After Scathing World Bank Report, Lebanon’s Political Crisis Shows No Signs of Easing
A damning report released earlier this week by the World Bank condemned Lebanese officials for corruption and failure to provide adequate services, and called the country’s economic collapse in “the top 10, possibly top 3, most severe crises episodes globally” since 1850, as politics in Lebanon show no sign of change.
There is no movement toward the formation of a government, as Lebanon’s current prime minister, Hassan Diab, who resigned along with the rest of the cabinet in August following the devastating explosion in the Beirut port, acts in a custodial capacity. Saad al-Hariri, who was designated in October to form a new government, has been unable to do so, leaving the current government in a caretaker role. Meanwhile, the first task of a new government will be to help pull it out of its financial crisis, which struck in late 2019.
Dr. Raphaël Gourrada, an independent analyst on Lebanon, argues that the only way for the country to reform is for the international community to selectively target problematic Lebanese politicians.
“The only way to prompt change in Lebanon is to accentuate the international pressure on very specific individuals belonging to the political class as a whole,” he told The Media Line.
However, Gourrada says, there is little political incentive for other countries to take action.
France is the most involved foreign power in Lebanon’s government formation talks. Meanwhile, Western countries, where Lebanese politicians keep their financial assets, can play an integral part in placing financial penalties on corrupt leaders, but so far have refrained.
Gourrada told The Media Line that Western countries have been waiting for American leadership to take over in the region, and hope that it will happen under the current administration. But, he said: “Unfortunately, the Middle East is not a priority anymore … and this has been the case under the Trump administration, and this is still the case for the Biden administration.”
“Western countries are looking at one another to see who will make the first move, but nothing happens,” he added. “I don’t know why France doesn’t accentuate this pressure, and why it keeps taking on tough stances, like the recent speeches of the French foreign minister.”
At the end of the day, this is a bottomless pit. Lebanon is in free fall and there is no parachute to stop it
Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Lebanon last month to try to spur progress on forming a government. He announced 85 million euro, or about $103 million, in aid to help with reconstruction and to provide the poorest in Lebanon with food and health services, while calling on the country to modernize its political and institutional practices.
Gourrada also says that the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) countries, which play a major role in Lebanon’s politics, could compel better behavior on the part of Lebanese officials by withholding funds as a deterrent.
“Lebanon is not a priority anymore because there has been little return on investments for countries like Saudi Arabia; they have invested a lot to sponsor politicians like current prime minister-designate Saad Hariri,” he said. “But Hariri’s influence has drastically diminished and none of the Saudi-backed politicians are able to effectively counter Hizbullah, which serves as the central piece of the Lebanese political puzzle.”
The Saudis could back civil society parties that are looking to run in next year’s legislative elections instead of the locally despised officials. However, doing so would render Riyadh’s current investment in Beirut less valuable.
“Let us not forget that some of the Gulf countries are financing some of the politicians that are denounced by civil society,” Gourrada said. “Enormous swaths of the Lebanese political establishment are backed by Gulf sponsors so they do not want to pressure their own champions, even though they are less and less interested by their achievements.”
Sami Zoughaib, an economist at the Policy Initiative, a new independent Beirut-based think tank, says that despite the financial and political turmoil Lebanon currently faces, “things can always get worse.” In fact, he believes that the Lebanese economy will further deteriorate.
“At the end of the day, this is a bottomless pit. Lebanon is in free fall and there is no parachute to stop it,” he told The Media Line. “It will get worse because the current system is unable to reform itself until we reach the point of complete bankruptcy. Officials are banking and betting on the famous political-geopolitical ties in the region to find a new guarantor that will get it out of its current mess.”
“This is a losing battle. Even if they find someone to help out, every day we wait for aid, the harder it will be for the country to recover,” he added.
The current system will not be able to produce any government that can propose a solution that has the interest of the people at heart
Zoughaib is not optimistic about the prospect of political change or any of the proposed changes to halt government gridlock.
“There is an idea being touted for a new transition government, with political opposition groups coming together with exclusive legislative power, without going through the parliament, and they can get things back on track,” he said, noting that this was done previously in Lebanon in the 1950’s.
“I’m not convinced of the potential of the 2022 legislative election to change things,” Zoughaib added.
He does not believe that the formation of a government now, something Hariri has been unable to accomplish in the last nine months, would help bring about much-needed reforms.
“Even if we have a government and we are out of the political paralysis, I don’t think this will be a solution,” Zoughaib said. “The current system will not be able to produce any government that can propose a solution that has the interest of the people at heart.”
Bachar EL-Halabi, MENA Geopolitical Analyst at ClipperData in New York City, and a Lebanese political activist, contends that the importance of the recent World Bank report is to serve as “a wake-up call for many of the citizens and residents of the country, who were living a combination of denial and toxic optimism that the crisis could be resolved at some point in the near future,” he told The Media Line.
He does not foresee any political changes coming soon.
“As it appears, for now, the gridlock is there to stay unless and until one of the following happens: Saad Hariri steps down as a prime minister-designate, or the end of President Michel Aoun’s term,” Halabi said. “The well has been poisoned between the two and it is almost impossible for them to cooperate to form a government. They’ve both climbed up a tree and any concession would cost them dearly in politics.”
“The Lebanese sectarian political leadership is tone-deaf to the citizens’ sufferings and only sees opportunity in every crisis to further consolidate its power and follower base and it is acting on that note, which is hindering any breakthrough in the political deadlock,” he added.
“Meanwhile, the average Joe on the street has further panicked and continues to descend into more depression and desperation due to how grim the outlook is,” Halabi said, adding: “I say that from personal experience.”