What a Mess in Lebanon as Elections Bring Out the Best and the Worst!
Shortly after UN Secretary General António Guterres left Lebanon on December 21, he posted a tweet, “The Lebanese people expect their political leaders to restore the economy, provide a functioning government, end corruption, & safeguard human rights. Political leaders do not have the right to be divided & paralyze the country.”
As if to validate his criticism, Lebanon’s politicians soon entered into another heated argument with significant implications for the May 15 parliamentary elections. According to its constitution, the president must be elected within five months of the new parliament’s seating, although this rule has been violated in the past when political leaders were unable to agree on a candidate. There were rumors in mid-2021 that Hezbollah now preferred aligning with the Christian Marada Party and its president Suleiman Frangieh Jr., grandson of the former president of Lebanon from whom he takes his name, as their preferred candidate following the convention that the president of the republic be a Maronite Catholic. This has now exploded into a war of words with other politicians, especially the incumbent president, Michel Aoun, as well as his son-in-law and proposed political heir, Gebran Bassil, who is head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Every contentious issue, from the Beirut Port investigation led by Judge Tarek Bitar, to the upcoming elections, and the state of diplomatic relations with the Gulf Arab states, has defined new redlines between the groups.
In a Christmas Eve interview, President Aoun said Lebanon had reached economic collapse as a result of “misdeeds, theft, corruption, and failures by the system” and that a much-needed “intellectual and practical” change would surely be implemented to correct it. According to the Al-Jazeera story, he later tweeted, “What the Lebanese people are suffering and living today is a result of deeds by those in power in the past who were entrusted with citizen’s lives.” This statement came after Parliament’s rejection of the FPM’s proposed changes to the election law which would have strengthened the opportunity for Christian voter participation. The opposition was led by two of FPM’s once close political allies, the Amal Movement and Hezbollah.
Disputes over the Beirut Blast investigation led by Judge Bitar have been festering for months and have also been blocking the Council of Ministers from re-convening and moving ahead with Parliament’s business, which may soon change after a nearly three month paralysis. The gridlock reflects the unwillingness of Amal and Hezbollah ministers to attend Cabinet meetings until Judge Bitar is removed from the case. This has caused a split within the ruling elite, as President Aoun and Prime Minister Mikati support Judge Bitar’s effort, while Amal and Hezbollah dismiss it as politically motivated in reaction to the subpoenas issued to some of their members.
This emerging split was also reflected by the controversy with the Gulf countries over resurfaced remarks made by the previous Minister of Information, George Kordahi, in which he criticized Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen years before he joined the government. This resulted in an economic and political boycott by a number of Gulf States. As Prime Minister Mikati and others tried to repair relations with the Saudis and the others, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah called out the Saudis as the sponsors of worldwide terrorism, and of holding Lebanese nationals working in the Kingdom as hostages to its policies.
Not long after Nasrallah’s remarks were made, Prime Minister Miqati issued a statement saying that they, “do not represent the Lebanese government and the majority of the Lebanese and it is not in Lebanon’s interest to abuse any Arab country and Gulf countries in particular.” A day later, President Michel Aoun also issued a statement, emphasizing his, “keenness on Lebanon’s Arab and international ties, especially with the Arab Gulf nations, topped by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
All of these and other currents of discontent have led key politicians to call for a new order in the existing political coalitions. Currently, the alliance between FPM, Marada, Amal, and Hezbollah control the Parliament’s agenda and is able to obstruct legislation, including prerequisite reforms needed for any future international investments. In a sign of his frustration, President Aoun has called for an urgent dialogue centered around a financial recovery plan, administrative and financial decentralization, and a national defense strategy, which he said was the state’s responsibility to implement alone. This move hints at emerging friction between him and his allies within the heavily armed Hezbollah. This also reflects a similar call last year from Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi for an international conference and his focus on a national dialogue to inspire a common agenda of support. Both Prime Minister Mikati and Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri said that they would attend the national dialogue if invited.
Even more consequential were statements from the ruling triad of Speaker Berri, PM Mikati, and President Aoun regarding the need to hold elections on time. Any postponement would likely result in sanctions and other penalties from the US, UK, and Europe which have all made on-time and transparent elections a critical condition for continued support. At the same time, FPM head Gebran Bassil criticized Hezbollah-affiliated ministers for their role in the continued cabinet stalemate and called into question the viability of the Mar Mikhael agreement linking FPM, Amal, Marada, and Hezbollah. Others within that alliance were quick to defend the agreement but Bassil’s gesture exposes a liability in the current arrangement that may create opportunities for the opposition to take some seats away from the members of the alliance this May.
How this will play out in the coming months will define Lebanon’s future prospects for reforms and renewal. Even President Aoun, in the interview cited earlier, said it would take six to seven years for Lebanon to recover from its multiple crises. The World Bank and IMF are less sanguine and estimate 10-12 years. No matter what the scenario, the underlying reality is that steps and actions must be taken within a strategic vision that sees Lebanon for the Lebanese, not as a pawn of political and economic elites manipulating the system for the sake of their own interests and those of their external patrons.
The next steps are for the Council of Ministers to reassemble, debate the IMF agreement and national budget when they are completed, hold the elections on time, and implement a mapped out a reform agenda, otherwise Lebanon will simply not survive as the democratic, inclusive, multicultural state it aspires to be.
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.