By Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Nov. 22 was Lebanon’s 77th Independence Day. While the country is supposed to have been celebrating its birth, Lebanon is facing a grim reality: Like many failed states it is held hostage by a corrupt elite. Alvarez & Marsal, the firm mandated with conducting a forensic audit of the Central Bank of Lebanese, pulled out of the deal due to the reluctance of Lebanese officials to provide necessary information. Its withdrawal puts the last nail in the coffin of aid for Lebanon by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or any other organization.
Though the Lebanese president rushed to say that he would revive the audit to fight “corruption,” any sane observer knows that any audit and any reform is not possible with the current political configuration.
The political class, currently in survival mode, was faced with two choices. The first was the audit to expose corrupt politicians; the other path was to let the country sink. They chose the second option, under the lame excuse that the audit breached banking secrecy laws.
While foreign analysts naively divide Lebanese politicians into “good guys” and “bad guys,” in reality they are all one and the same, bound by a power-sharing agreement. This is why, though Saad Hariri is supposedly in the opposite camp to Hezbollah, the Shi’ite group has tacitly supported his candidacy by saying it would facilitate his government’s formation without directly nominating him. They know he will cover their back. Their ally, the Amal Movement, explicitly nominated Hariri for the job. The political elite is still hanging on to power as they know that there is no way out for them. The only guarantee for their survival is to remain in power. The corruption and embezzlement they have committed over 30 years will come back to haunt them if they ever leave.
On this, France and the US have diverging policies. The French want a quick fix in which the same political structure is reproduced with cosmetic reforms. The Americans, on the other hand, have had enough of the useless elite that has done nothing but blackmail the international community. They want them gone. The problem is that the elite has no scruples, and will take the entire country with it should they fall. They see poverty spreading, people struggling, the state institutions losing their ability to provide the minimum level of services to the average citizen, but they don’t care.
Saad Hariri has the designation in his pocket and is showing no rush to form a government of specialists, which he promised the Lebanese people. He is guaranteed his slice of the pie and he is just waiting for some regional dynamics to flip the cards in his favor.
The Lebanese political elite knows it is in a checkmate position. However, it wants to delay its departure as long as it can. They are threatening the Lebanese, as well as the international community, with chaos, but neither seems convinced. Despite the fatigue, the Lebanese people still reject them. Lebanon is deadlocked as the elites remain unmoved by popular discontent.
The proper way to effect change is for civil society to get organized and prepare itself for the upcoming elections in two years. But Lebanon is nearing a total social and economic collapse. It cannot wait for another two years. The World Bank is disbursing a small amount of money for the severely affected people. This is like putting a Band-Aid on a wound that requires major surgery.
The nongovernmental organizations are also active in helping the Lebanese people, but again, those small initiatives cannot replace major reforms that the country needs in order to stand on its feet again, and there is no guarantee that they will be able to sustain the country for another two years. Hence, the country needs a transitional government from outside the traditional political elite that will conduct reforms, restore stolen public funds, and prepare for new parliamentary elections.
The million-dollar question is: How can this transition be achieved? The solution comes when the politicians realize that they have nowhere left to turn. In this respect, international pressure is essential. US sanctions have already hit three politicians and more are to come. But though vital, that pressure alone is insufficient. Pressure on the street is necessary to make change happen.
Amid all this, the most difficult obstacle remains Hezbollah. It is backed by Iran and by the Assad regime; it is the most organized group, and is sufficiently armed to start a civil war. Unless the regional dynamics change, it will be close to impossible to outmaneuver Hezbollah. Hence, the crux of the matter boils down to the type of pressure that should be imposed on it and its patrons, and the deal that should come with it to compel the group to allow such a transition.
* Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.