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Lebanon needs root and branch surgery, not a band-aid

Sep 15,2021 - Last updated at Sep 15,2021

After 13 months without a fully fledged government, Lebanon has Cabinet led by former premier Najib Mikati and made up of technocrats chosen by the very politicians who have ruined the country. This is not the independent, apolitical vehicle for reform France, the US the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and international donors have demanded as the condition for the delivery of $21 billion in financial aid meant to rescue the country from collapse.

Many, if not most Lebanese, argue the 24-member government, which includes only one woman, is not up to the task of ending alleged mismanagement and corruption and initiating changes in the country's sectarian political system which has fuelled two civil wars and brought the country to its knees. 

Said to be Lebanon's richest man, Mikati hails from its poorest city, the northern port of Tripoli, the hub of the 2019 uprising against the political elite and the downward economic slide. He is the third figure to rise to the challenge of saving Lebanon following the August 2020 explosion of improperly stored ammonium nitrate in Beirut port that devastated the harbour and adjacent quarters and killed 214 people. He has taken over from Hassan Diab, an academic who resigned after this disaster. Two other figures who were asked and failed to form a cabinet, Lebanon's Ambassador to Germany Mustafa Adib and ex-premier Saad Hariri, son of assassinated former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

While most of the new ministers are new comers, two are all too well known. Central bank official Youssef Khalil was assigned the key finance portfolio but he was the architect of the bank's "financial engineering" and is is seen by many as loyal to bank chief Riad Salameh, who has been blamed for the financial mismanagement which led to economic melt-down. It is not clear whether Khalil will be acceptable the IMF, donors and foreign governments which have withheld urgently needed funds.

The other high profile appointee, Health Minister Firas Al Abiad is a highly respected doctor who heads the Hariri hospital, the main facility for treating COVID victims. He will be welcomed. He has been elevated to this key post as medical facilities across the country are threatened with closure by electricity outages and shortages of essential medications and equipment while COVID-19 cases rise and fall on a daily basis. A country with a population of 6.8 million, Lebanon has suffered 611,000 infections and 8,157 fatalities from the virus.

Mikati may not be able to cope with the country's economic crisis, one of the world's worst since 1850, according to the World Bank which also accused the political elite of being responsible. Since the summer of 2019, Lebanon's currency has lost more than 90 per cent of its value, thousands of commercial firms and manufacturing plants have closed, unemployment has soared, and 78 per cent of Lebanese have sunk into poverty while droves of professionals have left the country.

The new government was formed due to strong French and US pressure and only after a last minute compromise was reached over portfolios bestowed on two Christians. The reported compromise involved the dropping of the demand for one-third of the posts and a veto on policies put forward by President Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and a pledge by the FPM to vote for a parliamentary confidence motion.  However, the FPM has since said it will judge the cabinet by its programme, suggesting it could call for a no-confidence vote if the programme does not jibe with FPM requirements.

Aoun held up the formation of a government for months by insisting on these demands which, commentators say according to the constitution, he is not entitled to make.

While France and the US have welcomed the end of Lebanon's political paralysis. As a signal that they are ready to give this government a chance to end corruption and carry out basic reforms, the IMF has restored suspended drawing rights. By today, the Fund should deposit in the central bank a total of $1.135 billion, boosting its depleted reserves.

While France, the US and the IMF may be reluctant to endorse this government as the engine of serious change, they may accept it because they have no choice but to accept as inevitable a Cabinet reflecting the narrow sectarian interests of Lebanon's politicians and their patronage networks. This will be the worst possible option. Lebanon needs root and branch surgery not a band-aid.

Although the Mikati government is under strong pressure to carry out essential changes Lebanese political analyst Sami Nader told Naharnet he feared there would be a continuation of sectarian "quota political and bickering over every reform" which had finished off the defunct Diab government.

While there may be competent ministers in the Cabinet, their main problem is, of course, the lack of consensus among the politicians on a roadmap for the country to follow to exit its multiple, overlapping political, economic, financial, social and COVID crises. French President Emmanuel Macron presented Beirut with a basic roadmap a year ago but this has been totally ignored by the politicians and is unlikely to be resurrected even though the situation is far worse than in September 2020.  Another roadmap or plan is needed. There is no time to lose if Lebanon is to be saved from its politicians and the dire situation they have created.

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