September 21, 2020


LEBANON: Still stuck

BY Jon B. Alterman

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Lebanon’s governance crisis has continued, driven by traditional sectarian parties’ determination to retain control. The French-led effort to guide Lebanon’s politics toward reform remains the principal external driver of events, but internal dynamics continue to dominate. Lebanese society has struggled through the summer, showing some combination of resilience and exhaustion. The economic crisis remains unabated: the pound has plummeted in value, the banking system is in shambles, and the government debt burden is unwieldy. The country is still reeling from the 4 August explosion that not only took out much of Beirut’s port but nearby neighborhoods as well. They will take years, and billions of dollars, to rebuild. Coronavirus infections recently have spiked upwards. The middle class has been pushed into poverty, and the government lacks the fiscal space to provide much relief for any of the above.

And yet, the widescale protests that began to rock Lebanon last October and continued for months have not returned. There is no clear alternative right now to a French-backed effort to ease Lebanon away from sectarian politics, which is far from saying that the French will be successful. The public may want to give space to the new prime minister-designate, former ambassador to Germany Mustapha Adib, who is struggling to assemble a technocratic cabinet. While that was exactly what his technocratic predecessor, engineering professor Hassan Diab, supposedly had done six months prior, in practice, Diab often yielded to the influence of Lebanon’s Shi’ite factions.

Adib has been battling over the leadership of the finance ministry with Hezbollah and Amal, the two main Shi’ite parties (who are supported by the generally Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement). The Shi’ite parties argue that the finance ministry is a Shi’a birthright, guaranteed in the agreements that ended the Lebanese civil war in 1990. Not coincidentally, the finance ministry has broad authority over all national spending and is an important fulcrum of national power, and arguably of patronage. Critics see its continuation as a Shi’a patrimony not only as a Shi’ite power grab but also as a commitment to sustaining the dysfunctional sectarian politics that have plagued Lebanon for years.

The catalyst for at least some of the political movement in Lebanon now is a 34-point French reform plan, tendered by President Emmanuel Macron in his most recent visit to Beirut. France’s historical ties to Lebanon give it greater salience in Lebanese politics and give Lebanon greater salience in France’s Middle East strategy. Macron promises international aid in return for comprehensive Lebanese reform and has vaguely set the latter half of October as a deadline. Taken individually, the steps make a lot of sense: improving governance, cutting down on corruption, cutting out the rot in the financial system, and engaging with the IMF, among others. Pouring money in without serious reform would merely forestall reform, the argument goes. But that is not to say that the promise of assistance will be enough to push reform. After all, the plan is, at least in part, old wine in new bottles; arguably, more than a third of the steps were outlined in previous reform efforts but never implemented.

While it is notable that Macron is approaching Lebanon with carrots rather than sticks, the outstanding question is how much focus Lebanon will receive in a world reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic. The line of countries seeking support is now long, and many of them have far less complicated problems to untangle than Lebanon. Lebanon looks like it will be a hard problem for some time, and success is far from certain. There are few signs that Macron has lined up broad international support for his effort. The United States has taken a more punitive approach to Lebanon, eschewing political figures altogether and sanctioning parties connected to Hezbollah. Similarly, the Gulf Cooperation Council states that had previously supported Sunni prime ministers in Lebanon have been reluctant to engage, given the ascendance of Shi’ite parties in the Lebanese system.

Given all this, it is perhaps surprising that Lebanon is not teetering more than it is. The country’s problems, after all, are mostly man-made, and large parts of the population have been immiserated. The political class is widely distrusted, and the banking system needs a complete overhaul. And yet, we see neither large crowds in the streets nor the sorts of bloody political attacks that Lebanon has seen in its recent history.

What that suggests, then, is that Lebanon’s crisis has some room to run before the country’s various competing interests decide that they have extracted the best deal they can. Civil society groups that are seeking to displace sectarianism are ascending, but they are not at all dominant. For that to happen, the traditional interests will have to lose much more power, and the civil society groups will have to gain much more power. Were that to happen, it would be a function not merely of French pressure, but also more time. Importantly, it will also mean much more suffering and crisis in Lebanon.

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