It has been a year since Nassif Hitti, a prominent Lebanese diplomat, resigned from his job as the country’s foreign minister.
On 3 August 2020, almost 24 hours before Beirut was hit by devastating blasts in its port where a poorly stored shipment was stored, Hitti announced his resignation as Lebanese minister of foreign and expatriate affairs.
It was in January of the same year that Hitti had joined the first government to take office after the October Revolution in Lebanon that made firm calls for an end to economic and political corruption.
Upon his resignation, Hitti said that the government had not acted promptly and according to a clear and consensual work plan to live up to the expectations of the people.
“Things were not going in the right direction, and we should have been acting to save our country,” Hitti said upon his resignation. At the time, critics said that Hitti was jumping off a sinking ship. With the blasts that came just one day later, Hitti had no regrets about his decision.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview, Hitti was as convinced as ever that his resignation was justified.
There is no point for anyone to be in government if that government has no political will to act to end the worsening hardships that the Lebanese people are living with today and not just in Beirut that suffered huge damage as a result of blasts that are still being investigated a year later, he commented.
“What happened [on 4 August 2020] was a crime and a tragedy. We need to know what happened. There must be a serious investigation,” he said.
Pushing the investigation forward and making sure it is on the right tracks should be happening in parallel with helping new Lebanese prime minister Naguib Mikati put together a new government.
Mikati was appointed late last week after the nomination of five former Lebanese prime ministers, including Saad Al-Hariri who failed after over nine months to put together a government that could be approved by Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
On Monday, Mikati said things were moving much more slowly than he had hoped.
Lebanon has been run by Aoun, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri and acting Prime Minister Hassan Diab for almost a year while the economic crisis has been moving from bad to worse, causing severe shortages of food, fuel and medicines and long electricity cuts.
For Hitti, the question is not when Mikati will be able to announce a new government that can be approved by Aoun. The question is whether Mikati will have to succumb to sectarian-based quotas.
“If it is called a government of technocrats but is based on the same old concept of sectarian-based quotas, then I am afraid that the chances of delivering are not high, if there are any at all,” Hitti said.
With legislative and presidential elections due in Lebanon in the spring of 2022, the politics of the country seem to be obsessed with this date, and all the country’s political actors are eyeing the day of the elections.
Critics of the Lebanese political elite who have spoken over the past few days in Lebanese civil society have said the priority for most politicians is to keep their seats in parliament and their immunity rather than to act promptly to solve the problems the Lebanese people are suffering from.
“I think we need to be clear about what we really want today: what we want is to resolve the problems as soon as possible. This is the priority,” Hitti said. The wider issue relating to overhauling the political system as a whole will need more time and a wider consensus, he added.
For the time being, “we want a decisive and agreed-upon reform programme that will take effect as soon as possible, so that we will be able to get the countries that wish to support Lebanon to pitch in to help without hesitation,” he said.
The longer time goes by without any movement on fixing the economic situation and addressing the country’s acute social problems, the higher the risk there is of a social explosion.
“We have to look reality in the eye. We have to admit that today the Lebanese people are being insulted as they try to get on with their everyday lives. They are insulted as they try to get food and fuel and medicine and even as they try to get their own money from their own bank accounts. This is the fact of the matter,” Hitti said.
But no matter the sad reality of the political system, it would be “unrealistic” to talk of overhauling it while the economic situation is in an impasse, he said.
Hitti referred to UN statistics that indicate that the poverty level across Lebanon has gone from 55 per cent of the overall population in 2000 to over 65 per cent this year, with people suffering from acute poverty rising sharply from 23 to 33 per cent.
“We are talking about a situation in which some 30 per cent of the children of Lebanon go to bed at the end of the day without having had dinner, some without even having a filling meal at all,” he said.
Without a fast and efficient economic-reform programme, it will be very hard to keep the local currency from its apparently unstoppable deterioration.
Political stability, Hitti said, is essential to getting the economic-reform programme moving. But it is difficult to attain when the country’s political leaders seem to be a lot more concerned about their electoral prospects in the spring of next year than the current problems.
“The trouble is that the political players are more concerned with the dynamics of their regional allies than with the situation in Lebanon. This camp and that camp are keeping a close watch on the political gains and failures of their regional allies in order to decide the political choices on the home front in Lebanon.”
“This is disastrous, and it keeps putting the country in harm’s way,” he said.
“The trouble is that if the ship sinks, there will be no losers and no winners. We are all going to suffer tremendously,” Hitti stated.
He added that the sooner all the country’s political leaders get to see this basic fact, the better it will be for everyone. “Without coming to terms with this fact, the sectarian-based bras de fer will just continue, and things will keep getting worse – with the impact of the pandemic, the devaluation of the currency and the shocking brain drain that is hitting us with all the top professionals leaving the country to try to make a decent living,” he said.
Prior to his resignation in the eleventh hour before Beirut was hit by the shocking blasts, perceived by many in Lebanon as a sign of corruption, mismanagement and even the betrayal of national affiliations, Hitti had proposed a roundtable discussion among all the political groups to agree on a work programme to spare the country from what he warned was an inevitable crisis.
Today, while Lebanon is waking up to independent reports that indicate possible deliberate wrong-doing behind the devastating blasts of 4 August 2020, and with Mikati already talking about the slow process of composing a new government, and with Beirut-based diplomats already worrying that he might not be able to put one together, Hitti is even more convinced that there needs to be direct and honest discussion about a work plan that all the political group can agree on.
“I don’t think it is too much to ask for everyone to take a break from sectarian-based politics and to worry more about saving our country. It is not too much at all to ask,” he said.
“If for the sake of argument we have a government tomorrow and then all the members of the government are taken hostage by the political agendas of their sectarian constituencies or leaders, then things will go nowhere,” Hitti said.
“I was in the government myself, and I know how it is simply impossible for cabinet members to act forcefully if they need to worry every step of the way about what their political leaders will say about this or that,” he added.
He declined to discuss a possible need to revisit the Taif Agreement that ended the 15-year civil war in 1990 with a sectarian-shared based formula. “This is not the time to get into that – the country is suffering too many splits. It cannot get into working on Taif again now,” he said.
Hitti would not say whether he thought that at some point down the road the Taif Agreement will have to be revisited, given the many political changes the region has gone through. “I think it would be an act of political suicide to get into this debate now. We are just trying to overcome the terms of this ‘sectarian federation’ that we are living under, in order to get things moving,” he said.
According to Hitti, it is absurd for the leaders of the country’s political groups to think they are in a situation in which they can stick to their sectarian demands as part of plans for election campaigns next spring. He is not even sure how things will go between August 2021 and April 2022 when the elections are due.
“I cannot tell what will happen, but I can tell that every day there is a new challenge – every hour of every day there is a new reason to worry,” he said.
Anticipation is high in Beirut over what could happen on 4 August when the families of the close to 250 people who died in the explosions are likely to protest against the failure of the investigation to take the right path and to question all the possible culprits, much less to reveal the truth about who was responsible for the blasts.
“I cannot predict what will happen on 4 August – I just don’t know,” Hitti said. But it was important to put things in context, because the dismay, not just of the families of the victims but of every citizen angered about what has happened to Beirut, is not isolated from the wider and perhaps more pressing dismay of people who cannot put dinner on the table for their children.
“I cannot tell what will happen tomorrow or after tomorrow, but I can tell that it is impossible for this country to keep standing on its own two feet if things continue to be the way they are,” Hitti said.
“There is a 50 per cent chance that people will come to their senses and embark on a rescue mission, and a 50 per cent chance that things will slip,” he said.
What would consolidate the chances of a rescue mission, Hitti said, would be for the country’s political leaders to find a way to allow for the creation and operation of “a functioning government with a consensual work plan – if only to pursue some damage control.”
On the other hand, persisting with political intransigence would be for the political leaders to keep doing what they are doing.
Hitti said he was hoping that regional and international players who know the importance of keeping Lebanon from slipping will do whatever they can to encourage the political players to move beyond limited sectarian agendas.
“Obviously, some of these countries have been trying for the past year – and even before the blasts – to offer a helping hand because clearly everybody knows what it means to let Lebanon slip. This is not a scene that anyone in this region would want to see,” he said. But all the helping hands have thus far failed to give the necessary push forward.
Beirut-based diplomats speak about the efforts that leading capitals, including Cairo and Paris, have invested in trying to get Aoun to come to an agreement with former Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri on a government to take over from Hassan Diab, sworn in as prime minister fewer than eight months before the blasts and then having to resign.
But Hitti is convinced that the international and regional players will just have to try harder, “simply because the risks today are much higher,” he said.
During the past year, most international donors have gone through civil-society groups to bring aid to Lebanon, helping people cover some of their basic needs. However, things have not been working well.
“The situation is not sustainable. There has to be a government that has the confidence of the Lebanese people and that of the international community, so that we can have a reform programme and encourage donors to come forward,” Hitti said.
He said that while it was important for the political leaders to get their act together, it was also important for regional players who had got used to making Lebanon the scene for their squabbles to keep their hands off before the situation takes a very sad curve.
“Lebanon cannot take another bit of sectarianism or another bit of proxy squabbles,” he said.
Hitti spoke hours before tensions rose in Beirut following a bloody confrontation between a Shia and a Sunni family in the village of Khalde south of the capital. While the confrontation was contained, it raised the level of worry about additional confusion in Lebanon.
Hitti said that he believed that all the country’s political leaders would have to refuse to be dragged into any incidental confrontation of that nature. The Arab capitals, he argued, have an important role to play in Lebanon.
“Lebanon needs an Arab support-system that can help it move in the right direction. I know that it has been a busy time for many Arab countries, but reaching out to Lebanon should be a priority,” he said.
Helping Lebanon stand on its own two feet, he argued, would dissuade any irresponsible Israeli acts, would spare Lebanon from any spillover from nearby crises, and would push back any non-Arab regional players.
“In short, if the current situation persists, Lebanon runs the risk of being a failed state. This is certainly not in the interest of any Arab country, and the sooner everybody acts to avoid this scenario, the more chances there are to avoid hitting it,” Hitti told the Weekly.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly