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For Lebanon the French initiative is its last chance

Sep 22,2020 - Last updated at Sep 22,2020

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Mustafa Adib’s pursuit to form a non-partisan government of experts is about to falter. The deadline imposed by France’s Emanuel Macron has already passed and the French initiative — the only one on the table—to save Lebanon from imploding may expire as well. If that happens, then all options, mostly dire, will become hauntingly real. 

 Lebanon cannot afford the luxury of denouncing Macron’s overtures and threats to Lebanon’s ruling elite as “colonial nostalgia”. Yes, Greater Lebanon, created by France 100 years ago, has always had a special rapport with Paris. Most Lebanese politicians have interests in France; a second home for some especially during the civil war and in the wake of crises. But this dependency and reliance are the product of a system of power sharing; the so-called consociationalism, which has sacrificed the larger good of the country for the narrow interests of sects and their leaders.

 The result is decades of corruption, self-serving policies and a deepening of a quota system that led the country to where it is today. Last August horrific explosion at Beirut Port, killing more than 190 people and destroying large swaths of the capital while leaving tens of thousands homeless represented the epitome of the collapse of the Lebanese state. 

 Lebanon needs reforms; deep structural ones that would change the current trajectory. Time is running out and as has been the history of Lebanon for decades it now finds itself hostage to sectarian squabbling and foreign meddling. Adib’s government should represent a fresh starting point for a country that some are already dubbing as a failed state.

 Adib’smission has been disrupted by Hizbollah-Amal Movement insistence that their nominee holds the finance portfolio. That would defeat the purpose and weaken Adib’s efforts to have a free hand in carrying much awaited reforms. It would set a precedent that the allocation of portfolios is carried out on sectarian basis. Their stance has been altered by a US decision last week to impose sanctions on a leading party member close to Hassan Nasrallah and a senior aide to Nabih Berri . Hezbollah’s alliance with President Michel Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) is now in jeopardy. 

 Behind-the-scene negotiations may lead to a compromise but that is hardly what is needed for Lebanon to break the vicious cycle it finds itself in today. What Lebanon needs, if it wants to avoid civil war and even partition, is a new political deal that would end sectarian power sharing and present a civil and secular system that shuns ethno-confessional arrangements.

 But there is a big snag in the way: Hizbollah’s ties to Iran and its regional agenda. The Shiite militia is so entrenched in the deep state that it can never disarm and engage as a political party. This is the conundrum for Lebanon today and despite all of the white noise coming from the party about embracing reforms and salvaging the state the reality is that its priorities are at odds with that of the rest of the Lebanese.

 Macron, who visited Beirut twice since the port’s explosion and was embraced by weary Lebanese as a hero, is said to have solicited the help of Iran in resolving the crisis, but Tehran’s immediate interest in Lebanon is to save its proxy Hizbollah from what both see as a US conspiracy to weaken and defeat the party. Washington is content to see public anger rising against Hizbollah and Iran in its bid to further isolate Tehran.

 At a time when 75 per cent of Lebanese are living in poverty—the figure has spiked as a result of the coronavirus pandemic—and the size of public debt as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) is almost 175 per cent while essential foods and medicines are scarce, the need for a new government of experts that would allow foreign nations to step in and help the country is more urgent than ever.

 But the prospects of that happening are limited. Lebanon’s former warlords continue to believe that power sharing deals can still be reached and that the old system may yet survive. This is bad news for the Lebanese people who end up paying the price. Meanwhile, the economy is in free fall and billions of dollars have been smuggled out of the country. One wonders what chances Adib has even if he manages to form a small government of experts in the coming few hours.

 A bleak view suggests that Adib may withdraw leaving the country at an impasse. France may give up on the ruling class, just as the US had, and leave it to the Lebanese to figure a way out of their misery. The situation is volatile and people are angry, and one unfortunate incident may ignite a situation that would certainly push the country to the brink! 

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.   

 

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