Research & Analysis

Political uncertainty in Lebanon

The political uncertainty in Lebanon that began with the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on October 29, 2019, in response to massive anti-government protests, has not been resolved as yet. The country has witnessed the resignations of two more prime ministers since then. Hariri was again nominated as the prime minister in October 2020, but he has not been able to form a cabinet so far. Public protests, meanwhile, due to the difficult socio-political and economic conditions, were regularly held throughout 2020, despite the lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The massive blast at the Beirut port on August 4, 2020, which took the lives of nearly 200 people, further added to the societal misery of the Lebanese people. The physical destruction at the main port and the loss of lives compounded the country’s economic woes. The GDP, for instance, fell from $84.29 billion to $74.63 billion, while unemployment increased from 6.23 percent to 6.28 percent, during 2019-2020. Construction, services, tourism, food services, among other sectors, have been severely affected, due to the economic downturn, compounded by the pandemic.

Increased public pressure after the port blast and the government’s inability to effectively deal with the issue of long-standing bane of corruption, forced the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab (an independent candidate backed by the Christian and Shiite parties), who took over as the PM from Hariri. Due to the prevailing uncertainties, there was an increase in mass emigration after the blast. According to reports, the number of Lebanese “leaving the country on a daily basis increased from 3,100 before the day of the blast, to 4,100 people after the incident.”

The severity of the political and economic crises facing Lebanon forced its former colonial master, France, to come to its aid. President Emmanuel Macron paid a visit in the aftermath of the blast and told the political leadership that no financial aid would be given to the country unless they execute reforms and end widespread corruption An international conference was organised on August 9, 2020, during which nearly $300 million in aid was promised.

In his second visit on September 1, Macron put forward a blueprint for political reforms, calling for a “new political chapter” in Lebanon. The main elements of the blueprint included an audit of the Central Bank of Lebanon, formation of an independent ‘technocrat’ cabinet and the holding of elections under a new election law, within a year.

After Diab’s resignation, Mustafa Adib, a former ambassador to Germany, was appointed as the prime minister by President Michel Aoun. Adib previously served as an advisor to former Prime Minister Najib Mikati (from 2000 to 2004) and was an independent candidate. Unfortunately, Adib also had to resign on September 26, 2020 due to the political impasse encountered while trying to form the new cabinet. This failed mainly on account of the Hezbollah and the Amal – two key Shitte political parties, insisting on controlling the Finance Ministry portfolio. To the seasoned observers of Lebanese politics, such unfavourable outcomes were expected.

Roadblocks to resolving political deadlock

Surprisingly, amidst this political uncertainty, Hariri was designated as prime minister by President Aounon October 22, 2020. However, Hariri is still unable to form the government, due to disagreements over portfolio allocations, and the political stalemate continues.

The following table indicates the strength of each political party in the Lebanese parliament.

Political Party’s Strength in Parliament



S. No.
Political PartyNumber of SeatsS. NoPolitical PartyNumber of Seats
1Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) (Christian)2311Independent11
2Amal (Shia)1612Future Movement21
3Hezbollah (Shia)1313Lebanese Force15
4Marada (Maronite Christian)314Progressive Socialist Party (Druze)9
5Tashnag315Azm Movement2
6Arab Liberation Party116Syrian Social National Party3
7Ba’th Party117Kataeb3
8Al-Ahbash 18Popular Nasserist Movement1
9Lebanese Democratic Party119National Dialogue Party1
10Sabaa1   

Source: National Democratic Institute, p. 38.

The major coalition partners such as the Hezbollah, the Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), are unwilling to compromise on their core interests. Hezbollah, a key player in the government formation with 13 seats in the parliament, wants the Finance, Health and the Transport ministries. Amal, a Shia sectarian party which is an ally of Hezbollah, with 16 seats, wants to head the Finance Ministry, as it has led it since 2014.

The second major roadblock is the FPM, holding 23 seats in the parliament. FPM has been at odds with Hariri over the portfolios of Energy and Interior Ministries. During Hariri’s premiership previously, FPM was controlling the Defence and the Foreign Ministry, till October 2019. However, FPM is now also laying claims to the Interior Ministry, which was earlier held by a Sunni member of the Saad-Hariri-led Future Movement.

Hariri does not intend to part with the Interior ministry but if he did so, that would be in exchange for the Foreign Ministry. The Energy Ministry is also a bone of contention between the two, with President Aoun’s party claiming exclusive rights over this ministry, stemming from the FPM’s hold over it since 2009. Hariri further fears sanctions by the US, in case the portfolio of public works is allotted to Hezbollah, as demanded by them.

Hezbollah’s role as a cog in the wheel of the country’s politics is evident in the number of seats it holds in the parliament (13). It has made effective use of its outreach programmes to conclusively garner support of the Shia population. However, its involvement in corrupt practises, heavy handedness against peaceful protestors, to name a few, has led to people gathering in towns and cities and calling Hezbollah, the main opposition partya “gang of thieves and criminals” and a “mafia”.

The US meanwhile in September 2020 levied sanctions on former Lebanese government officials such as Yusuf Finyanus (who was a Minister of Public Works and Transport from 2016-20) and Ali Hassan Khalil (who was finance minister from 2014-20) for providing material resources to Hezbollah. The Hezbollah, however, is a political entity that cannot be sidestepped in any government-formation or state-building efforts, due to its powerful militia and the wide regional support it enjoys from Syria to Iran.

Conclusion

Lebanon is going through a difficult time due to the port blast, the pandemic and the unending political deadlock. Another international aid conference was organised by the United Nations (UN) and France on December 2, 2020, attended by 32 countries, 12 international organisations and seven Lebanese civil society groups. The participants reiterated their commitment to provide humanitarian assistance to Lebanon and mobilise resources for the vulnerable groups. UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched the ‘Reform, Recovery and Reconstruction Framework’ (3RF), prepared jointly by the World Bank, the European Union and the UN. The main objective of the framework is the reconstruction of the Beirut port and the socio-economic recovery of the impacted areas and affected communities. While the government formation has still not fructified as yet, Hariri submitted a list of 18 names to President Aoun on December 9, 2020. Going forward, it remains to be seen the extent to which the Lebanese political elite can implement the political and economic reforms suggested by key external actors like France.

 

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