French President Emmanuel Macron met with the leaders of the Lebanese political forces last week in the wake of the massive explosion that hit the port of Beirut. According to many sources, he told them that without reform, they would not get any further money.
France is clearly frustrated by the lack of progress in Lebanon. Well before the sad day of the Beirut explosion, the crisis was deep and worsening, and total collapse seemed imminent. The Lebanese political class was unable to stop the bickering and to confront the challenges.
One scholar, Maha Yahya, had showed that the power-sharing system in Lebanon was no longer working. Four of the five pillars of Lebanese society had collapsed: the financial and banking system; the tourism industry; the middle classes and the liberal atmosphere.
Regarding the recent catastrophic explosion, it has emerged that many actors in Lebanon were aware of the danger, and yet they did not do anything about it apart from writing memos. The disaster, as one expert put it, was “completely avoidable”. Now everybody is trying to deflect the blame, and the political elite is looking for scapegoats.
The conventional wisdom combines two elements. The first is that within the framework of the Lebanese political system, institutional arrangements and current internal balance of power it is very difficult to act and almost impossible to hold anybody accountable.
The second is that this plight has been worsened by the current nature of the key players, who are old, incompetent and have no commitment to the national interest.
Macron, who has taken the lead on the Lebanese issue, seems to believe that the combination of popular wrath and international pressure can force progress on reform. He claims that the explosion is a turning point in Lebanese history and that there was a “before 4 August” and that there will be an “after 4 August.”
He may be right: however, it is difficult to see how to proceed.
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab is going to call for early elections. It is clear that Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea is trying to capitalise on the current unpopularity of President Michel Aoun’s party and that Bahaa Al-Hariri, the brother of former prime minister Saad Al-Hariri, wants Diab’s job.
It is difficult to believe that these rivalries are tantamount to “reform”. The teams differ, but their ways of doing things are probably the same.
Macron is right when he says that the current state of the Lebanese political system is the main explanation of the disaster. He is wrong when he says it will be easy to reform and supposes that it has neither roots nor clients willing to defend it and themselves.
Another idea that has been floated is “empowering civil society and NGOs” by directly sending money to them. I am no expert on Lebanese NGOs, but I tend to believe my Lebanese friends’ assessment. The NGOS are the dominant power on social networks and they control the narrative. They help the international media and vice versa. But do they have “boots on the ground” and a relevant presence in the streets? Do they control instruments of power? We have the right to be skeptical about this solution.
Lebanon badly needs efficient institutions, and in this country as in most others this means transparent ones. The commentators say this will mean new political foundations. I doubt that this will be possible, and in any case it will take time. Due to the present critical situation, that time is not available.
The current reasoning for most policy-makers more or less looks like this: the Lebanese people want radical change. For their leaders, serious change means self-destruction. So, they will try to placate the international donors and the population with cosmetic ones.
However, this will not do. There are two ways of achieving the necessary change: sweeping results in the upcoming elections and international help. Of course, nobody will send in troops to Lebanon. The US is not really interested, French and Turkish forces are already overextended, previous experience in Lebanon and elsewhere does not recommend it, and the Hizbullah militia is a formidable force and something like a real army.
As a result, many experts say the only way, or at least the best option, is a mixture of incentives and calibrated “sanctions” targeting “bad” leaders. Macron has made threats of this sort.
But I am still sceptical. Can you dismantle the clientelist networks in Lebanon without risking the collapse of the whole social fabric? Can you build a transparent system without dismantling these networks? Is there the time to ponder and implement appropriate policies? I may be overstating my case, but my feeling is that the Lebanese system may be impossible to reform. In any case, I do not see how reform can proceed as long as Hizbullah is not “on board”.
This Shiite power-broker has no interest in weakening its allies, and it does not have an interest in building a strong political order in Lebanon unless it has a say in it. But this might be unacceptable for many donors, especially in the Gulf. It remains to be seen whether the Hizbullah mantra of “forget the West, go East,” meaning that Lebanon does not need the US and France, but that it needs China, is tactical or strategic.
However, I do not think many players will be willing to handle this hot potato or to invest in a country that has such great needs and so many handicaps. The Lebanese are a great people, their middle classes are impressive, and they now have a window of opportunity for reform. But they face formidable obstacles.
The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.