Lebanon’s Halloween Government

Foreign Policy, 22.01.2020
Firas Maksad, profesor (U. de George Washington) y consultor político sobre el Medio Oriente
Protesters are right—the extent to which the country’s new cabinet brings it closer to Iran is spooky

Anti-government protesters and riot police clash following the announcement of a new Lebanese government in Beirut on Jan. 22. (Sam Tarling/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, after three months of protests and in the middle of a long-running economic crisis, Beirut finally announced the formation of a new government. And in many ways, the selection is unprecedent. The government of incoming Prime Minister Hassan Diab is the first to be composed entirely of technocrats since Lebanon’s post-civil war order was cemented some 30 years ago. It also boasts a record number of female ministers, including the first female deputy prime minister, and defense minister. But that is where the good news ends.

Diab’s government will be the first in Lebanon’s history that is exclusively beholden to a parliamentary coalition led by Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. And most of its purported technocratic ministers are in fact affiliated with the political establishment that drove the country into its current critical condition and that mass protests have been desperately trying to eject. Protesters have already hit on the term “Halloween Government” to describe the thinly disguised ties between incoming ministers and Lebanon’s corrupt political bosses. The term also hints at the human suffering that awaits a country facing the worst economic crisis in its hundred-year history.

The formation of the cabinet caps several weeks of political wrangling for spoils among the political allies of Hezbollah, an organization that wields disproportionate influence in the country due to its status as Lebanon’s preeminent military power. Its partners are an unruly constellation of communal leaders tied in various ways to Iran and next-door Syria. And among the ministries they most wanted were those like finance, health, and social services, which allow for the greatest use of state resources—or whatever little is left of them—to distribute political patronage. To end the impasse, Hezbollah’s leadership intervened repeatedly, and ultimately threatened to end all mediation efforts, before this allegedly nonpartisan government of experts was finally born.

The result is an administration far from what the popular uprising has demanded.

Its claim to independence from a chronically corrupt political establishment is dubious at best, and it is highly unlikely to deliver on the uprising’s basic demands, chief among them the promulgation of fair electoral laws and early parliamentary elections. It is equally unlikely to succeed in implementing the most pressing reforms, including ending graft to the tune of billions of dollars in the state-owned electricity sector, particularly since the parliamentary majority on which the new government relies is itself accused of the embezzlement.

Hezbollah’s decision to midwife such an unpopular government may yet prove to be its greatest strategic blunder. Historically, the Shiite militant group preferred not to assume the burden of actual governance in a country whose sectarian politics are notorious for their fecklessness. Instead, it concentrated its efforts beyond Lebanon’s borders, first fighting next-door Israel and then a multitude of Iran’s rivals throughout the Middle East. Politics in Beirut were to be managed from a healthy distance by empowering allies and reaching favorable accommodations with traditional opponents like outgoing Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and Christian chieftain Samir Geagea.

Not this time, however. Hezbollah seems to have (likely mistakenly) calculated that it will be better off assuming the burden of governance almost exclusively through trusted allies, mainly Christian leader and former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, rather than accommodating Hariri’s insistence of forming a technocratic government under his own stewardship. Hezbollah judged that Hariri, who also bears some responsibility for the country’s morass but enjoys strong ties to the West, could not be trusted as Lebanon flounders and as Iran faces an ongoing campaign of “maximum pressure” from the United States.

But Hezbollah does not seem to fully appreciate the tremendous difficulties that lie ahead. Any Lebanese government would struggle to survive under the weight of some $90 billion in debt, dwindling foreign reserves, and a currency that has lost more than 30 percent of its value since the crises intensified in October 2019. A cabinet that must carry through deeply unpopular economic reforms while having virtually no support among the country’s Sunni and Druze communities, and only mixed support among Christians, has little hope of making it past its first birthday, let alone restoring social order.

And unlike in the past, when Hezbollah won at least some public credit for seeming to have largely abstained from participating in government corruption, it is now widely recognized as the principle stakeholder. With Hezbollah and allies at the helm, attracting much-needed foreign assistance will prove difficult among Lebanon’s traditional financial backers in Europe and the Arab Gulf states. Alternately, requesting a rescue package from the International Monetary Fund will require radical restructuring that can only further inflame popular anger and contribute to unrest.

So, who can Lebanon’s incoming government call on as the going gets tough?

Some Lebanese, including central bank governor Riad Salamé, are hoping to be rescued by Qatar, whose leaders regularly traverse the unsettled waters between Iran and the West. Qatar has helped Hezbollah in the past, and its emir and foreign minister have both visited Iran since the Jan. 3 killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani. For Qatar, aid could buy it some goodwill in Beirut—historically an area of influence for rival Saudi Arabia—while also mitigating against a feared Iranian response targeting Qatari interests or the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

Some Western governments, particularly in Europe, might believe that such aid (or their own donations) could restore calm and preclude future waves of refugees from arriving on their shores. But the announced government is inherently incapable of providing stability by virtue of its composition, which alienates significant communal and social forces at a time when credible and broad-based governance is most needed.

For the foreseeable future, Washington’s main goal must be to try to preserve its limited levers of influence in Beirut, including within the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), the central bank, and among the remnants of the Western-leaning anti-Iran coalition. Indeed, Washington must warn the government against replacing key officials such as the LAF commander and the governor of the central bank with more pliant alternatives.

More broadly, the most prudent course of action for the Trump administration, which to date has been divided on Lebanon policy and on continuing with military assistance to the LAF, is one of strategic patience. It should give this highly unpopular government, and the regional and local forces lurking behind it, the time to collapse under the weight of public pressure. Leave it to the Lebanese to unmask those who have claimed power as independent technocrats. Halloween, and its associated horrors, cannot last forever.

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