Prime Minister Saad Hariri was reluctant to include a Hezbollah-friendly Sunni in the government as it would signal a loss of his authority over the Sunnis, but he eventually yielded.

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad al Hariri meet ahead of a new government announcement at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon, January 31, 2019.
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad al Hariri meet ahead of a new government announcement at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon, January 31, 2019. (Mohamed Azakir / Reuters)

The nine-month long deadlock ended as the elected in Lebanon managed to compromise on ministerial positions and formed a government. 

Prime Minister Saad Hariri met President Michel Aoun on Thursday evening and announced a 30-member government. 

“Economy,” he said, "will be the government’s main focus." Lebanon has one of the highest public debts in the world at $84 billion, 149 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. The unemployment rate is already at 36 percent. 

Lebanon is expected to cut down on public spending by undertaking major economic reforms such as reducing public employment, ending electricity subsidies, cutting retirement benefits, as well as cracking down on tax evasion.

The idea is that reforms will enable the private sector to create jobs over time and lead to an overall growth of Lebanon. 

Jad Chaaban, a Lebanese economist and activist, raised doubts over the plan in an article he wrote mid-January. He said unless the root causes of the economic crisis in Lebanon are addressed, little would be achieved. 

He wrote, “Ruling politicians from all political parties have used the public sector to strengthen their grip on the country, and have covered up corruption and waste, which have led to an increasing debt and their own enrichment.” 

Blaming the all-powerful banking sector, Chaaban added, “Commercial banks’ greed and collusion with the ruling class has secured them substantive earnings on public debt holdings, a situation they have enjoyed for an excessively long time.” 

In an interview with TRT World, Chaaban said the urgency should be to bring in laws to end rampant corruption. Reducing public spending, he said, is not the mantra that would resolve all problems. Instead he argued that effective public spending – and not one which deepens clientelistic networks of politicians – is much needed in hospitals, schools and other sectors. 

The assessment is shared by many others who fear that the presence of sectarian politicians – Lebanon has a ‘consociationalist’ political system under which parliamentarians are elected on the basis of their sect – will continue to use public funding selectively to please their vote-banks and not for the welfare of all Lebanese. 

The earnestness to tackle corruption, Chaaban said, is hard to come by. “This requires a u-turn in political decision making from the very top. I do not see that happening,” he added. 

“The nature of the Lebanese government is such that much of the funds are spent outside the system, which allows the politicians to bypass institutions and facilitates corruption, “ he said. 

In all that is grim, there is some good news too. Lebanon shall soon be able to access grants and loans worth $11 billion pledged to it in Paris at the CEDRE – a conference organized to strengthen the Lebanese economy as part of a comprehensive plan for reform and for infrastructure investments – last year. The extraction of the money was dependent on Lebanon forming a government and building confidence among the donors that the country isn’t slipping into chaos. 

Lebanon is in a constant state of economic and political flux. Limping forward is considered a huge achievement here. While it remains to be seen how well the government performs in assuaging the concerns of the people and manages to create better health care and jobs, politically the strings of power are still under the control of Hezbollah: the Iranian-backed Shia paramilitary-cum-political movement. 

After refusing to concede to Hezbollah’s demand on assigning a ministry to one of the six Sunnis it backed in the elections, Hariri finally gave in. 

Until mid-December, the Hariri camp was vehemently opposed to including a Hezbollah-affiliated Sunni MP in the cabinet. 

Ahmad Hariri, Prime Minister Hariri’s cousin, had said that the leader of the Sunnis, Saad Hariri, will not be blackmailed by Hezbollah. He had said, “Hariri is being asked to submit to Hezbollah’s will. This is not going to happen, not today, not tomorrow and not in 100 years.” 

Hariri’s Future Movement lost many seats it previously held in the last elections while Hezbollah along with its allies, and men it supported, scored a majority. 

Hariri was reluctant to include a Hezbollah-friendly Sunni in the government as it would signal a loss of his authority over the Sunnis, eventually the posturing did not get much and he yielded. As has been the trend, it was him who had to bow down to the wishes of the dominant political power in Lebanon.  

The result: this government has seen an increase in the number of Hezbollah- affiliated lawmakers to three. Its Shia ally, the Amal Movement, also has three ministers. Add that up with the Christian allies of Michel Aoun’s party and Hezbollah is pretty much exercising control over the country instead of the Western- and Saudi-backed prime minister. 

The United States categorizes Hezbollah as a terrorist group and opposed Hezbollah being given the health ministry, which has the fourth-largest budget. Even there, Hezbollah has managed to have its say, albeit indirectly. 

Jamal Jabak, a doctor and earlier the physician of Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah, although not a member of the group is very close to it. He has secured the health ministry.  

Thanassis Cambanis, the author of a book on Hezbollah and a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, defined the distribution of ministries as an “artful dodge” by the new government. He said it allows business as usual to continue, “unless the leaders in Washington or Riyadh decide they want to set an example in Lebanon – which both have shown a willingness to do without regard for the consequences in Lebanon.” 

Other experts agreed and said that a semi-functioning Lebanese state is better than one where a government is absent. 

Making it clear there will be consequences, the US has responded harshly to the appointment of a Hezbollah man as health minister. Marshall Billingslea, the US Treasury’s assistant secretary, was quoted by the local media warning that if in fact Hezbollah exploits the health ministry funds for its terrorists agendas, “Then we have significant problems,” he told reporters. 

The Lebanese people have been protesting against the deteriorating economic situation and corruption in a string of demonstrations over the last two months. Despite the formation of the government they do not expect much. 

“It is the same people in power,” said a young man looking for a job. 

As long as power in Lebanon is divided among sectarian leaders, protesters have said, nothing will change for the people. 

Source: TRT World