Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government for nearly ten months, with President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri unable to reach an agreement on a cabinet. Disagreements center on the number of ministers to be appointed and how they will be distributed based on sectarian and political representation. They have met 18 times since Hariri’s appointment in October and have been unable to resolve their differences.
Hariri and his political party, the Future Movement, insist on a technocratic government centered on reforms.
Meanwhile, Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement Party have stated that they do not want veto power, but rather a more representative government. In Lebanon, a country with a delicate sectarian power-sharing system, political paralysis is not uncommon. It was previously without a president for nearly two and a half years, until Aoun took power in late 2016. However, things have changed dramatically since then.
Lebanon is currently reeling from a devastating economic crisis that has pushed more than half of its population into poverty. Aside from having to deal with a local currency that has lost more than 85 percent of its value in less than a year, people are also struggling to afford basic food items that have increased 400 percent in price.
Lebanon’s currency fell precipitously in 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic further destroying the country’s economy. The devastating Beirut Port explosion in August killed over 200 people, injured over 6,000 others, and leveled many of the capital’s neighborhoods.
With the country nearing the end of its financial reserves, the international community promised Lebanon support on the condition that it form a government and implement economic and structural reforms.
Over the last three years, states and international organizations have promised Lebanon billions of dollars in loans and aid to repair its deteriorating infrastructure, rebuild the destroyed Beirut Port, and participate in an International Monetary Fund program to help the country overcome its economic difficulties.
In a statement, the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon told Al Jazeera that the country’s rulers must “put the interests of the country above political and personal agendas” in order to help steer it toward recovery. Despite this, Lebanon’s rulers have remained unmoved. Aoun has repeatedly suggested that Hariri resign, and some officials close to Hariri have hinted that the option is on the table.
While the international community’s repeated statements and meetings with Lebanese officials have yielded no results, Lebanon’s former colonizers have attempted to be more proactive.
French President Emmanuel Macron jetted to Beirut several days after the port explosion in early August and offered humanitarian aid but conditioned it on structural reforms. Macron and other world leaders raised about $300m in humanitarian aid for the country.
Macron returned in late August, pressing for the formation of a government and reforms before any assistance was given to rebuild the port and help its battered economy. He released a draft economic road map, dubbed the “French initiative,” that included reforms such as restructuring the electricity sector, implementing a forensic audit of the central bank’s accounts, and resuming talks with the International Monetary Fund.
The Lebanese government has promised to support this plan. Macron and the devastating blast appeared to be a watershed moment, but they were not. By late September, France’s president had accused the country’s leaders of “collective betrayal,” and had given them six weeks to put the French initiative into action. That did not happen, and France’s travel restrictions imposed on Lebanese officials accused of obstructing the formation of a government also did not work.
The French initiative, according to Joseph Bahout, director of the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute and a former consultant with the French foreign ministry, was “a failure, not a fiasco.”
Many of Macron’s demands were shared by an enraged populace who attempted to overthrow Lebanon’s ruling class in late 2019. Even at one of the most critical points in its short history, Lebanon’s tiny, cash-strapped rulers are ignoring the international community’s billions of dollars in financial assistance while continuing their political squabble.
It could be political suicide for Lebanon’s ruling parties, which have dominated the political and economic landscape for decades, including public-sector hiring and private contracting in exchange for political loyalty.