What do the Lebanese Expect from their New Government?

Thursday, February 7, 2019
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

It appears that the negotiations in the ministerial committee have been concluded and a draft of the statement setting out the government’s priorities is set to be debated next week when President Aoun calls a cabinet meeting for final approval of the document. According to remarks by Information Minister Jamal Jarrah at a press conference following the meeting, there will be few objections to the draft as much has already been discussed in the preparatory meetings: “When each party was expressing its opinion concerning a certain point, it was keen on the country and to accelerate the completion of the ministerial statement and tackle the problems faced by the Lebanese on all subjects, including the restructuring of institutions and ministries.”

Given the importance of quickly dealing with the potential financial crisis, Jarrah noted that “We certainly have a difficult economic situation and our budget is suffering from a large deficit. Deficit reduction, economic development, fighting corruption, and stopping squandering are no longer a luxury, but an urgent necessity for the government. Today I see sincere intentions, and there is a decision from all parties to save the economic situation.”

While he did not address relations with Syria and Iran, or the role of Hezbollah, he did refer to the status of the Syrian refugees, which dominates much of the foreign policy discussion. “We did not mention the words political solution or voluntary return. We said the return to safe areas, and we adopted some words that will be approved by the Council of Ministers and we will talk about them in due time.”

Outside observers might draw some reassurance from his comments, but long-time analysts are skeptical that much will change given that the government is still composed of leaders who represent political parties best known for acquiring and distributing government posts to ensure constituent support.

As Maha Yahya of the Carnegie Endowment office in Beirut opined, “Lebanese consensus governments have become more about who gets what than about what needs to be done to place the country on a sustainable path. Moreover, key figures in the current government represent the same political factions long accused of exploiting public institutions and funds to amass political capital and pursue personal gain. In this context, it is difficult to imagine that there can be any real agreement among them on issues, let alone over reforms that would potentially undermine their interests. Most likely, as in past governments, there will be minimal discussion of the Lebanon’s strategic challenges and the tradeoffs needed to address them. Each minister will simply rule over his or her domain.”

This sense of skepticism was mirrored in an article by Sami Zoughaib of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, reflecting on data contained in a fall International Republican Institute (IRI) survey of Lebanese attitudes. “The highly touted—but rarely acted upon—promises of reform and bettering the lives of citizens featured prominently in electoral campaigns and in political party statements following the formation of the government. Now these promises need to be realized because public pessimism is high and a general feeling of concern for the future is being felt across the country.” Overall, 95% of respondents think Lebanon is heading in the wrong direction, with well-to-do urban Lebanese disagreeing with that assessment.

The Lebanese sense of pessimism has continued since the 2018 national elections as more than half of the respondents believe there has been a worsening of the economy related to infrastructure, corruption, electricity, employment, cost of living, water, and poverty. As corroborated in other polls, “Political party membership seems to correspond with lower reporting of economic concerns. Put more succinctly, members of political parties are less concerned about employment opportunities and the cost of living.”

It is challenging that even moving in the right direction on economic reforms is full of landmines as each party seeks to protect its interests rather than focus on national priorities. For example, Yahya points out that “Reforming the electricity sector, which is currently responsible for 40 percent of Lebanon’s fiscal deficit, requires broad agreement to forego lucrative arrangements that are personally benefiting leading politicians.”

As noted by a former World Bank economist, “With no common view of the national interest nor unified policy agenda, these leaders’ actions have focused on divvying up state sinecures, positions, and business among partisans and acolytes. In the collective Lebanese psyche this has ingrained a culture of dependency, influence peddling, and cronyism over the values of effort, productivity, and citizenry which the people of Lebanon have heralded throughout their history.”

This souk approach to public policy extends to foreign relations as many Lebanese political groupings are tied to the interests of outside forces. As Yahya observes, “Regional influence, especially Iranian influence, and the personal ambitions of some of the current cabinet members mean that there will be little agreement over what is in Lebanon’s best interests and how best to protect these from intense regional fires…It also comes at a time when sanctions against Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah are likely to be expanded, driving them all to seek new ways in Lebanon to relieve this pressure.”

As always, the test for the government is moving from the ministerial statement to an action plan with a timetable and implementation steps that address administrative reform, improved public services, a foreign policy focused on protecting Lebanon’s independence and territorial integrity, and economic reforms that enable Lebanon to move from stagnation and malaise to a more equitable, inclusive, successful society – a tall order. And as Yahya mentioned, “With the government in place, there is a sense of relief that the institutions are again operational and a hope that the policies needed to kick start some of the projects presented at CEDRE can be put in place.” That is the hope and the expectation…