Any real hope of one-two reality punches from France and the US?

Monday, August 31, 2020
Opinion By Jean AbiNader

President Macron of France is due in Lebanon September 1 to insist on political and economic reforms required to free up international financial support for the country. Despite warning during his previous visit August 6 that he would return with the same message of reform required before funding, it appears that the same cast of political elites intends to stay in power. There is no sign that the political oligarchy has any intention of ceding control, and President Aoun began Monday, August 31, with consultations at the Presidential Palace on naming a new prime minister.

In the meantime, Sunni leaders designated current Ambassador to Germany Mustapha Adib as their nominee. Like his predecessor, not a career politician, he has already garnered support from a majority of the leadership. So the old faces are choosing the new face of the government while the street seethes with discontent, indicating there will be immediate opposition to more delays in critically needed changes.

Macron “insisted that France would follow a policy of being ‘demanding without interfering’ and awaited reforms like passing an anti-corruption law and reforming public contracts, the energy sector, and the banking system,” according to the Times of Israel. Yet there is skepticism that he will be able to sway the oligarchs to abandon their fiefdom mentality and put in place a government that will in essence put them out of business, at least temporarily. It is this caveat that worries most Lebanese; that somehow the elites will once again succeed in their shell game to delay real reforms while going through the motions of passing laws that have little chance of being implemented.

Enter the US. The State Department has announced that Assistant Secretary for the Near East David Schenker will arrive in Beirut on September 2 to “meet with civil society representatives, discuss US assistance efforts in the wake of the August 4 Beirut port explosion, and urge Lebanese leaders to implement reforms that respond to the Lebanese people’s desire for transparency, accountability, and a government free of corruption.”

The difference between the two visits is that Macron may be the carrot and Schenker the stick as the oligarchs are cowed by the prospect of US sanctions coming down on them in the case of not heeding the need for significant and credible change. US Ambassador Shea has not been reluctant to pass this message on to the Lebanese authorities who face increased pressure to form a government with executive and legislative powers to both adopt and implement reforms and pass the laws need to finance and regulate the reform agenda.

Key concerns of both France and the US is that humanitarian relief in the short term not be affected and the need to strengthen the social safety net to provide a modicum of support for the people.

While France and the US are not offering specific recommendations, all of the needed steps have been discussed for months by the Lebanese internally and with the World Bank and others, starting with the banking, finance, and economic sectors. Covid-19 is reemerging as a public health concern which further undermines social stability and overtaxes existing health care entities. A related issue is whether or not a new election law and elections are called for when it is clear that the traditional parties, with their discipline and national networks, would easily overwhelm the demonstrators who have yet to coalesce and define points of contestation.

Given the catastrophe at Beirut Port, the old guard is discredited in the eyes of their constituencies, regardless of who they designate as the next prime minister. Only  Hezbollah, it seems, is weathering the fallout from the blasts. Some analysts are proposing that the major Christian parties walk away from their alliance with Hezbollah and Amal and join with the Sunni, Druze, and other parties to reclaim the majority in the Parliament. It is not an inconceivable scenario. This is where the US stick may have its most beneficial impact – by sending Hezbollah’s Christian allies into a break-up that would enable the Lebanese to direct their country’s future once again.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force for Lebanon.