What way forward for Lebanon?

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 2 Sep 2020

Some international and regional powers are trying to spare Lebanon from civil war while others are less sanguine

Macron and Fairouz
FRENCH President Emmanuel Macron began his trip to Beirut on Monday by visiting the Arab world’s greatest living music legend Fairouz.  Macron described the meeting as “very beautiful, very strong”. “I told her everything that she represents for me, which is the Lebanon I love,” said Macron, who named “To Beirut”  as his favourite song.   Fairouz wore a face mask as Macron awarded her the Commandeur Légion d’Honneur. The star has not performed for a decade, seldom gives interviews and is rarely seen in public.

This week saw attempts to bring a semblance of stability to Lebanon with French President Emmanuel Macron making good on his promise to return to Beirut.

Macron has warned Lebanese politicians they risk sanctions if they fail to set the nation on a new course within three months, stepping up the pressure for reforms in a country that was already collapsing under the weight of its economic crisis before great swathes of the capital were flattened by an enormous blast caused by 3000 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been insecurely stored in the port for years.

“It’s the last chance for this system,” Macron told Politico while travelling to Beirut on Monday. “It’s a risky bet I’m making, I am aware of it... I am putting the only thing I have on the table, my political capital.”

Macron said he was seeking “credible commitments” and a “demanding follow-up mechanism” from Lebanon’s leaders, including legislative elections in six to 12 months.

Before Macron arrived on Monday evening leaders of Lebanon’s Christian, Shia and Sunni political forces announced the nomination of Mustafa Adib, Lebanon’s ambassador to Germany, as the country’s new prime minister. Adib replaces Hassan Diab whose eight months in office started in January, against a backdrop of socio-economic protests staged by a population that had grown weary of the Lebanese political leadership’s notorious corruption, and which ended amid the ruins of the chemical blast that on 4 August destroyed so much of Beirut.

Diab’s main attraction, like Adib’s, consisted of not being entirely mired in Lebanon’s discredited political establishment. Unfortunately, Diab disappointed a population exhausted from the lurch from one economic disaster to another.

“He did nothing, and was good for nothing. He was just brought in as a consensual Sunni politician who was supposed to get some economic ideas off the ground but failed,” says Lara, a Lebanese woman in her late 30s.

According to Lara, “like Diab like Adib.”

“They are not empowered. They are just there to try and keep a dead political system on life support.”

Like many of her compatriots, Lara views the blast that destroyed so much of the city as the last straw for the current political dispensation.

Beirut- and Cairo-based foreign diplomats who work on Lebanon agree that the funeral rites for the political regime created with the Taif Agreement which ended the country’s civil law are long overdue. The trouble, they add, is that political leaders who have benefited greatly from the system over three decades are unwilling to step down.

“They want to stay, no matter what, even over our dead bodies,” Lara said over the phone from Beirut.

What Macron was hoping to do when he arrived in Beirut on 6 August, just two days after the devastating blast, was to get Lebanon’s political players to understand that the moment of truth had arrived, and it was time for a new political dispensation to take the reins.

“That was his intention and what he told them in no uncertain terms when he met with them in Beirut,” said a Beirut-based foreign diplomat. “But I don’t think he has managed to secure enough international support for an overhaul of the political system in Lebanon.”

According to informed diplomatic sources, Macron has secured some support from the UK and Germany but other international powers are dragging their feet over a new beginning in Lebanon, mainly because it is not in their interests.

The power-sharing regime in Lebanon has for years allowed regional players to use the ill-starred Mediterranean country as a battlefield for their political, and at times military, tugs of war. Most recently, Lebanon has been the proxy battleground in the escalating Saudi Arabian-Iranian conflict.

Informed Beirut-based sources say the consultations over a prime ministerial nominee over the past three weeks have reflected these conflicting vested interests, and both the Iranians and Saudis, who have considerable influence over the country’s Shia and Sunni factions, have had some nominations blocked.

French pressure was essential in ensuring a new prime minister was nominated, and might yet help make the composition of any new government more palatable to the frustrated Lebanese public by excluding unpopular politicians like Gobran Bassil, a man who has the support of some Christian leaders allied with Hizbullah. A more pressing question, though, is whether French pressure will help the Adib government adopt and implement an economic rescue plan and launch a political process capable of ending the sectarian-based political regime without Lebanon slipping into a new civil war.

In the assessment of Beirut-based diplomats it is difficult to see this happening given some countries believe a new civil war in Lebanon will tip the balance of power in their favour. Further compounding the dangers are elements within Lebanon’s existing political leadership who, desperate to keep their influence intact, could miscalculate and set the country aflame.

Yet many of the demonstrators who joined the protests that have rocked the country since autumn last year appear confident that they will not fall into the sectarian trap.

According to Lara, not one sectarian leader has an iota of credibility left. “We want them all out. We hold them all responsible for the disasters that have befallen us,” she says.

Lebanon’s economy is in ruins. According to an ESCWA report released this week, 50 per cent of the Lebanese population is at risk of failing to access basic food needs by the end of 2020.

“Given that the country relies heavily on food imports, the massive explosion that destroyed a significant part of the port of Beirut on 4 August 2020 is expected to worsen the food security situation,” the report said. Lebanon-based diplomats fear “looting to secure food basics” is a very real prospect.

Helping Lebanon steer away from total collapse is a top priority for Macron. It is a goal that Egypt shares, and Cairo is following developments closely.

Cairo-based European diplomats argue that though Egypt is loath to take sides in Lebanon given the complex political calculations it must make with its regional and international allies, the last thing Cairo wants is to see the country descending into chaos.

Egypt has actively been promoting greater stability in the Mashrek in the hope of creating an economic climate from which the entire region might benefit. Last week in Amman, King Abdullah of Jordan, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Mustafa Al-Kazemi, the prime minister of Iraq, initialed a number of promising economic projects.

Cairo sources acknowledge that they have advised caution when it comes to replacing Lebanon’s discredited political system: despite all its weaknesses, they say Egypt is worried insufficient groundwork has been done to guarantee a smooth transition. Simultaneously, Egypt is also aware that given the depth of its failings the current system may be unable to survive. Cairo is also fully conscious of emerging political realities in the region, the rapprochement between Gulf states and Israel and Turkey’s pursuit of greater influence in the East Mediterranean, both of which could impact on the fragile set up in Lebanon.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly 

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