By Baria Alamuddin
Does anyone know how many Lebanese prime ministers have been appointed over the past year? With the resignation of Mustapha Adib at the weekend, Hezbollah has thwarted every attempt to form a competent, technocratic administration to steer Lebanon out of this catastrophe; demanding, like gangsters, that it must possess the Finance Ministry, Health, Transport, and everything else it can get its hands on.
We have warned and feared for years that Hassan Nasrallah, Nabih Berri, Michel Aoun and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would burn Lebanon to the ground to protect their interests — and here they are today, gleefully pouring petrol over the flames.
With the departures of Adib and his predecessor Hassan Diab, and yet another caretaker administration, Hezbollah fulfils its desire to remain in control while simply buying time. It insists early elections are unnecessary, but after willfully sabotaging one government after another, is there any alternative?
Hezbollah and Aoun have destroyed everything that made Lebanon great. The Arab world’s banking capital is bankrupt. Tourists don’t frequent destabilized states run by terrorists. Former regional partners refuse to have anything to do with us. Our celebrated culture is trampled underfoot by barbarian theocrats. Beirut no longer even has a viable port.
Recent US sanctions clarify why Hezbollah insists on controlling the Finance Ministry: Ali Hassan Khalil, Finance Minister from 2014 to 2020, helped Hezbollah to circumvent US sanctions by laundering money through public institutions, while exempting Hezbollah personnel from taxes. Control of the department responsible for financial oversight allows Hezbollah and Iran to manage their multimillion-dollar criminal operations with impunity. This is putting the fox in charge of the henhouse!
Transport and Public Works Minister Yousef Fenianos (2016-20) enabled his Hezbollah allies to siphon off millions of dollars of public funds and win contracts for Hezbollah-controlled companies. Control of the airport and borders allows Iran to keep Hezbollah supplied with weapons, while facilitating its income from narcotics and other cross-border crime. US court documents show how Hezbollah personnel facilitated cocaine shipments via the airport in conjunction with Hezbollah security chief Wafiq Safa.
If French and American intelligence knew all this, shouldn’t it have been released into the public domain long before these thieves emptied the treasury, drained the bank accounts of every last teacher, widow and pensioner, and left Lebanon to collapse like the husk of an ancient, desiccated cedar tree?
Nasrallah’s insistence that certain ministries be exclusive fiefdoms of Shiite Hezbollah appointees is inherently corrupt. The invariable result is departments flooded with faction members, lacking the qualifications or motivation to do anything other than extort bribes from impoverished citizens, while their bosses pocket the departmental budget. These methods of doing business are what got Lebanon into this current mess.
Hezbollah invariably demands the Health Ministry, because it wields Lebanon’s fourth-largest departmental budget at $338 million, while also allowing the movement to secure free health care for its thousands of Syria veterans. With this ministry under Hezbollah control, Lebanon’s pharmaceutical market has been deluged with counterfeit Iranian medicines.
Aoun and Gebran Bassil justified the Free Patriotic Movement’s (FPM) unpopular alliance with Hezbollah to their Christian supporters by claiming that control over the presidency and key ministries would empower Lebanese Christians. Instead they have broken the nation’s back, prompting a vast diaspora of Christians and other sects to take their families’ lives in their hands and flee Lebanon for brighter prospects overseas.
The FPM and Hezbollah have become inseparable partners in crime as they bleed the Lebanese economy white. Thanks to their colossal corruption and incompetence, the Lebanese state power company (under the FPM-controlled Energy Ministry) loses $2 billion a year — about 40 percent of Lebanon’s national debt. While most citizens pay extortionate bills despite going without electricity for much of the day, about 80 percent of people in Hezbollah-controlled areas get free electricity.
Hezbollah and Iran control Lebanese foreign policy via the FPM: Despite Lebanon’s commitment to a self-distancing policy, former foreign minister Bassil invariably takes Iran’s side in regional disputes. After Bassil boycotted Arab League condemnation of 2016 attacks on GCC missions in Tehran, the GCC cut $3 billion in annual funding for the Lebanese Army.
By opposing US efforts to reimpose UN sanctions, French President Emmanuel Macron and the Europeans are trying to encourage Iran and Hezbollah to take a more constructive approach to Lebanese Cabinet formation. Instead, this softly-softly approach simply reassures Tehran that it can continue menacing and dominating its neighbors.
Macron challenged Hezbollah: “Everyone knows you have an Iranian agenda … But are you Lebanese — yes or no? Do you want to help the Lebanese — yes or no?” After Hezbollah’s sabotage of Adib’s Cabinet-forming efforts, the answers to these questions are obvious to everyone. If Macron is serious about penalizing those holding Lebanon to ransom, he must go ahead; it’s the least these criminals deserve.
Lebanon is drowning. Macron, the IMF, the GCC have all thrown lifebelts, yet those steering Lebanon are hell-bent on dragging it down into the depths of the ocean. Will it be any surprise when Macron and the IMF conclude that Lebanon is beyond saving?
If Lebanon fails to grasp these lifelines, more people will be starving and impoverished; schools, hospitals and essential services will close; society will collapse; and those who can will flee overseas. State disintegration will be ugly. We know what sectarian war looks like. Who desires to tread that path again?
I say this not to foment pessimism and cynicism, but as a call to action. Hezbollah has proved its refusal to compromise, so a critical mass of other factions and components of society must forge an alternative way forward, demonstrating to the world that Lebanon is deserving of the life-saving assistance we so desperately need. There is no magic exit from this crisis. It will be slow and painful, but we must commence the journey.
Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai has been heroically pressing all Lebanese parties to commit to his principle of “neutrality,” putting the interests of Lebanon first. Only once sovereignty is restored to its citizens, and we consecrate a leadership wholly dedicated to the national interest, can Lebanon recommence its long path back to greatness.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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