Hariri puts Lebanon on the edge

July 17, 2021 - 21:4

TEHRAN – After nine months of procrastination, Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri announced Thursday that he was unable to put together a government, pushing the crisis-stricken country one step closer to an all-out collapse. 

Hariri’s decision came as no surprise given his deep-running differences with President Michel Aoun and the president’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil. The prime minister-designate submitted his proposed cabinet to the president and give him only a few hours to decide. After a meeting with Aoun, Hariri announced that he couldn’t agree with the president on the proposed cabinet.

“It is clear we will not be able to agree with his Excellency the president,” Hariri told reporters after a 20-minute meeting with Aoun. “That is why I excuse myself from government formation.”

He justified his decision by saying that Aoun had requested fundamental changes to a cabinet line-up he had presented to him on Wednesday. According to Hariri, the president also requested more time to do consultations. But Hariri refused to give Aoun enough time to think and maybe negotiate about the cabinet line-up. 

Forming a government has never been an easy task in the sectarian system of Lebanon. Prime minister-designates would always try to build consensus among various politico-religious factions before any government formation. Even Hariri himself had abided by these factional rules to forming his previous governments.

But this time, Hariri struck a slightly discordant note, knowing that his stepping down would further complicate the situation and increase the pressure on his political rivals. After stepping down, Harari mounted an attack on Hezbollah, accusing it of obstructing his efforts to form a technocratic government. 

Hariri was named by Aoun on October 22, 2020, to form a government after the Hassan Diab government resigned in the wake of a devastating blast at Beirut Port in August last year that razed to the ground much of the city. At that time, Harari portrayed himself as the savior of Lebanon, which continued to sink deeper into an economic crisis ever since 2019. Over the past nine months, since he began the government formation efforts, Lebanon’s economy continued to tailspin into chaos, with widespread power outages and lack of basic goods as well as the sharp loss of the value of the country’s currency against the U.S. dollar. 

This dire situation has caused many observers to ignore the fact that Hariri himself is part of the system that created these problems in the first place. Hariri was prime minister when an unprecedented wave of protests swept across Lebanon in 2019, prompting him to tender resignation to Aoun amid chants by the protesters demanding the change of all the political class. Hariri parted way with his onetime partners in the government in the belief that the protesters’ anger would be directed at them. The Beirut blast provided him with a golden opportunity for both returning to power and accusing his rivals of incompetence. 

A year after his resignation, Hariri was once again nominated by Aoun to form the government. By this time, Lebanon’s economy was in shambles. Again, Hariri saw an opportunity for smearing his rivals by accusing them of blocking his efforts to save the country’s deteriorating economy.

But instead of making consultations with Lebanese factions, Hariri spent most of his time traveling to countries such as France, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Egypt in the hopes of getting support from these countries. He spent more time traveling abroad than consulting with Lebanese political factions. 

Pundits believe that this approach embroiled Lebanon in a worse situation where foreign countries would demand concessions in exchange for their support. This happened with Saudi Arabia, the United States, and France, which mounted a concerted effort to undermine Hezbollah while pressuring the Lebanese president into accelerating the formation of a government that would both restrict Hezbollah’s influence and implement tough economic reforms.

Saudi Arabia has refrained from giving economic aid to Lebanon while France is leading a European effort to pressure Aoun to expedite the process of forming a government. France also will host a new international conference on Lebanon next month on the first anniversary of the Beirut port explosion. 

Lebanese political sources told The Arab Weekly that the French announcement reflects the exasperation of Paris over the failure of Lebanon’s leaders to end a political and economic crisis that dates back to well before the explosion.

Europe also threatened Lebanese politicians with sanctions if they failed to form a government. These pressures could be designed to make Aoun accept the next cabinet line-up without insisting on compliance with the long-standing power-sharing rules in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Israel and its allies could seek to use the deteriorating situation in Lebanon to undermine Hezbollah by portraying it as the main cause of the country’s dire economic crisis. Western countries and their allies in the region refused to provide Lebanon with economic aids by conditioning these aids on reducing the influence of Hezbollah. This is part of a broader policy to keep Hezbollah busy with internal issues, according to an opinion piece published by Al Mayadeen.

And when this plan did not succeed, Al Mayadeen said, the choice was a political vacuum and the destruction of the economic system by targeting the banking system in Lebanon. According to Al Mayadeen, in Israel there are two trends: the first believes that the conditions in Lebanon will form Hezbollah's priority concern in the internal Lebanese affairs, which diverts it from the priority of confronting Israel and changing the rules of engagement with it for its own benefit. And the second trend believes that the state of chaos in Lebanon will give Hezbollah more strength and control over the south and the state, and that it will be able to divert the attention of the Lebanese from their crises and take them in the direction of war with Israel. The author of the article believes that the second trend is overestimated and that Israel prefers the first one. 

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