Le­banese ma­neu­vers pro­duce same me­diocre re­sults

Arab News - - Opinion - DR. DANIA KOLEILAT KHATIB

In a press brief­ing on Mon­day, ail­ing Le­banese Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun, who had prob­lems read­ing a scripted speech prop­erly, an­swered a jour­nal­ist who asked where the coun­try was head­ing to if a new gov­ern­ment was not formed. He an­swered with a cold tone: “We are head­ing to hell.” The gim­mick of the formation of a new gov­ern­ment will not save Le­banon, as French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron is pro­mot­ing. The prob­lems and the so­lu­tions do not end with Prime Min­is­ter-des­ig­nate Mustapha

Adib or his pre­de­ces­sor Has­san Diab and their Cabi­nets, as both men are a cover-up for a cor­rupt power struc­ture that uses ev­ery ma­neu­ver pos­si­ble to stay afloat.

The first ma­neu­ver is the ap­par­ent rift be­tween the Free Pa­tri­otic Move­ment (FPM) and Hezbol­lah. The pres­i­dent’s party said it re­fuses Hezbol­lah’s claim to the fi­nance port­fo­lio in the next gov­ern­ment, stat­ing that the dif­fer­ent min­istries are not ded­i­cated to a par­tic­u­lar con­fes­sion. How­ever, this show of in­tegrity will not fool a sharp ob­server. The ac­cord that laid the foun­da­tion of the Hezbol­lahAoun al­liance will not be bro­ken any­time soon. The FPM is a client of Hezbol­lah and it is im­pos­si­ble for Aoun to main­tain his en­tourage and his base of sup­port­ers with­out the fi­nan­cial sup­port of the Iran-spon­sored group.

Nev­er­the­less, as the ghost of po­ten­tial sanc­tions comes to haunt Ge­bran Bas­sil,

Aoun’s son-in-law, the ap­ple of his eye and the head of his po­lit­i­cal party, some dis­tanc­ing

— at least pub­licly — and a con­trolled feud are deemed nec­es­sary. This will al­low for the formation of a gov­ern­ment: A gov­ern­ment in which Aoun will have his share and that will have the bless­ing of Macron, who is sup­posed to of­fer le­git­i­macy for this botched project among the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

Al­though Macron knows that none of the par­ties are re­ally sin­cere about re­lin­quish­ing power to al­low for the formation of a real gov­ern­ment of tech­nocrats that will im­ple­ment re­forms, he still wants to score a win. If he ad­mits de­feat in his Le­banon ini­tia­tive, he will lose clout on the in­ter­na­tional scene, as well at home. Macron can­not af­ford a loss of po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal, es­pe­cially since he is count­ing on play­ing a more prom­i­nent role in the re­gion as he seeks to lead Euro­pean pol­i­tics in the Mid­dle East.

The Hezbol­lah-Amal Move­ment al­liance has in­sisted on keep­ing the Min­istry of Fi­nance, hence po­si­tion­ing it­self as the agent and le­gal guardian of the Shi­ite com­mu­nity. This meant an­other ma­neu­ver was needed. Former Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri pre­sented an ini­tia­tive that chimed with the Amal-Hezbol­lah de­mands, as he sug­gested that the fi­nance port­fo­lio be handed to a Shi­ite min­is­ter who would be named by the act­ing prime min­is­ter, rather than the Shi­ite al­liance. They at first re­fused the ini­tia­tive, only to later give pos­i­tive signs and en­cour­age France to push back the lat­est dead­line for gov­ern­ment formation that was sup­posed to ex­pire on Wed­nes­day evening.

One rea­son why Hezbol­lah and Amal want a min­is­ter of their own is to keep quiet some of their deals with the gov­ern­ment. Though Hezbol­lah has fund­ing from Iran, it has its own com­pa­nies that are con­tracted by the Le­banese gov­ern­ment. The last round of US sanc­tions tar­geted Hezbol­lah-linked com­pa­nies. It will not want a fi­nance min­is­ter that it can­not con­trol and might un­cover the du­bi­ous deal­ings that have been go­ing on for years.

While wait­ing for the Novem­ber pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Amer­i­can pol­icy is marked by in­dif­fer­ence and a hands-off ap­proach. It is limited to im­pos­ing sanc­tions on Hezbol­lah and its acolytes while tak­ing a step back to watch the sys­tem that har­bors the group crum­ble. So, with this Amer­i­can re­trench­ment and with the French pres­i­dent look­ing for a win rather than sub­stance, a true so­lu­tion is very un­likely. The next three months are lead­ing Le­banon to hell re­gard­less of whether or not a new gov­ern­ment is formed. Economists are ex­pect­ing that, with the de­ple­tion of the for­eign re­serves, the Le­banese pound’s ex­change rate with the US dol­lar will sky­rocket, sub­si­dies on es­sen­tial goods will be lifted and the coun­try will hit rock bot­tom. To add to that, the coun­try is wit­ness­ing oc­ca­sional ex­plo­sions, like the one seen at a weapons de­pot in Ain Qana this week. An­a­lysts are say­ing the ex­plo­sion seemed to carry the im­prints of Is­rael. The prob­lem is that, if Is­rael is plan­ning to tar­get all the arms ware­houses in the coun­try, it will greatly com­pli­cate the dif­fi­cul­ties Le­banon is cur­rently ex­pe­ri­enc­ing.

While Aoun on Wed­nes­day gave a speech to the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly and thanked the dif­fer­ent heads of states that gave do­na­tions fol­low­ing last month’s tragic Beirut blast, he does not re­al­ize that Le­banon is not at the cen­ter of any re­gional player’s pol­icy and leav­ing it to fail will not make any leader lose sleep, ex­cept for Macron per­haps. No­body is re­ally ready to bail out Le­banon un­less it con­ducts re­forms, but the cur­rent struc­ture cre­ates an in­er­tia pre­vent­ing that from hap­pen­ing. France might in­ter­vene with some aid for the up­com­ing weak gov­ern­ment; how­ever, this will only pro­long the suf­fer­ing of the Le­banese by slow­ing the melt­down process, rather than re­vers­ing it. Un­less there is a rad­i­cal change, the coun­try is in­deed on its way to hell, as it was so bluntly put by Aoun, even if Adib does form a gov­ern­ment.

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a spe­cial­ist in US-Arab re­la­tions with a fo­cus on lob­by­ing. She is the co-founder of the Re­search Cen­ter for Co­op­er­a­tion and Peace Build­ing (RCCP), a Le­banese NGO fo­cused on Track II. She is also an af­fil­i­ated scholar with the Is­sam Fares In­sti­tute for Public Pol­icy and In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut.

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