Lebanon: Humanitarian aid vs political reform

Bassem Aly , Wednesday 12 Aug 2020

Lebanon, in the wake of last week’s port explosion, has to solve its political problems if it is to guarantee the flow of aid needed to rebuild Beirut

Gabriel Asioun, one of the engineers who built Beirut's now-damaged port silos, holds a leaflet showing the silos when they were first built, near the site of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon August 14, 2020 REUTERS

Following last week’s explosion in Beirut Port, state estimates showed that Lebanon needs from $10 to $15 billion to rebuild damaged areas. The donors conference arranged by French President Emmanuel Macron collected only 253 million Euros ($298 million) in humanitarian aid.

Those who offered support during the conference include global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, UN bodies and the European Union. For countries, the list includes African, Asian, North American and European states.

Lebanon, therefore, is living a social and economic nightmare the concluding act of which remains unknown. The blast left 300,000 people homeless and 200 others dead. The number of those injured reached 6,000.

But Lebanon experts believe that domestic politics is the reason behind the reluctance of international actors to offer further backing to Lebanon.

Robert Rabil, former chief of emergency for the Red Cross in Beirut, told Al-Ahram Weekly that he doesn’t think that Lebanon is “going to have now more than humanitarian aid till reforms are made”.

“You are not going to have big reconstruction, but instead individual fixing of homes. This is not the kind of reconstruction where you see billions of dollars poured in. This is because of the absence of faith in government,” Rabil, now a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University, said.

He said that people count on “each other” to fix homes, which is why it is “going to take time”.

The Lebanese people, he explained, depend on money coming from relatives, people in the diaspora — including those who work in Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — and millionaires and billionaires who also live abroad and transfer cash to the country.

Lebanon has recently seen a huge deterioration in local conditions. The Lebanese pound has lost around 60 per cent of its value against the dollar and the country has a debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 150 per cent.

Thousands of business owners are suffering in the import-based economy and more than a third of the population of six million is jobless. A garbage crisis, continuous power cuts and increases in the prices of basic goods such as bread are also present. As well as coronavirus.

After the explosion, members of parliament and the ministers of justice, information and environment — in addition to top diplomat Nassif Hitti, who resigned ahead of last week’s tragedy citing the absence of an effective will to achieve “comprehensive structural reform which our society and the international community have urged us to do” — officially left their posts.

Hizbullah-backed Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned Monday afternoon, gaining caretaker status till a new cabinet is formed. All of these developments were taking place amid anti-government protests, which turned violent and saw clashes between security forces and demonstrators.

Deen Sharp, a fellow in geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said that donors are “walking into a political minefield and they must be attentive to where they tread”.

“What entity in Lebanon should receive money? There is no easy answer to this question. Lebanon desperately needs humanitarian aid but it does not need aid that just fills the boots of the elite that put them in this crisis in the first place,” Sharp said.

He noted that all donors have to understand the “highly complex political geography of Lebanon and recognise that the narrow elites that created this mess will target any incoming aid revenues as new streams of money they can tap into”.

Lebanese elites have refused any reform and they are likely to even refuse to undertake the minimal conditions set by the IMF, Sharp stressed.

Almost all donors seem to understand this message clearly. For example, USAID said Sunday that $15 million in assistance will go to medical authorities at the American University in Beirut and the American Lebanese University.

Even before the explosion, many of Lebanon’s old friends were not ready to back it due to the fact that Hizbullah is in power: the premier is supported by the group, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and President Michel Aoun are its allies.

UAE Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said in June that “Lebanon is partly paying the price” of “a deterioration of Lebanon’s Arab relations and Gulf relations over the past 10 years”.

On Sunday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan said that, “the continued destructive hegemony of the terrorist organisation Hizbullah worries us all, and we all know this organisation’s history of using explosive materials and storing them among civilians in several Arab and European countries and in north and south America.”

Diab’s coalition had mainly counted on Hizbullah and allies of the Shia, pro-Iran armed group. Saad Al-Hariri, a pro-West Sunni leader and head of the Future Movement, refused to form a coalition late in 2019 with Hizbullah after both sides failed to reach an agreement.

The strongly anti-Hizbullah Christian Lebanese Forces Party and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party also followed Al-Hariri’s path. Hence, Hizbullah and Aoun nominated Diab to replace Al-Hariri.

Leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces Party Samir Geagea called for early parliamentary elections Monday, while Diab — ahead of his resignation — said he will stay in office for two months till reforms are made.

Yet, Rabil said that, “I myself have lost complete faith in all warlords and all those who constitute the majority of the political system”, seeing the need for an international investigation to look into “what really happened” in the blast, while unsure whether the government will allow it.

Rabil sees Lebanon is divided between two camps. While the first represents civil society that “needs help from outside”; the second involves all political forces, including the 14 March Coalition led by Al-Hariri and the 8 March Coalition led by Hizbullah.

“This is not two camps, but one camp. Despite some opposition to Hizbullah, throughout the years, this mafia gives political cover for Hizbullah, and Hizbullah covers their corruption. How can civil society compete against them? For me, this is really difficult,” he said.

Secondly, Rabil explained that thousands of Berri’s and Hizbullah’s members work in state institutions. “Where do you think the parliament speaker gets his power? It’s because of Hizbullah,” he said.

“Given the history of Lebanon’s party politics, if elections are held, a good number of people will vote for Jumblatt, Hizbullah and others. This is a very huge problem.”

Rabil thinks that Hizbullah is “stronger than the state”, having no doubt that it is going to be in the next parliament. “I don’t mind this, but not with a majority, so Hizbullah has the final say in decision-making,” he argued.

Hizbullah, according to a Reuters report, has 12 MPs in the 128-seat parliament. But, when adding those independent MPs and those affiliated to parties who back it, the Shia group ends up having the support of at least 70 MPs.

“All of them means all of them” was the main slogan for protests against all political forces in Lebanon last year that erupted when Al-Hariri was still in power.

The same slogan has been reportedly used again during ongoing protests in the streets of Beirut.

So far, Egypt has sent three planes carrying aid to Lebanon including, according to the military, “large quantities of medical supplies and foodstuffs.”

Clothes are also part of Egypt’s aid package to Lebanon.

The Egyptian Embassy in Lebanon said a plane carrying 14 tons of medical aid and flour was sent, the latter to support bakeries and keep bread production in place.

After the port explosion, Lebanon was left with less than a month in reserves of grain.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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