The Lebanese conundrum
من الصحافة اخترنا لكم
Lebanon is probably the only country in the world that is teetering on the brink of total collapse while, at the same time, is desperately resisting international efforts to save it. The scene is truly Kafkaesque: an international community making frantic and repeated efforts to stop a Lebanese meltdown, while the Lebanese governing cabal is even more frantically trying to thwart these efforts.
Yet, there are rational reasons for this irrational situation.
On the international side, the countries directly involved in Lebanon’s rescue operation -- France, on behalf of the European Union, and the United States -- have special interests of their own for doing so. France created Lebanon a hundred years ago as its main foothold in the Middle East, and Lebanon is still the only country in the region that is, at least partly, in France’s sphere of influence. More importantly perhaps, Lebanon is host to a large refugee community, mostly Syrian and Muslim, so France and Europe are particularly concerned that a Lebanese meltdown will trigger a mass movement of these refugees toward Europe. The United States, on the other hand, fears that the failure of Lebanon would present an opportunity for Daesh [ISIS] and other Islamic groups, already present in force in western Syria and the northern border of Lebanon, to rejuvenate. Moreover, a failed Lebanon might draw Israel into a war with Lebanese Hezbollah, while the United States is embarked in a process aiming to draw the maritime borders between Israel and Lebanon that will permit Western companies to drill for gas and oil in this sea area.
On the Lebanese side, we find a government mired in corruption and incompetence. In a recent global Gallup poll (2019) which asked if people thought corruption was widespread throughout their respective governments, 94 percent of Lebanese answered in the affirmative, the highest percentage in the world. Furthermore, this percentage has been high (not less than 83 percent) at least since 2006 when the polling started. In another recent international Gallup poll (2019) the question was asked whether people thought their government does a good job ensuring the safety of their food, water and power lines, Lebanon ranked third from the bottom beating only Yemen and Afghanistan for the lowest ranking. Things, of course, got worse in 2020, especially after the Beirut Port explosion which is said to be the strongest nonnuclear explosion in modern history, and which left thousands dead and injured and physical damage estimated in the billions of dollars.
The French initiative that was presented by President Emmanuel Macron during his visit to Lebanon last August included a priority condition for financial assistance: the formation of a government of independent technocrats. This was the most alarming part of the initiative to Lebanese political groups. The system they were working to establish involved assigning different ministries to specific groups, long term, thus allowing the creation of stable corrupt infrastructures inside ministries. The past political confrontations that accompanied the formation of governments, therefore, were mostly on what groups would get the most lucrative ministries. A government of independents, however, holds the risk, of not only cutting off the inflow of illicit income to politicians, but also exposing their past illicit activities. In other words, giving in to western pressure in this instance would not only mean less enrichment, it may also result in ruined political careers, and maybe jail. The Lebanese elite’s resistance to change has, therefore, stiffened.
The present French initiative is, of course, the last in a series of similar international efforts led by the French to assist the Lebanese economy. All were conditional on the undertaking of reforms that would minimize corruption. All failed. The Lebanese resistance was insurmountable.
But in the present face-off, the international community has stronger weapons than it had in the past to face the stiffening Lebanese resistance. The French-European coalition is now backed by the heavy artillery of American sanctions designed to fight terrorism (Patriot Act of 2001 and later measures), prosecute human rights offenders and corrupt individuals around the world (Magnistky Act), punish individuals and entities conducting business with the Assad regime in Syria (Caesar Act), and in effect pursue any person, institution or country the U.S. deems as deserving to be sanctioned. Sanctions under the general umbrella of terrorism (assisting Hezbollah) that were imposed last September on two senior Lebanese politicians were apparently effective in inducing Lebanon to begin a long -- awaited negotiation with Israel on the maritime border between the two countries. Further sanctions imposed, two months later, on another leading politician, this time under the Magnitsky Act, did not seem to facilitate the formation of the government of independents, but further sanctions might be in the pipelines.
How can this status quo be broken?
Many in Lebanon believe that Iran is holding off the formation of a government, the first step in the French initiative, pending the formal accession of Joe Biden to the presidency of the United States on the 20th of this month. Iran, the argument goes, wants to use Lebanon as one of its bargaining chips in the coming negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal that Biden has indicated will be pursued by his administration. But since any negotiations that may take place on this subject will not probably be initiated anytime soon after the beginning of the Biden presidency, and will take a long time to reach the serious bargaining stage and the exchange of chips between the two sides, this scenario implies that Lebanon will be without a government for a long time, too long for Lebanon not to fall into the chaos that none of the parties concerned wants.
The truth of the matter is that the Lebanese conundrum is difficult to solve given the political cabal that has ruled Lebanon for the past couple of decades. Changing the cabal is not easy either. Early Parliamentary election, as demanded by some of the opposition, is unlikely to be approved by the present Parliament and, in any case, will probably result, at best, in a small change in the Parliament’s composition that is insufficient to make a major difference.
So, we’re left with what Macron knew all along: we must work with what we have, the old corrupt cabal of politicians, but this time with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. The threat of sanctions and the lure of asylum might prod them to forego some illicit income in order to elicit some foreign assistance.
Who knows? It might work.
Riad Tabbarah is a former Ambassador to the United States.