Lebanon’s effort to form a new government is not going well. Virtually every administration official except President Michel Aoun resigned soon after the August 4 explosion that devastated the city of Beirut.
The search for a new prime minister appears to be deadlocked by Lebanon’s factional rivalries and resistance to reform, even as the country’s already shaky economy teeters on the edge of utter ruin.
Reuters noted on Wednesday that Lebanon was a disaster area before the explosion, with hyperinflation devouring the currency and the banking system melting down. The current air of political chaos is making it that much harder for the country to obtain outside financial support, including from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
“It is very dangerous now. We were at a crossroads: either the right path or continuing going down the road to no IMF, no international aid, no money. This is pushing Lebanon towards chaos, complete collapse,” warned the Lebanese central bank, noting that it only has enough financial resources to keep food, fuel, and medicine flowing into the country for three more months.
After that, Lebanon would probably have to begin cannibalizing its gold reserves to survive. Lebanon’s cash reserves were valued at $30 billion in November when the central bank was struggling to convince depositors their money was secure. If the cash reserves will only sustain vital supplies and industries for three months, the $18 billion in gold reserves probably will not keep them afloat for much longer. The damage from the Beirut explosion has been estimated at $7 to $15 billion, so it could devour the value of those gold reserves with only a little left over for food and medicine.
Former Prime Minister Hassan Diab essentially pronounced Lebanon ungovernable and unreformable when he resigned a week after the Beirut blast, gravely judging the corrupt establishment to be “bigger than the state” itself.
“I hope that the caretaking period will not be long because the country cannot take that. Lets hope a new government will be formed quickly. An effective government is the least we need to get out of this crisis,” public works minister Michel Najjar said after Diab resigned. That hope appears to have been dashed.
Most of the officials who resigned are actually still sitting in their offices as caretakers, including Diab, and they might be sitting there for at least another year. Filling out a successor government has been stymied by the usual standoff of factional interests, as Reuters described:
Hezbollah and its Shia ally Amal are pressing for the return of Saad Hariri, seeing him as well placed to galvanize foreign support.
But this has hit resistance from several parties, each for their own reasons.
The opponents include Hezbollah’s ally the Maronite Christian President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil, who have been at loggerheads with Hariri since last year.
At the other end of the spectrum, neither the Christian Lebanese Forces Party, seen as close to Saudi Arabia, nor Druze leader Walid Joumblatt want him back in the job for now.
“If it isn’t Saad Hariri, we will remain with a caretaker government” until the end of Aoun’s term in 2022, said a senior politician familiar with the thinking of Hezbollah and Amal.
For his part, Hariri is either uninterested in the job or holding out for a deal that would ostensibly break the factional deadlock and allow him to rebuild the government with a cabinet of independent experts.
The problem with his apparent enthusiasm for reform is that the other factions would justifiably expect his cabinet of “non-aligned experts” to swiftly align itself with Hezbollah’s interests. Hezbollah is still hell-bent on starting a war with Israel, so its interests include bombs, guns, missiles, terrorist foot soldiers, and other things the people of Lebanon cannot eat.
“Now, after three weeks, there has been nothing; we don’t know who is in charge. Not one of the current elite has moved one inch. No one is asking ‘what is it that we have to do?’ No one is proposing anything,” a former minister complained to Reuters.
September 1 will mark the 100-year anniversary of the State of Greater Lebanon, controlled by France until gaining independence in 1943. It is not looking like a happy anniversary.
Some gloomy older Lebanese told Reuters the factional stalemates and pervasive corruption of today can be traced back to the slapdash founding of the nation, which threw several antagonistic groups together and marked out factional political territory right from the start. It seemed to be working for half a century, and then the car bombs started going off.
The biggest of those bombs took out Rafik al-Hariri, Saad’s father and perhaps the last leader who had a shot at forming a durable Lebanese national identity. Now the grudges are never forgotten, and every faction clings to its power and patronage with a white-knuckled grip, fearful of making itself vulnerable by making any concessions to reform.
Hezbollah is the most powerful of those factions. It absolutely refuses to take any responsibility for the explosion at the port it controls, while its critics want the international community to condition rescue plans for Lebanon on getting Hezbollah out of power.
“For all intents and purposes, the failed Lebanese state has become a puppet of Hezbollah and its patrons in Tehran,” said a letter to the IMF from an Israeli non-governmental organization called Shurat Hadin on Thursday.
“Hezbollah is clearly moving to control the Central Bank through its Health Ministry with the fourth largest budget in the government as well as the Communication, Agriculture, and Water ministries,” warned Shurat Hadin, which represents victims of Hezbollah terrorism in both the U.S. and Israel.
The letter warned that sending billions of dollars in rescue money to Lebanon without breaking Hezbollah’s grip on the financial system would amount to international support for the Iran-backed terrorist group.
“The IMF is on notice that any funds it provides to Lebanon will be targeted by the victims of Hezbollah’s terrorism to enforce their court ordered judgments. Any banking institutions in Lebanon or abroad that transfers IMF funds to Hezbollah will be sued in relevant jurisdictions for aiding and abetting terrorism,” Shurat Hadin warned.
Hezbollah stated once again on Wednesday that it has no intention of relinquishing power, rejecting any political conditions on IMF support as an infringement on Lebanese sovereignty.
Every attempt to cobble together a “national unity government” that would be acceptable to Hezbollah has been frowned upon by international financial donors, and frequently by Lebanese protesters, who want every trace of the government that blew up half of Beirut to disappear.
The IMF seems determined to at least secure a major reform of customs and import procedures, to ensure no other unpleasant surprises are lurking in Lebanese warehouses, but Hezbollah will never allow its smuggling operations to be disrupted. The IMF also wants a full audit of the Lebanese central bank, but Hezbollah is only one of several powerful interests that do not want the books combed over by independent auditors. Just about every significant reform proposal is a non-starter to someone with the power to scuttle any bailout deal.
The French government produced a two-page outline for a comprehensive reform plan on Thursday, a document described as ambitious but “informal.” A central bank audit was reportedly one of the French action items, plus early elections to form a new government and a comprehensive, “impartial” investigation of the Beirut explosion.
French President Emmanuel Macron has conditioned aid to Lebanon on comprehensive reforms — precisely the sort of conditions rejected by Hezbollah as a violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty, coming from the nation that governed Lebanon a hundred years ago.