When I left Lebanon in 1975 I never thought I would stay abroad for the rest of my life. I simply could not imagine that this country would ever reach such a stage of largely self-inflicted decline. The destructive power of politics is potent. Is Lebanon already a failed state, or is it simply failing with chances for recovery?
Lebanon’s prime minister-designate Saad Hariri is in the process of forming a new cabinet. We keep hearing the new cabinet is “almost ready”. It will be Saad Hariri’s fourth government, not to mention that his father (Rafic Hariri) dominated Lebanese politics for fifteen years after the end of a protracted civil war (1990) until his assassination in 2005. Few expect the anticipated cabinet to much improve the situation. However, with Hariri at the helm again, there may be a better chance to attract foreign aid. And perhaps Hariri is the tool to shift the focus of national reform from addressing root-causes to dealing with symptomatic ills. For example, debt relief in a collapsed economy is a high priority, but no amount of foreign assistance can change the long-term course of a corrupt state.
It is ironic but not a secret that Lebanon’s Hezbollah leadership, Paris, and Washington find a common purpose in Saad Hariri’s return to a power position. Hariri seems to be a suitable compromise, a shock absorber, in a situation where real solutions are too costly for all the many local and external power brokers. It is hard to explain how a political leader who was chased out of his position by massive street demonstrations last October has managed to return to power this October.
The country is in a political heart-arrest condition. Hariri’s return is indicative of a failure to change a rotten political system. After the resignation of Hariri last year a new cabinet promised reforms but failed because the political class in charge is not willing to assume responsibility or to take serious measures of reform.
Over the past twelve months, the economic situation has become worse by the day; local currency is 30% of its fair dollar-pegged value. People are not allowed to draw their fortunes out of their savings accounts. Lebanon defaulted on its debts and refused conditional international support: rescheduling debt, controlling the public waste, restructuring the banking system, and control of corruption.
After Hariri’s resignation the cabinet of Hassan Diab, an academician with more posture than substance, lasted eight months. Then Moustafa Adib, a barely known diplomat, was assigned the task to form another new cabinet. He tried hard for about four weeks but failed too; he resigned quietly without pointing fingers. In one year, Lebanon has recycled three prime ministers. Over the past twelve months, Lebanon has been hammered mercilessly with a street revolution, an economic meltdown, a “nine-eleven” type catastrophic explosion in the city port, and a pandemic. We are back to square one in the Hariri era.
Hariri’s return to power even after the situation has become worse. He is “hopeful” but we do not know why. He has been re-designated because he is politically malleable. He will allow each party to select the names of their representative ministers. He will accept to offer specific cabinet posts to specific parties and specific religious backgrounds. He will locate new faces and make sure that there are enough specialists. “Specialists” are popular today in Lebanon as they are considered problem solvers. But in politics experts are as good as they have the courage to speak truth to power. Specialists are change agents when they operate in a political system that allows a minimum of respect for the law. Respect for the law is not a matter of national character as much as it is compliance in a political system of law enforcement. In contrast to the situation in their home country, the Lebanese émigrés are thriving all over the world, especially when they live in environments that are effective in law enforcement.
Watching the daily debate over which religious sect deserves more or less of cabinet portfolios was amusing. Learning that strong political parties “own” ministries of larger budgets was disheartening. Observing that the president of the republic competes with the speaker of the house and the prime minister over control of cabinet seats was enough to dim any expectation of real reform.
This fourth Hariri cabinet, if formed soon, will last for a year or so. It will live enough to spend the foreign aid it will receive from the IMF and other donor countries in the region and abroad. There is no way that Hariri and his cabinet of technocrats can hold on to power for long within a shameful political order.
Is there any hope for the future of this country? No one knows how the uprising of last October will develop. It is hard for this sincere and significant revolt, which represents the youth and grassroots movements, to emerge with a charismatic leader who can galvanize the country. The October uprising is divided and not clear on a strategy to confront power and offer programs of service and empowerment.
There are serious opportunities for change in the region. The future of Iran, Syria, and Israel impacts Lebanon closely. When and if Iran is given a chance to improve its relations with the West there would be opportunities to reduce tension between Tehran and Saudi Arabia, and between Tehran and Tel Aviv. The future of Syria is also tied to improved relations between Iran and Riyadh. A secure Iran with new leadership could also open a new chapter of relations with Israel. To be clear, the current vindictive Israeli policy toward Iran is counterproductive and toxic for the entire region.
Put differently, Lebanon and Syria belong together; today both countries are battered by domestic, regional, and international policies. There is no reason why these two states, which share history, blood, culture, and resources, should not work together for a common future. It will take a generation or two to prepare those two countries to cooperate, step by step, starting with economic coordination and exchange of services.
But regional influence can also work to turn neighbors to adversaries and adversaries to enemies. In regional relations, the last one hundred years have been more threats than opportunities.
International relations are also especially relevant for Lebanon and for the entire region. We anticipate a change in the coming US administration. The world community will watch Iran’s June elections closely. We look forward to a change of vision and direction in US foreign policy. We also hope that the Iranian people will elect leadership open for change.
In the short run the most to be expected from the Lebanese is to stay united amidst very difficult circumstances and to keep faith in their youth and their creative private sector. The new Lebanese generation has new ideas and new tools which should not be taken lightly.
For the moment the country is on the wrong track; this is the case in the entire region with rare exceptions.