An expert’s point of view on a current event.
The resignation of Saad Hariri is forcing the country to reckon with just how bad things have gotten.
By Anchal Vohra
Even in Beirut’s most affluent neighborhoods, the streets have gone dark. The few restaurants and bars that somehow braved the economic crisis, the coronavirus lockdowns, and the Aug. 4 port blast still have their lights on, as do homeowners who earn in dollars or have sufficient family wealth to afford generators, although even their electricity supply is rationed. Everyone else in Lebanon has had to accept living in a country with dwindling cash reserves, no fuel, and frequent power cuts.
What was once an oasis of peace and stability in the Middle East is becoming a failed state. What happens when hope is lost? That is the question that the Lebanese are finally asking themselves.
The latest evidence arrived Thursday, when Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri surprisingly resigned and further plunged the country into darkness. As he walked out of his meeting with the president of the crisis-stricken nation, his final words were reportedly “God help Lebanon.”
In Lebanon’s power-sharing arrangement, the prime minister must be a Sunni, the president a Christian, and the speaker of parliament a Shiite. Nine months ago, Hariri was brought back as the consensus Sunni candidate to form a new and clean government that would usher in reforms and secure a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund. Since then, he has presented his cabinet to President Michel Aoun 18 times, but to no avail.
Hariri tried to convince Aoun of the merits of a nonpartisan 24-member cabinet equally split among Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians. Aoun, aging and determined to bequeath the presidency to his son-in-law and former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, however, refused to relent, reportedly at Bassil’s behest. He demanded more than eight ministries for Christians to acquire a veto over all decisions, and he also infringed on the constitutional right of the prime minister by insisting on choosing them.
“During the conversation, the president requested amendments which I considered to be substantial in the lineup,” Hariri told the press. Bassil disagreed with a three-way split of power on the basis of the 1989 Taif Accord, which ended a 15-year civil war by dividing power among the country’s sects. Bassil, often described as the most despised politician in the country, hopes that fighting for more Christians in government will increase his popularity among that group and ensure his return to power in the next elections. The hardship that all Lebanese will have to endure in the interim in the absence of a full-fledged government does not seem to be his top concern.
Hariri does not have fans either, and yet there was a palpable sense of dread in Beirut at his resignation. An art curator at a local art gallery was visibly shaken. “The dollar has climbed to 20,700,” she said. Taking her hand to her chest, she asked, “What will happen now? What will happen? My heart is sinking.” Over the course of Friday, the Lebanese pound had plummeted to 22,200 to the dollar.
Over the last few months, Lebanon’s decline has become more visible. Queues for fuel are longer, and garbage is strewn all over the pavements. Little children are sifting through the garbage to make a living and could be Syrian refugees, but with the Lebanese also plunging into poverty, it could be them too. There is a stench of rotting garbage in the air mixed with copious amounts of hopelessness.
The desperation levels are so high that middle-class English-speaking Lebanese who dreamed of becoming engineers and managers are being forced to sell their most personal belongings for a pittance. From children’s toys and fairy tale books to candle stands and thong underwear—everything is being advertised on Facebook pages, whether for a few cents or a few dollars.
The civil war is only a generation old and still haunts the Lebanese consciousness. But civil unrest, the Lebanese fear, is around the corner. The currency has devalued by over 150 percent, the prices of basic commodities have skyrocketed, and the subsidies on bread and fuel have been chopped. The central bank, accused of a Ponzi scheme that brought the country to its knees in the first place, imposed a punishment on the public by letting the country run on multiple exchange rates. The official rate is still 1,500 to the dollar, but the banks exchange at 3,900, while the black market at a whopping 20,000-plus. Those who can are leaving the country; others are pleading to families abroad to send money or medicines no longer available in Lebanon. Those in the working class who were already marginalized in cities like Tripoli sporadically emerge on the streets to protest and register their anger.
None of this suffering seems to affect Lebanon’s self-serving political class, which is busy quarreling over ministries and plotting how to control the government from the outside.
One of Hariri’s proposed cabinet nominees spoke to Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity and said Lebanon is headed toward rough times. “The economic situation is going to worsen further, and we are not optimistic that a caretaker government or an Aoun dominated-cabinet will be able to negotiate with the international community and the International Monetary Fund,” he said.
According to the Lebanese Constitution, now the president must call the members of parliament for consultations and choose another prime minister. But Hariri is unlikely to back anyone. “If Hariri boycotts the process, no one will dare to do this job,” said retired Gen. Elias Farhat. Even Hezbollah might find it hard to search for another Sunni candidate as amiable as Hariri. The Iran-backed Shiite group has always supported Hariri as the representative of Sunnis for the position of prime minister, primarily because he let the group have its say and didn’t create much trouble.
The absence of a new prime minister means that Hassan Diab, who was forced to resign nearly a year ago when thousands of tons of explosives blew up at the Beirut port and destroyed large parts of the capital, will continue as caretaker prime minister but without any real powers to deal with the economic crisis and secure loans from Western and Arab powers. The Lebanese will have to drudge along and wait for the next elections, which are slated to happen in the spring of next year, but with the economy in a tailspin, a lot could worsen before the elections.
“Famine and anarchy are knocking on our doorstep,” added Farhat, “but that’s because of our economic conditions and not sectarian rivalries. Political alliances on both sides are multiconfessional.”
Sami Nader, a Lebanese analyst, agreed with Farhat and said all the ingredients of civil unrest are present. “I’m not sure a government will be formed soon. Now it is an open-ended crisis with a very dangerous economic situation in the background,” said Nader. “We are facing an imminent social implosion very, very soon. We have all the ingredients of social unrest: extreme poverty, hunger is looming, plus Sunni anger. The Sunnis are asking why our strong guy does not have a say in political decision-making? Isn’t it the prime minister’s prerogative to appoint his cabinet?”
Hariri also blamed Hezbollah for not exerting influence on its ally Aoun for the formation of a nonpartisan government. If Hezbollah wanted a government, it could have brought Aoun around, but it did not because it didn’t get the price it wanted for its intervention, said experts. They added that Hezbollah’s patron Iran has been holding Lebanon as a bargaining chip at the table in Vienna, where it is engaging with Western powers and indirectly with the United States to revive the nuclear deal. “Iran could ask Hezbollah to get a government formed and we will have one tomorrow, but Iran didn’t get anything in exchange from the U.S.,” Nader said. “The U.S. does not want to go back on any of its demands pertaining to Iran’s missile program or funding its proxies in the region in exchange for a government in Lebanon.”
On June 29, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud met and discussed the situation in Lebanon. The U.S. ambassador to Lebanon handed a letter from Blinken to Aoun reportedly encouraging him to let Hariri form a government. Clearly it did not have any effect on Aoun, whose son-in-law Bassil was slapped with U.S. sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, which is designed to target global corruption.
Some Lebanese analysts believe the West and its Arab allies have a different plan for Lebanon. While the West wants reforms before it loosens its purse strings to ensure the money goes to the people instead of to fattening the same ruling elite, it also wants an assurance of neutrality in regional affairs from Lebanon’s political class. The analysts say the West has picked Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Béchara Boutros Raï, to spread that message. There are some indications that the West is grooming Lebanese Army Chief Joseph Aoun to rise through the civilian ranks.
For the politically active Lebanese who have protested since 2019, the only silver lining is that Hariri’s resignation and the reluctance of the political elite to form a government, much less unveil reforms capable of righting the country, might finally force the West to slap sanctions on officials en masse. They have long demanded that the international community not just ban the travel of their politicians but also freeze their assets abroad. The European Union is finally coming around to that idea and is expected to announce sanctions by the end of this month. One can only imagine what kind of suffering Lebanese will be forced to endure until then.
Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra
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