lebanon has a chance to survive, as a state, since its people are seriously interested in genuine reform but they cannot agree on how to change the political system. Those who want change, especially the youth, attribute the corruption to sectarian power sharing. But those who wish to reform and keep the balance of power among the religious communities claim that in the Middle East secular state building is impossible.
In a previous article on Lebanon I argued for giving the newly installed cabinet of Hassan Diab a chance to prove itself after the October uprising had pressured the previous cabinet of Saad Hariri to resign. https://www.arabamericannews.com/2020/01/24/the-newly-formed-lebanese-cabinet-deserves-a-chance/ . Diab’s cabinet lasted eight months but achieved nothing significant.
In the wake of a devastating explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4, PM Diab and his team of ministers resigned in response to public anger. This tragedy revived the 2019 national uprising which had slowly abated due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Lebanese citizen is sick of his politicians- all parties, with no exception.
Lebanon is dealing with an economic meltdown, a persistent pandemic, a growing national uprising, and now, a deadly blast of far-reaching humanitarian, economic and political impact. A transitional cabinet has to take emergency measures on all fronts: provision of food and medicine, shelter, infrastructure, employment and the restoration of some hope.
Any talk of the possible return of former Prime Minister Hariri to the cabinet in the name of national unity would be an insult to the people, a manifestation of political amnesia. In a Carnegie Endowment August 11 panel, Paul Salem, of the Middle East Institute, opined that the new Lebanese cabinet must be credible and strong; he added that civic society groups must unite behind the uprising, in order to bring about real change in the political system. Click here.
A corrupt political class would be resistant to the formation of an effective government. The existing parliament, which is even worse than this caretaker cabinet, would not easily approve the designation of an independent prime minister. The speaker of the parliament, Nabih Berri, and President Michel Aoun, whose two separate parties are allied with Hezbollah, will not voluntarily support a strong cabinet leader.
The time has not yet come to resolve the most divisive issue of keeping a strong, overstretched, risk-prone military force outside the administrative framework of the national armed forces, namely that of Hezbollah. The key player to negotiating with the Resistance is Tehran. And Tehran is in no mood of discussing Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese and regional politics.
Lebanon’s existential threat at the present evokes memories of 1989, at the end of a fifteen-year civil war. After an extended period of fratricidal fighting, the civil war leaders reached a desperate need for reconciliation. In 1989, Saudi Arabia offered Lebanon a temporary remedy for the civil war through what is known as the Taef Agreement. A series of measures were stipulated: The parliament would no longer be over represented by Christians. The Prime Minister (a Sunnite) would have more power. A future electoral law would end sectarian quotas in the parliament. To preserve sectarian balancing and insure the protection of minorities, a Senate would be created to represent the various religious sects (18 theologically separate communities). Taef gave Lebanon a chance to improve equity in power sharing but it did not deal with the inherent problems of sectarian governance. This half-baked, Saudi led, Arab formula has not been fully implemented; even if Taef were adhered to faithfully, the extended confessional formula has indeed reinforced rather than subdued sectarian rivalry, mainly at the top.
In the past, the conflict was largely sectarian, but today it is largely ideological. The Lebanese today are divided between supporters of Iran and supporters of Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the conflict is now between the people demonstrating in the public square (across sects, gender, ethnicity and educational level) and the political and business class.
A radically changed political landscape today no longer allows Saudi Arabia’s mediation in Lebanon. Moreover, Riyadh’s powerful friends, Washington and Tel Aviv, have played a divisive role in the Middle East by confronting Iran too aggressively and ignoring a festering and expanding Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. To be fair, Iran’s role in the region is also very disruptive.
The Lebanese complicated situation has gotten more so by the sudden emergence of a peace initiative between a lead Arab Gulf state, the United Arab Emirate, and Israel. The favorable reception of this significant regional development in the West is likely to strengthen the Saudi-leaning factions in Lebanon. Iran is already feeling the political winds slightly shifting in Beirut. The US will try to exploit this turn of events to increase the pressure on the Iran- Hezbollah axis.
The US and Europe could play a constructive role in Lebanon if Washington changes its one-sided policy in the Middle East. This may happen if there is a new leadership in Washington, come November.
France is for the moment taking a lead role in mediating Beirut’s crisis by encouraging the formation of a “national unity” government, which would initially focus on reconciliation and reconstruction. President Macron ties foreign aid to reform. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-security-blast-macron-idUSKCN252171 . The French initiative will have a chance of introducing palliative emergency measures, if Washington relaxes somewhat its pressure on Hezbollah. To allow the formation of a credible cabinet Hezbollah must be incentivized to cooperate.
The emergence of a new government may have to wait for the November US elections. In a possible post-Trump US administration, Washington may be able to revive an international deal with Iran, a deal which would limit Tehran’s influence in the region- without marginalizing the political role of Hezbollah. In a totally different political mood in the region, Hezbollah’s military could be integrated in the national armed forces. This is perhaps wishful thinking. Otherwise, a too tough US administration could destroy Lebanon in trying to humiliate Hezbollah through economic sanctions and continued Israeli air attacks on Syrian and Lebanese targets.
It is unrealistic and unfair for the US to try to discipline Hezbollah before improving regional relations, particularly between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Washington would also need to improve relations between the Arab world and Israel by recognizing the injustice which the Palestinian people have suffered for decades. The UAE “peace” initiative may slow peace in the region rather than advance it.
As long as the tension between Riyadh and Tehran dominates the region, the interrelated Lebanese and Syrian conflicts would remain unresolved, and Hezbollah would stay as a challenge for many. Similarly, as long as the Palestinian rights are totally ignored, Lebanon would not be able to deal with Hezbollah, whose basic raison d’etre is confronting Israel’s territorial occupation in the region.
Lebanon is not special in its level of corruption, or degree of sectarianism; Lebanon is exceptional in its demography, its history and political vulnerability to its neighbors and their distant allies. Assuming the promise of a viable uprising, putting Lebanon back together demands major regional and international shifts in policies.