On Thursday, October 22, 2020, almost a year after his resignation amid fervent protests, former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was re-elected to form a new government to put an end to the longing crisis and to implement necessary reforms for the country.
Having gone through several failed attempts to designate a PM and delaying the French-designed plan of reform for Lebanon, President Michel Aoun named former PM Hariri responsible to form a government, after consultations with the Parliament and acceptance of this solution by a slim majority of the MPs, obtaining 65 votes out of 120 (simple majority), from a big part of the parliamentary blocs. Former Lebanese PM Hariri is back by unpopular demand, pledging to do better this time (his fourth as premier) as Lebanon reels from its months of political paralysis, its worst financial crisis in decades, the coronavirus pandemic, and the aftermath of the deadly August 4th explosion at the port of Beirut.
According to Lebanese media outlets, the sudden determination of Saad Hariri for his interest in the PM function and the support he enjoys from the Americans and even from the certain Gulf States would be an indication of the beginnings of a lull in the showdown that has been going on for months between the Americans and the Iranians. This lull would have resulted in a certain calm on the Iraqi scene, the exchange of prisoners in Yemen and the contacts, recently revealed, between American emissaries and the Syrian regime. This lull can only reverberate on the Lebanese scene, and that is why Saad Hariri would have suddenly had the wind in its sails.
However, it is up to him to make the necessary contacts to endow Lebanon with a government as soon as possible. Moreover, if obstacles stand in the way of the formation of the ministerial team, they would be purely internal and could only be attributed to the different Lebanese parties.
Furthermore, even though Hariri resigned a year ago in answer to the popular protests, he is back as prime minister in large part because there’s not really anybody else whom Lebanon’s political parties would agree on. Hassan Diab, who succeeded Hariri last fall, resigned himself after the August explosion, which killed almost 200 people and was widely seen as the result of government incompetence and corruption. After him came Mustapha Adib, Lebanon’s ambassador to Germany who couldn’t form a new cabinet and stepped down as prime minister late last month.
The main cabinet formation problem was caused by the allotment of the post of finance minister, a powerful position, as financial signoff can influence the work of other ministries. Lebanon’s Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal, wanted the post, as traditionally held, but there was resistance from other groups. Hariri is believed to be more likely to accommodate that demand and, while Hezbollah declined to nominate anyone for prime minister, it has said it won’t stand in the way of forming a new government.
Moreover, Hariri promised to assemble a cabinet of “nonpartisan specialists” with a “mission to implement the economic, financial and administrative reforms” the country desperately needs, reforms contained in the French initiative road map. “I will work on forming a government quickly because time is running out and this is the only and last chance facing our country,” Hariri said.
France is pushing for long-overdue reforms needed to pull its former colony out of its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. In the past year, Lebanon’s currency has lost over 80% of its value and unemployment has skyrocketed. As such, President Emmanual Macron has made further aid conditional on Lebanon enacting sweeping political reforms. Also, late last month, the French leader slammed Lebanese officials for their “collective betrayal” in failing to quickly form a new reform-focused government as promised.
As his first task is the formation of a cabinet, Hariri’s effort will not be spared since it is no easy task in Lebanese politics, where decisions are made through political wrangling and trading to appease the country’s political elites. All of Lebanon’s sect-based political parties will need to be accommodated, in what is more like a balancing act than a democratic process, according to analysts. Protesters say the country’s leaders negotiate for their own interests, not what’s good for the country or even their own constituents.
The key task of the new government will be to implement economic and financial reforms to meet the conditions of France and the International Monetary Fund, needed to unlock billions of dollars in badly needed aid. That could avert a complete collapse in the short term but would not solve Lebanon’s structural problems. At present, it has got one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world and is highly reliant on imports, including food, that it can no longer afford as the currency has lost 80 percent of its value since last fall. Half of Lebanese are now below the poverty line, and reforms will likely mean removing the subsidies on fuel and bread.
In the context of the designation of Hariri, the US Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker told reporters on Thursday: “Whatever government comes next must commit to and have the ability to implement reforms that can lead to economic opportunity, better governance, and an end to endemic corruption.” Jan Kubis, the UN special coordinator for Lebanon, warned the country’s leaders not to “count on miracles, foreign elections, or external donors—the rescue must start in Lebanon, by Lebanon.”
On Friday, former PM Tammam Salam spoke in favor of a government able to initiate the implementation of the expected reforms to exit the country of the crisis. “I am in favor of a bailout government that will start working on the required reforms,” Salam said after meeting with PM-designate Saad Hariri during the non-binding consultations on the formation of the future cabinet, in Parliament. In this context, he stressed that the cabinet should, according to him, be “homogeneous and united”. “We hope that this team will be able to carry out the expected reforms within 3 to 6 months, without which the choices to be made will always be more difficult”, added Tammam Salam.
From the protesters’ side, there were several reactions. A notable one comes from Nizar Hassan, a political activist with independent group Li Haqqi, who said that “Hariri’s return is the peak of the counter-revolution. A pillar of the political establishment, a multi-millionaire who represents the banks and foreign interests, and a symbol of inefficient governance and widespread corruption. He represents everything we revolted against.”
Also, Sami Atallah, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, says it is unlikely Hariri – a major shareholder in one of Lebanon’s biggest banks – will have the interests of average people as his top priority. “For whom will he be working and serving? I think he will serve in particular the banks and richer segments of society and the political parties,” Atallah told Al Jazeera. He also sees little reason to expect Hariri to have more success implementing much-needed reforms than he did in previous governments, even as establishment parties have lost support in the past year and have fewer spoils to share among themselves. “It’s a system preserving itself even as it becomes more and more broken and unstable,” he said.
Background of the nomination
Ahead of the nomination, on Wednesday, President Michel Aoun stepped up the rhetoric against different political parties, including Speaker Nabih Berri, ahead of the binding consultations with lawmakers to name a new prime minister.
Sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that in his televised speech, Aoun implicitly referred to obstacles that would hinder the formation of the new government. The sources told the daily that the president did not refer in his speech to the French initiative, launched by President Emmanuel Macron in August, nor to the ongoing negotiations with Israel over the demarcation of the maritime borders. “The message from the speech is that he lost the battle of designation, and is now betting on the battle of the government formation, which his son-in-law MP Gebran Bassil is hinging on to make a comeback,” they told Asharq Al-Awsat. Previously, Aoun had postponed the binding consultations, which were scheduled last week, citing requests by Christian blocs.
Lebanese Forces MP Wehbi Qatisha said that Hariri’s complex mission would begin after the designation, expecting the Shiite duo – Amal Movement and Hezbollah – and the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) to impose conditions on him although the French initiative clearly calls for a government of experts. Also, Qatisha said he expected that the Free Patriotic Movement’s parliamentary bloc would actively participate in the formation process, despite its opposition to Hariri’s designation.
Commenting on Aoun’s Wednesday speech, resigned MP Nadim Gemayel said on Twitter: “The words of President Michel Aoun today confirm his failure and inability to manage the country and the crisis, as he said so explicitly.”
With regards to the voting for Hariri’s designation, on Thursday, Aoun’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement, the largest bloc in parliament and the largest Christian party, withheld support to Hariri. Another major Christian party, formerly an ally of Hariri, also withheld support.
The Shiite group Hezbollah implicitly supported Hariri’s designation to the post but refrained from voting for him to avoid appearing to be breaking ranks with its ally, Aoun’s party. Hariri got backing from the other Shiite group, Amal, as well as the largest Sunni bloc, a small Christian party, and independents. As such, he got the vote of his own Future Movement, the Shi’ite Amal party, Druze politician Walid Jumblatt’s party and other small blocs.
This article was edited using data from the following websites: www.aljazeera.com, www.reuters.com, www.lorientlejour.com, www.lecommercedulevant.com, www.al-monitor.com, www.english.aawsat.com, and www.foreignpolicy.com.