Even if Lebanese politicians form a new government, it is doomed to fail. Here's why

Even if Lebanese politicians form a new government, it is doomed to fail. Here's why
Comment: Replacing Lebanon's leadership elites with more of the same will seal their fate, writes Paul Gadalla.
6 min read
16 Jan, 2020
Lebanese protest Diab's intention to field a cabinet of independent experts [Getty]
A new government in Lebanon looks imminent, which has raised hopes among some in the protest-hit country. 

But this so-called "government of specialists" will be ill-equipped to tackle the country's nascent problems. Not only will it lack legitimacy, but also the will to put the country on the path of recovery, as its hands will remain tied by its Iranian backers. 

Lebanon's latest cabinet will find itself in the midst of the worst financial crisis the country has faced since its civil war. Yet three months of political wrangling between its pro-Resistance factions have shown that the government will not be one of "specialists", but of politically aligned technocrats.

Indeed, the different ministers have not been picked on the basis of merit, but instead 
haggled over by Lebanon's ruling elite. This is the same elite, that after decades of mismanagement and graft, has left the country heavily indebted, and its economy in tatters. 

On December 19, 2019, after two months of massive anti-corruption street protests that unseated the government of Saad Hariri, former education minister Hassan Diab became Lebanon's new prime minister. 

But his designation to the premiership does not come from the ranks of the protestors that have managed to paralyse Lebanese streets since October. Instead, the militant Shia party Hezbollah, and its political allies nominated Diab.

The different ministers have not been picked on the basis of merit, but instead haggled over by Lebanon's ruling elite

Hezbollah and its political allies - who occupy the presidency, hold the speakership of parliament, and control a majority of the legislature -  have made clear they will not be ceding power to more secular civil society groups.

Mohammad Raad, the head of Hezbllah's parliamentary bloc, even 
said "when the country descends into chaos, the strong parties will control it." Proving that point, they have brazenly attacked protesters and burned their tents, with virtual impunity. 

Yet in Lebanon's consensus politics, forming a one-sided government is a poisoned chalice.

Lebanon's National Pact - a quasi-constitutional unwritten power-sharing agreement between the country's various ethno-religious communities - requires the prime minister to be Sunni.

Though Diab fulfills that criterion, he enjoys little support from the Sunni street,making his political position precarious. Neither former Prime Minister Saad Hariri -  the head of the Future Movement, Lebanon's largest Sunni political party - nor top-Sunni cleric Mufti Abdullatif al-Dirian supported his appointment. 

Furthermore, protestors have made it known this week that they reject the current ruling class by attacking the banks, and have already begun to block roads at the news that Diab's new cabinet is on its way.

Other major Lebanese political figures, such as Druze chieftain Walid Joumblatt, have vehemently rejected Diab's appointment. This lack of broad support from either the protesters or his own sectarian community severely limits Diab's room to manoeuvre Lebanon's fractured political landscape.

The fact that he was selected by Hezbollah, who have openly clashed with Sunni groups in Lebanon, will increase sectarian tensions as well. Nouhad Machnouk, the former Minister of Interior and a Future Movement Sunni MP, alleged that the Iranian Supreme Leader's top advisor Ali Akbar Velayati's defense of Diab indicated that he represented Iran and Hezbollah. "He does not represent the Lebanese, the people of Beirut, or the Sunnis." 

Diab also lacks the political clout to pursue high-ranking officials and recover the public funds they and their parties have stolen

Diab's support from pro-Iran parties also pits him against a large swathe of the international community, including regional heavy weights Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Both Gulf countries have been major financial backers of Lebanon and want to see Iran's role in the country decrease. 

Neither has congratulated Diab on his new post. Lebanon was also pledged $11 billion in aid last year at the CEDRE conference in Paris, if the government committed to reforms, but it's doubtful international donors will work with a pro-Iranian dominated government, especially with the renewed sanctions on Iran.

Read more: 
Lebanese police forced to apologise after brutalising activists in most violent night since protests began

Even the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Jans Kubis specifically pegged the blame for the current crisis on Lebanon's political class: 

"Lebanon is truly unique - the BDL Governor requesting extraordinary powers to at least somehow manage the economy while those responsible watch it collapsing. Incredible." 

This leads us to the major issue of Lebanon's ongoing economic crisis, which Diab's government will have to tackle. Lebanon has the third largest debt to GDP ratio in the world, due to years of overborrowing and squandering of public funds.

And although not officially unpegged, the Lebanese lira has now been trading much higher than at the official rate of 1,500 to the dollar. With so many Lebanese rushing to withdraw their savings, banks have 
imposed their own forms of capital controls. Its vital tourism sector has all but dried up due to domestic unrest. 

If Diab's new government is to succeed in curbing corruption and stabilising the economy, it will have to take decisive steps that will have ramifications for the parties who brought it to power.

Ultimately, Diab and his new ministers are from the very system that has produced Lebanon's fractured economic and political landscape

Lebanon's bloated bureaucracy must be reined in to stop government waste. It is mostly staffed by apparatchiks of various parties, and last year it was revealed that previous governments had hired thousands more into the public sector illegally. Whether Diab would slash the salaries, or fire partisans of Hezbollah and its key allies, is a major question. 

Diab also lacks the political clout to pursue high-ranking officials from the other parties which backed the new premier's rise to power, and recover the public funds they and their parties have stolen. Major politicians like former Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri have been implicated in a number of scandals. 

Finally, he will have to make tough structural adjustments that will affect all Lebanese, such as raising taxes and implementing necessary austerity measures. But Diab will have to tread lightly in order to balance Lebanon's budget, as such measures will also affect constituencies belonging to Hezbollah and their allies. 

Ultimately, Diab and his new ministers are from the very system that has produced Lebanon's fractured economic and political landscape, and it is doubtful they can enact any real reforms that will revive Lebanon in the long run. 

So what should be done?

The protest movements have a strong point: the country needs a government of technocrats - real technocrats and not ones subservient to Hezbollah's interests. A government far too aligned with Iran, which itself is internationally isolated and caught in escalating tensions with the US, will only alienate Lebanon from the international community on which it depends on for aid.

Non-aligned technocrats would most likely give international donors the confidence they need to invest in the country and placate protestors who have been able to paralyse Beirut.

CEDRE members also need to have a firm hand with Lebanon in pushing for reforms. Otherwise, foreign donors' efforts to keep the country afloat will do little to curb governmental corruption and theft, and will continue to prove fertile ground for Iran's gradually growing influence over Beirut.

Paul Gadalla is a former Beirut-based journalist who also worked in communications at the Carnegie Middle East Centre. He has an MA in political science and focuses on the Eastern Mediterranean and religious minorities. He is currently based in Washington, DC. 

Follow him on Twitter: @BoulosinDC

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.