Hariri's resignation will deepen Lebanon's crisis
Nine months after being chosen by members of parliament and asked by President Michel Aoun to form a government, prime minister-designate Saad Hariri has thrown in the towel.
After one last meeting with Aoun on July 14 in which he presented the president with a 24-member cabinet list proposal, Hariri abandoned his mission that could have helped to pull Lebanon away from total state failure and economic collapse.
To be sure, Hariri's departure was long in coming. He could have withdrawn six or seven months ago, and no one would have been much the wiser. From the beginning, President Aoun interfered in government formation that the constitution entrusts to the premier-designate. He wanted to name ministers, especially the Christian ones, retain power over appointees, and choose and implement the government's agenda.
Hariri could not stomach accepting these conditions on his freedom of action or constitutional privilege. Nor could he abandon his wish to choose a cabinet of capable technocrats who are neutral in Lebanon's sectarian political turf. Still, he persisted, presenting the president with one amended list of ministers after another, only to be met with recalcitrance and rejection.
The socioeconomic nightmare will continue
With Hariri's withdrawal, international assistance and friendly donations are unlikely to come. The country needs a government that could convince lending institutions and donors to help lead Lebanon away from the cliff. At a minimum, the formation of a government would signal that the country's politicians are serious about addressing the economic malaise, rampant corruption, and outright mismanagement.
In a stunning Spring 2021 report, The World Bank ranked Lebanon's economic and financial crisis among the top 10 - or maybe even top three - most severe since the mid-nineteenth century. Lebanon's GDP in 2020 shrank by 20 percentage points to $33 billion. The national debt is approaching $100 billion, following misguided borrowing policies over the last three decades that can only be described as a Ponzi scheme. International lending dried up following a default on some Eurobonds in March 2020.
"The national debt is approaching $100 billion, following misguided borrowing policies over the last three decades that can only be described as a Ponzi scheme"
Lebanon's national currency, the pound, has lost more than 90 percent of its value to the US dollar since the fall of 2019. Hyperinflation is a real prospect as prices soar and the currency collapses. Lebanon imports about 85 percent of needed goods that are only acquired with hard currency. Banque du Liban, Lebanon's central bank, has only about $15 billion in reserve, which constitute total deposits by Lebanese and thus cannot be touched.
Today, there are unprecedented levels of poverty. The World Bank estimates that some 45 percent of Lebanese are poor and that 22 percent live in extreme poverty. UNICEF reported last July 1st that 30 percent of Lebanese children went to sleep hungry or did not receive healthcare and that 77 percent of households lacked the money to buy food. Subsidies on food, fuel, and medicine are gradually being lifted, which is impacting the middle and lower classes.
Lebanon's army chief General Joseph Aoun says the situation in the country was worsening and would further escalate as a financial crisis stokes political and social tensions https://t.co/rEBUPJLItg— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) July 17, 2021
Is a Hariri replacement available?
The Lebanese parliament must now recommend another Sunni politician whom Aoun can designate to form the government. It is hard to imagine who among them would be brave enough to take the plunge, knowing that he either has to allow Aoun his transgressions, or end up abandoning his mission.
Not that Hariri is irreplaceable; indeed, he is. But an alternative will have to deal with two serious impediments in addition to Aoun's interference. The first is that no Sunni politician should accept being subordinate to a Maronite president. In Lebanon's sectarian system, Maronites, Sunnis, and Shias have equal political power. Aoun behaved with Hariri's appointment as if the prime minister-designate were a mere employee in the presidential palace, to be told whom to choose for ministers and whom to ignore.
The second is that Aoun relies on a perceived strength from his 15-year alliance with powerful Hezbollah. The party has at least since 2008 forced itself on everyone as a dominant political and military force. To be sure, while a Sunni politician may stand up to Aoun, like Hariri did for nine months, he may never guarantee success in the confrontation because Hezbollah cannot break ranks with the president.
"Diab will continue to fail in securing the foreign assistance Lebanon needs"
In the meantime, it appears that caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab will continue to discharge his duties with limited legitimacy or public support. He will remain a mere manager of increasingly difficult economic, social, and security crises that may soon spiral out of control. And as has been his lot since his appointment in early 2020, Diab will continue to fail in securing the foreign assistance Lebanon needs.
The army is in the eye of the storm
Despite his many flaws and his being part of the ruling clique that helped get Lebanon to this point, Hariri was the strongest Sunni politician in the system that could convince the international community to lend a hand. His failure and the difficulty of replacing him only signal a quicker collapse of the Lebanese polity.
Absent an effective government structure or international intervention, law and order now and in the immediate future should be entrusted to the Lebanese army. It is one of the last cohesive and unified state institutions that is trusted by the Lebanese. Its survival and unity must be on the mind of all Arab and international friends and allies of Lebanon.
"Hariri's failure and the difficulty of replacing him only signal a quicker collapse of the Lebanese polity"
Recently, France organised a virtual international conference to help Lebanon's armed forces after army commander, General Joseph Aoun, raised serious concerns about his institution's wellbeing. Soldiers' salaries had become inadequate because of the collapsed currency and troops were not properly fed. Arab, American, and European assistance was secured in the conference. Qatar pledged to supply the army with 70 tons of food per month.
If Lebanon's army is to be entrusted with protecting the peace and holding the country together, it should not be begging for basic help.
Nor can it be on alert for the long haul. What Lebanon needs is for its politicians, most of all its president, to realize that they must help in steering it away from the abyss. If they can't, the time may have arrived for a new generation of Lebanese to take over the mantle of leading the country to safer shores.
Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.
Follow him on Twitter: @Harb3Imad
Have questions or comments? Email us at: email@example.com.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.