Lebanon’s Ability to Hang on Now in Question
Former US ambassador tells The Media Line: No one trusts members of ruling class to keep their word on reform
Between the coronavirus pandemic, a long-standing economic malaise, governmental dysfunction and the port explosion that rocked Beirut this summer, Lebanon is reeling.
The United Nations and aid organizations are attempting to rally a weary international community to the rescue. Yet donor states are not willing to keep the pipeline flowing without major governmental reforms – although this risks exacerbating the country’s humanitarian crisis.
“We don’t want the most vulnerable to be held hostage to the political will of the government [and] we make it clear to the international community that humanitarian aid is never conditional,” Najat Rochdi, the UN secretary-general’s deputy special coordinator for Lebanon, told The Media Line.
“I applaud the donors for stepping up,” Rochdi continued.
“We are talking about big money. It’s not like they’re washing their hands. But we cannot keep the country forever in the hands of humanitarian assistance, and there are very worrying figures as we head into 2021, so when you factor in the pandemic, the latest food security reports, the hospitals that were damaged in the port explosion that created a problem with access to health… when you add it all in, obviously, the humanitarian situation is going to worsen,” she said.
“We need to start investing in some of the root causes and engage in a people-centered recovery focused on the most vulnerable. So that’s what we are trying to safeguard in our approach with the donors, and tell them that we all agree and everyone has to put pressure for reforms to take place because this is the only way for the country not to collapse into another crisis again and again and again,” she stated.
“These aren’t new reforms. The international community has been pushing for these for years, so everyone wants these, but they can’t come at the expense of the most vulnerable,” Rochdi emphasized.
Donor states, though, are talking as if they are finished throwing good money after bad.
French President Emmanuel Macron was treated to a hero’s welcome when he rushed Beirut after the August 4 port explosion, but he is holding firm to his demands for immediate governmental reforms.
Macron’s Middle East adviser said this month there would be no more French bailouts without changes, and a donor conference that the French were looking to put together by the end of this month is in doubt, as the powers-that-were, the powers-that-be and the powers-that-could-be in Lebanon either refuse or remain unable to form a functioning, technocratic government less focused on political power and more focused on recovery.
We don’t want the most vulnerable to be held hostage to the political will of the government [and] we make it clear to the international community that humanitarian aid is never conditional
The UN is trying to shepherd member states to force their collective will on Lebanon’s leading figures.
“We really want to see the states that want to help leverage their different political influences so that they can bilaterally all convey the same message, and that’s to put the people at the center, because it seems the national institutions are not always thinking of the people and the suffering of the people,” Rochdi told The Media Line.
“The second thing is to support a government platform that is going to give a seat to all stakeholders,” she continued.
“Since day one in our consultations with the government, we told them we would like civil society to have an equal seat along with the donor community. This kind of platform has never been implemented before,” she stated. “So if we succeed in all that, things can get better, but if there is no political will for these reforms and the formation of a government, there is little we can do.”
Dorothy Shea, the US ambassador to Lebanon, told a conference sponsored last month by a Washington think tank while the US “gets that Lebanon matters” and that “avoiding state failure… has to be first and foremost,” it “can’t really want it more than they [the Lebanese] do.”
Shea believes there must be a step-by-step approach to reforms and “no free lunch” from America.
Some analysts say efforts to form a government have been impeded by recent US sanctions against former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun and the man who leads Lebanon’s largest Christian party. Bassil was sanctioned for corruption and ties with Iranian proxy Hizbullah.
But if Hizbullah and its political partners are waiting out the Trump Administration’s last days in office and hoping for better relations with Joe Biden’s White House, they might be waiting for some time.
“Lebanon is not going to be high on the Biden foreign policy agenda in its own right,” Jeffrey Feltman, former United Nations undersecretary-general for political affairs, former US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and a former US ambassador to Lebanon, told The Media Line.
“The Biden Administration will be focused diplomatically on the Iranian nuclear issue along with its policies on Israel and Syria, and, of course, Lebanon is tied into those issues,” Feltman said.
“I do find it interesting that the Trump Administration could build the framework for the current maritime border negotiations between Lebanon and Israel, and I would hope that the Biden administration would carry on with that work. Outside of that, I don’t see Lebanon getting much focus,” he said.
He agrees that in any event, “significant financial assistance” depends on the Lebanese government implementing political reforms.
“No one trusts them to keep their word, and I can’t see that changing with a new US administration without clear evidence that things are moving in a different direction,” said Feltman, currently the John C. Whitehead Visiting Fellow in International Diplomacy at the Brookings Institution.
The necessary reforms, according to a near-consensus of experts, involve a retreat from the sectarian, confessional patronage-spoils system that has allowed the ruling class to drag down the economy since the end of the country’s civil war in 1990.
The maritime border negotiations with Israel, which the Lebanese government decided to decouple from land-border negotiations, are seen by some as a way for Beirut to collect massive revenues from offshore hydrocarbon deposits and revitalize the economy without making the long-term reforms necessary to build a sustainable Lebanon, while at the same time making a case to the US that sanctions on Lebanese officials and restrictions on trade with Syria should be lifted.
Lebanon’s starting point for negotiations would extend its maritime border well beyond the line it had proposed to the UN only a decade ago, supporting the idea that it is desperate for a short-term economic lifeline rather than bringing stability to the region and to its government through peace talks with its longstanding enemy to the south.
Rochdi says a roadmap laid out by France is “still valid.”
In 2018, a France-led conference pledged some $11 billion in aid to Lebanon. But it came conditioned on reforms, including audits and accountability.
We have since added demands to those reforms, like social protection. The Beirut port explosion revealed that people had no safety net
The leadership in Beirut was unable to pass the reforms and the money was never delivered. Since then, the Lebanese pound has crashed, sending over half of the country’s 6.8 million people into poverty.
“We have since added demands to those reforms, like social protection. The Beirut port explosion revealed that people had no safety net,” she said.
“The second thing is that with the reconstruction of the port and other infrastructure, there must be transparent public procurement. This is part of the fight against corruption. And lastly, [there should be] better and more inclusive governance and a more accountable government,” she stated.
“We are putting the people at the center so the reforms aren’t only about helping the recovery of the financial sector for the sake of that sector, but rather to impact the people’s lives every day,” she said.
The biggest question now is how much longer the Lebanese people are willing, or able, to wait to see these changes through.
“The Lebanese people are broken. The trauma of the explosion had a lot of impact,” Rochdi noted.
“Last year, there were the protests and people starting believing change was possible, and they succeeded because the first government resigned and then the second government resigned. But, it’s difficult to ask of the people to be in the street every day,” she stated.
“But based on the interactions I’ve had with civil society, they are not giving up. They are just trying to take a breath because they are broken and there isn’t a single person that hasn’t been impacted. The middle class is close to complete collapse,” she said.
Rochdi points to a “trend of leaving” the country.
“Lebanon is losing a lot of its talent,” she said. “Last week, we heard 400 doctors are leaving the country, so that can be a kind of indicator of hopelessness. But there are still a lot of people here in civil society who are willing to be a part of the transformation.”