The return of Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Lebanon’s political scene is an exercise in classic finely balanced factional politics in Lebanon. President Michel Aoun tapped the 50-year-old Sunni leader who in turn managed to secure 65 votes in a 120-seat parliament. Hariri has promised a technocratic government that will largely comply with the French reform road map.
The two main political factions have once again come to “an understanding” revolving around the same people who are invited to deliver on what they have failed to deliver for more than a decade. It is said that insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This insanity has security repercussions.
A Government of the People
Lebanon has long failed to have a political process that can achieve a political synthesis. The political landscape is fragmented, divided between factional feuds along the lines of ethnic and religious lines. While the confessional political system in Lebanon has representation quotas that ensure power-sharing between religious groups, this has also been part of its weakness. The system has developed the capacity to resist change.
As a result, there appears to be a disconnection between civic expectations from the political system and what government and parliament are able to deliver.
For instance, the Shi’ite Amal party and the Hezbollah movement are able to veto the composition of the country’s delegation that is tasked with negotiating maritime borders with Israel. They insist on military-to-military negotiations that will not involve the Lebanese government.
Gradually, opposition to “a government” has become opposition to governance. Synthesis, reform, and change have become all but impossible, whether one talks of foreign and security policy or labour market reform.
An explosive catalyst
The devastating explosions that hit Beirut on the 4th of August killed and injured hundreds, destroying major parts of the city and the livelihood of many of its inhabitants. The international community, primarily the European Union and its Member States, reacted quickly to mitigate the immense damage and suffering caused. Unfortunately, this is not enough.
Now the fog of the explosion has receded, it is all too clear how the political system in Lebanon was serving an accumulation of social power by one faction over others and never aimed at rebuilding a cohesive social contract. Reforming the system and introducing the rule of law is a difficult process but if it fails, regime change by other means appears inevitable.
Lebanon’s GDP growth has been close to zero since 2011. Interest rates have surged to control galloping inflation, pushing up import prices. With real income in freefall, unemployment has dropped to 30% and over 50% of the population lived below the poverty line.
No matter how a government reacts to such a profound crisis, the term “reform” would presumably be part of the mix. In Lebanon, upsetting the existing balance of power appears out of the question. Substantial reforms of the country’s political and financial system would require redistribution of power that the political system is unable and unwilling or pursue. Hence, an extra-systemic actor is required.
The explosion created a situation that the country could not avoid addressing, allowing all factions to hit the street in protest as “a people,” which does not often happen in Lebanon. There was a collective repudiation of corruption with impunity of the kind that allows for massive failures and sheer incompetence to go unpunished. A case in point, last week Human Rights Watch noted that the domestic investigation into the blast failed to achieve meaningful results and called for an independent UN inquiry.
Where does Europe stand?
Europe needs to come up with a new plan, more realistic but no less drastic. The reconstruction of Beirut’s central district – the former Paris of the Middle East – should be a priority that engages both private and the public sector.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron seems to be taking the lead in how the EU will be dealing with Lebanon. Consultations with the fractious political system require knowledge, contacts, and experience that the former colonial power indisputably has in more than any other member state. But France is not going to Lebanon solely with a carrot of aid; Macron holds the stick of possible sanctions, potentially targeting individuals.
Targeting individuals to affect specific political results is not new for Lebanon.
Two years ago, Lebanon’s incoming prime minister Saad Hariri was held hostage by Saudi Arabia. He was stripped of his cell phones, shoved, and insulted by Saudi security officers, and handed a prewritten resignation speech that he was forced to read out on Saudi television. His fault was that he was not sufficiently confrontational with Iran. Which, of course, he could not be as the Iran-backed Hezbollah has a political veto across the board. At the time, President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, refused to accept the resignation unless Mr. Hariri delivered it in person.
At the same time, Hariri cannot afford a clash with Riyadh. Hariri was allowed to go home, where he dared say little about his captivity. After all, Lebanon wants the safety of its 250,000 ex-pats in Saudi Arabia. Mr Hariri, who holds Saudi citizenship, cannot afford to clash with Iran or alienate Riyadh. He is the product of a political game that is founded on balance and he is not the one to rock the boat, not then and probably not now. That is balance, but it is not quite peace; it is not war but it is not quite security.
 Al Monitor Staff (2020). Lebanon’s Hariri again tapped as prime minister. [Online] Al Monitor. Available at: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/10/saad-hariri-lebanon-prime-minister-macron-cabinet-beirut-1.html. [Accessed 24 Oct. 2020].
 Tom Perry and Ellen Francis (2020). Special Report: Lebanon’s power struggle – why a failing state can’t get the lights on. [Online] Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-crisis-power-special-report-idUSKCN25626G. [Accessed 20 Oct. 2020].
 Reuters Staff (2020). Hezbollah, Amal criticize Lebanon team ahead of Israel border talks. [Online] Reuters. Available at: https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-israel-border-hezbollah/hezbollah-amal-criticize-lebanon-team-ahead-of-israel-border-talks-idUSKBN26Z0JU. [Accessed 20 Oct. 2020].
 Alan MacKenzie (2020). Where are Lebanon's reforms? [Online] Deutsche Welle. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/where-are-lebanons-reforms/a-53925189. [Accessed 20 Oct. 2020].
 Alexandra Ma (2018). Lebanese prime minister, who got kidnapped in Saudi Arabia, says his relationship with the Saudis 'couldn't be better'. [Online] Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/lebanon-pm-saad-al-hariri-touts-saudi-relationship-after-kidnapped-2018-12. [Accessed 20 Oct. 2020].
 Anne Barnard and Maria Abib-Habib (2017). Why Saad Hariri Had That Strange in Saudi Arabia. [Online] The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/24/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-saad-hariri-mohammed-bin-salman-lebanon.html. [Accessed 20 Oct. 2020].