Okay Lebanon, What’s Next?

Tuesday, August 18, 2020
Opinion By Jean AbiNader

Watching the many webinars on the crisis in Lebanon has been  enlightening but sobering. While analysts often refer by way of illustration to the well-known facts and figures behind the country’s systemic failures, it is truly literally the most recent shock that has brought the country to a point of no return. Here is where those who want Lebanon to survive have met their challenge: what to do next?

I just saw a story that the Lebanese parliament has given its staff and contractors a month off from work, illustrating that there won’t be any leadership coming from that body – no surprise there. Maybe that’s one way to avoid further publicity about resignations. Hassan Nasrallah has made known his opposition to anything but a national unity government which is code for “bring back the guys who ruined the country so we can do it again.” No one is fooled, despite echoes of his position from President Michel Aoun and Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri. It’s clear that they want more time in a game in which time has run out.

Much has been made of the lack of public appearances by Lebanese officials at the blast site to visit survivors and survey the damage, offer words of condolence, and pass out bulgur. On the other hand, at last count, more than a dozen countries are at the port area trying to assist. What did the Lebanese people expect? The leadership saw themselves being hanged in effigy and got the message. International leaders are focused on the people, on recovery, on change…wanting to help Lebanon longer term when the Lebanese are ready to reform. Special recognition goes to the European leaders, led by Macron of France, and the US Under Secretary David Hale for their forthright and reassuring comments challenging the status quo.

After initial success in containing the pandemic, it has now come back in force, with over 400 cases reported on August 16. With three hospitals in the area out of commission, clinics and care facilities destroyed, and public health equipment non-functioning, it has been the international community that is equipping the public and private health sectors with the resources and support they need. At least four countries have sent field hospitals, tons of wheat are being shipped, medical supplies and equipment are both airlifted and on their way by sea, and millions of dollars in relief services are enabling NGOs and civil society to provide services long neglected by the government.

ATFL is coordinating with Anera, CAAP, Direct Relief, and the Afya Foundation in a significant effort to assemble and airlift critically needed medicines and supplies. The first plane is scheduled to arrive on August 24. Many other organizations, Lebanese-American and Arab-American, private and public charities, and US pharmaceutical companies and business corporations have stepped up to supply specific needs requested by hospitals and care-givers in Lebanon.

There are many inspirational stories about the survivors and the victims, the trauma and the homeless, those rescuing animals, wedding parties caught up in the blasts, José Andrés and World Food Kitchen providing meals for first responders and survivors while he learns about manakeesh, all of which testify to the durability and anger of the Lebanese.

Interviews with Lebanese government officials are also quite revealing, including Economy and Trade Minister Raoul Nehme on BBC and president-in-waiting Gebran Bassil on CNN; with special plaudits to the Middle East Institute, Arab Center, Carnegie Middle East Center, Brookings Doha Center, the Wilson Center, and many, many others who had sharpened our insights which, in many cases, only drive us into greater sadness. But we are learning and so are many others who may have only touched Lebanon through our restaurants and friends and the bad news of this past year.

The one question facing all of the analysts and well-wishers is what’s next for Lebanon. While the old guard is touting the benefits of a national unity government, there is a better option, one that the demonstrators can support and that will bring real change, as detailed in the latest article from The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. It calls for a specially empowered interim technocratic government with legislative authority to address specific issues as delineated in its mandate that must be granted by the parliament. Yes, I hear a collective groan that parliament reflects the worst excesses of the political system in Lebanon and is unlikely to budge. Yet the case is persuasive, especially as it depends on collective action from the street to make it a shared demand from the people, which will draw strong international backing.

Lebanon may be one last gasp away from collapse. It will take an alliance between civil society, the professional associations, NGOs, and reform-oriented younger leadership, not to mention those disaffected voters who have had enough. But it is doable and the time for credible action is now. Much of the world wants to help. This is a clear way for ward.

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.