Lebanon Chooses a Prime Minister, Thwarting the Protesters Again

Almost four weeks after the August 4th explosion that destroyed the Port of Beirut and a good portion of the city itself, most Lebanese politicians recommended the country’s ambassador to Germany, Mustafa Adib, to President Michel Aoun for the post of prime minister-designate. Parliamentary deputies allied with four former prime ministers––Fouad Siniora, Najib Miqati, Saad Hariri, and Tammam Salam (by custom, all Sunni Muslims)––as well as those of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, and the AMAL Movement have given him the needed majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Adib will be tasked with forming a government whose mission will be to extricate Lebanon from its deep political and economic problems. The current caretaker premier, Hassan Diab, submitted his cabinet’s resignation on August 10th following six months of utter failure to address the country’s troubles and, especially, the serious human, infrastructural, economic, and political upheaval in the aftermath of the explosion.

It may be easy to ignore the comparison between Diab and Adib, two previously unknown non-politicians who were chosen for both their lack of an independent political base and inability to chart a courageous path in Lebanon’s labyrinthine politics. But one difference stands out in this regard: while Diab was chosen without the support of the quartet of former prime ministers, Adib has the luxury of piggybacking on the latter’s weight in parliament and latent influence in the bureaucracy. Concomitantly, as Diab failed to convince the Lebanese and the regional and international communities that he was the man for the job––due to the fact that the Hezbollah-Aoun duo chose him––Adib may be able to rely on the connections the former premiers have with the Sunni street in Lebanon as well as the outside world. In essence, he may have more institutional heft to carry out his mandate.

Both Diab and Adib have the unfortunate characteristic of not bringing to the table what Lebanon needs today or what protesters against the entire political system demand. 

However, both Diab and Adib have the unfortunate characteristic of not bringing to the table what Lebanon needs today or what protesters against the entire political system demand. Diab’s appointment last January was a slapdash attempt by Hezbollah and Aoun to circumvent the protesters’ demands for deep reforms and to sidestep the impact of Saad Hariri’s resignation in light of the October 2019 public agitation. To be sure, Diab was a Sunni fill-in because traditional Sunni politicians refused to continue participating in government as their supporters joined the demonstrations against the political process. Adib’s appointment, on the other hand, is likely to be used to convince protesters that he can be an acceptable alternative because he enjoys more political support and may be able to hasten outside assistance to address the current dire conditions.

But these calculations may not satisfy the street. Protesters not only want urgent change in the political system but also restitution and quick punishment of the entire political class, which they accuse of being responsible for the conditions that led to the Beirut explosion. In fact, in addition to Diab, two of the four former premiers who recommended Adib––Hariri and Salam––had also led the successive governments during the period when the dangerous ammonium nitrate was stored at the Port of Beirut. The protesters see no answer for their demands in Adib’s designation nor do they trust that any government he forms under the same old rules of politics will represent them. Instead, they believe that it will perpetuate the same conditions that have led the country to its present situation. To them, all politicians who have been part of the current system must depart.

The protesters see no answer for their demands in Adib’s designation nor do they trust that any government he forms under the same old rules of politics will represent them.

For the international community, Adib’s choice may be viewed as a positive step: it could mollify the demands for deep reforms that potential donor countries and organizations have imposed on any future assistance to the country. So far, Lebanon has conducted unsuccessful negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for billions in loans to help the Lebanese economy and rescue its currency. Fund heavyweights like the United States and European countries are also not rushing to help. With a unified parliamentary constituency, Adib may be perceived as the best Lebanon can offer at the present time, someone who could shepherd the investigation into the Beirut explosion through the system and assign responsibilities and sanctions.

Choosing him would also satisfy French President Emmanuel Macron who visits Beirut on the one-hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the current Lebanese polity in 1920 at the hands of French mandatory authorities. News reports from Beirut indicate* that Macron has known about the possibility of Adib as a pick for the premiership since August 28 and indeed approved the choice. On this second visit to Lebanon in less than a month, Macron is said to be determined to force Lebanese leaders to finally confront their sectarian demons and mutual fears and allow for radical reforms in the confessional political system—ironically one that his country and others have admired since the early days of the Lebanese Republic.

On August 6th, two days after the Beirut explosion, Macron visited the devastated streets in the port area––even before the country’s own leaders made a move to inspect the blast––and was received as a savior. He also gathered politicians of all stripes to, first, berate them about their performance and, second, cajole them to shed their traditional fears and views in favor of a restructured political system that is responsive to the people’s demands.

In fact, Macron was the only foreign leader willing to gamble with his political stature and influence to try to aid Lebanon in a meaningful way after regional and international leaders practically decided to let the country lick its wounds alone and merely offered some humanitarian relief. It is expected that the French president will use his good offices to help the new premier-designate; but will Lebanese politicians allow Adib to do what Macron wants? What also is unknown is the extent to which Macron will insist on pushing Lebanon’s politicians––and Adib––to implement some desperately needed reforms in the country’s politics and economy. Will Macron be satisfied enough to persuade others around the world to do the same?

Finally, whatever Macron’s hopes and desires are, they pale in comparison to what the Lebanese people are demanding, which is reform that begets more reform in the political system, the economy, and the state and its institutions. Adib may enjoy the support of myriad political forces and personalities, but his success will hinge on his ability to move the mountain of corruption, political inertia, patronage, and government inefficiency. Anything short of that will prove him to be yet another inconsequential prime minister presiding over Lebanon’s march over the cliff.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here

* Source is in Arabic.