The wheels have fallen off Lebanon

Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

The value of the Lebanese currency is approaching zero. The cost of living is soaring, as are homicide and burglary rates. The private sector has had to step in to secure enough vaccines to immunize the adult population, while the government projects bankruptcy by the end of spring. The storyline in Lebanon has not improved since the Beirut blast on August 4, and the Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, has now taken up the crusade of saving the country after having successfully blocked the IMF recovery plan, the adoption of any reform legislation, rejiggering the World Bank loan of $246 million to favor the banks and the government, and stifling efforts to form a new government of experts with executive powers.

Where has Berri been since August 4? Obviously he is one of the government leaders who was absent from touring the blast site and talking with the victims. He and his party, Amal, in line with its partners Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement of President Aoun, have done little to make it possible for Lebanon to survive as an independent and functioning country. Only the need for an expensive band-aid that serves his constituencies brought him to marginally respond to the multiple crises facing the country.

In a much reported speech carried by the international media, he opened the Parliamentary session on March 29 saying, “The whole country is in danger, the whole country is the Titanic. It’s time we all woke up because in the end, if the ship sinks, there’ll be no one left.” These comments could have been made at any time since the end of 2020 but for some reason, there was no call for urgency from Parliament’s leader until now, and only because of the need to provide an advance of $200 million to the electricity company to pay for fuel for the next 2 ½ months. And of course the first power plant to shut down was the one that served the southern regions of Lebanon, prime Shiite territory.

As another indication of the lack of concern by the political bosses, the Parliament also passed a law to recover stolen public funds, a prime demand of protestors. Yet, even Jamil al-Sayyed, a Hezbollah-affiliated member of Parliament remarked, “Effectively, all these texts cannot be implemented. What’s happening is a charade… We’re lying to you.”

No wonder the international community, led by the French, continues to condemn the lack of action by Lebanon’s leaders. The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, made personal phone calls to President Aoun, Prime Minister designate Saad Hariri, and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, “urging them for an immediate halt to what he called ‘deliberate obstruction’ that is driving the country towards collapse.” His description echoes the World Bank charge that Lebanon’s deterioration is a “deliberate depression” because the remedies are known but not enacted due to the obstructions of the leadership.

He added “The deliberate obstruction of any prospect of an exit from the crisis … by demands that are unreasonable and out-of-date must immediately halt,” a statement from his office reported. “The time has come to strengthen pressure “to end the blockage,” a point also made by the recent ATFL-MEI policy brief to the Biden administration. In it, the organizations called for a senior-level diplomatic demarche from the US, France, and key powers, to give the government an ultimatum for adopting a government with power to make critical reforms. Otherwise, an international effort would be launched to provide humanitarian and reconstruction assistance directly to the Lebanese people, without involving the government.

The US Ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea, weighed in with the US government’s concern, in a meeting with President Aoun on March 25, saying later, “Now that we are almost eight months without a fully-empowered government, isn’t now the time to let go of those demands? To begin compromising?” She added, “Right now, there is a need for courageous leaders, who are ready to put aside their partisan differences and work together to rescue the country from the multiple crises and self-inflected wounds it is facing.”

Whether or not this international pressure will make a difference is hard to tell. When Berri acknowledges the gravity of the catastrophe but doesn’t propose reform solutions, it just adds to the wreckage. If, on the other hand, he wants to leave Lebanon with a valued legacy, he can assert his leadership and move Lebanon away from the abyss and forward towards recovery.

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