Lebanon can only be rescued by the Lebanese - GulfToday

Lebanon can only be rescued by the Lebanese

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Sara Jaafar (right) speaks during a press conference in Beirut, Lebanon. File/Associated Press

Discredited Lebanese politicians have waited until today to commence binding parliamentary consultations on a new prime minister only hours before French President Emmanuel Macron arrives for a two-day visit. As could be expected, they have lost nearly a month procrastinating since his last visit two days after the August 4th explosion which devastated Beirut port and neighbouring districts.

At that time Macron tried and failed to impose a deadline on them. Without a fully-fledged government which can draw up and enact a credible reform plan Lebanon will not receive billions of dollars in external financial aid needed to rescue the economy which has been in free fall since last summer.

Ahead of this visit, France submitted a “road map” for achieving the reforms required by international donors. The “road map” not only includes the formation of a government empowered to enact urgent reforms, particularly in the electricity sector, but also an audit of the central bank and preparing for fresh elections within a year.

For its part, France has pledged to play a key role in reconstructing Beirut port and upgrading health care and to provide experts for the financial audit and for organising the parliamentary election.

Lebanon has been starved of funds due to the refusal of the politicians to adopt and carry out reforms and tackle mismanagement and rampant corruption. Although Lebanon’s resigned technocratic government, which took office in January, drafted a reform programme, it failed to meet the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which has committed to raise $10 billion and an international coalition which had pledged $11 billion in 2018 during a conference in Paris.

In spite of the urgency and the putative deadline, Lebanese factions continue to squabble. President Aoun, his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, and Hizbollah have pressed former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to accept the post of prime minister although he did not propose any reforms last year after tens of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets demanding change. He resigned at the end of October, served as caretaker, and stepped down at the end of January when the technocrats took over. He has said he does not want another term but he could change his mind.

Hariri, who has French and Saudi citizenship as well as Lebanese, is also seen as Macron’s choice although he is not the choice of Lebanese who demand the ouster of the political elite, accountability for decades of mismanagement and graft, and an end to the divisive sectarian system of governance imposed on Lebanon by France, as the mandatory power, before independence in 1943. France has always been part of the problem and cannot in this desperate stage in the game play the role of Lebanon’s saviour.

Lebanon can be rescued only by Lebanese. Since the state did not respond immediately and effectively to the explosion, they have taken responsibility for dealing with the devastation wreaked in the Ashrafieh, Gemmayze, Mar Mikael and Qarantina quarters by the blast of nearly 3,000 tonnes of deteriorating ammonium nitrate stored in a port warehouse for six years.

Although the political elite has let Lebanon down, one surviving state institution, the army — with the help of French military engineers — has assumed a key role in clearing the debris in the port. The new director, Bassem al-Kaissi, claimed that it has regained 100 per cent of operational import-export capacity. However, grain silos and storage facilities for containers remain to be rebuilt and cargo has to be cleared as soon as it lands. It will take at least a year to rebuild warehouses. In the meantime, Tripoli’s port has assumed greater importance.

Lebanon, which imports 85 per cent of what it consumes, has returned to pre-blast levels, which had fallen over the last year due to a reduction in imports caused by the country’s financial crisis. Lebanon simply does not have the foreign currency to buy goods from abroad.

Outside support continues to pour in to alleviate Lebanon’s grave humanitarian crisis caused by political deadlock, economic collapse, mass unemployment, Covid-19 and the explosion.

As Covid infections climbed to 700 a day in the weeks after the explosion, the EU has provided the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with $4.8 (Euro 3.6) million for the health care system. The funds have enabled the Rafik Hariri hospital, the main centre for Covid treatment, to upgrade a ward and six other hospitals across the country to deal with a larger number of patients. Ventilators and other equipment have been delivered.

The UN’s educational and cultural organisation (Unesco) is set to convene a conference tomorrow to raise $22 million to rebuild or repair 160 schools destroyed or damaged by the explosions. A second conference, planned for the end of the month, will seek several hundred million to restore Beirut’s heritage buildings, including the splendid 19th century villas in Ashrafieh, and the elegant Italianate-Oriental homes in Gemmayze.

Lebanese insist that donors pledging a $250 million in aid for Lebanon specify that funds must be handled by closely supervised local non-governmental bodies and UN agencies to prevent politicians and their allies from pocketing the money. The explosion not only destroyed Beirut’s physical structures but also the remnants of trust citizens had in their politicians who, since explosive-grade ammonium nitrate was off-loaded into a port warehouse in 2014, neglected this dangerous material and dismissed warnings of its volatility.

The slogan adopted by the street is, “All means all of them,” all the politicians must go.

Since Lebanese poured into the streets last October, the politicians had their chance to reform and rescue the economy from collapse and the country from ruin. They refused.

Lebanon can no longer afford to keep them in the lavish style to which they are accustomed.

This being the case, Macron must make it clear to the politicians and their collaborators that the status quo is no longer sustainable and that they must stand down if Lebanon is to survive. Early elections geared to transform the country’s disastrous sectarian model into a secular, democratic system of governance could be the mechanism for change.

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