No Light at the End of Lebanon’s Long and Dark Tunnel

By all accounts, Lebanon is a desperate case. The severe fiscal crises portend an extended economic depression ahead. The country has been in political paralysis since new protests started in October 2019 and on a strict lockdown since mid-January of this year due to the outbreak of COVID-19 cases and a rise in the death toll. There has been no accountability in the killing of over 200 people in the Port of Beirut explosion in August 2020 nor in the assassination of Lebanese activist Lokman Slim in February, reinforcing the state of lawlessness in the country. There simply seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for Lebanon. Now, with the Biden Administration in place, the US approach toward the country is more synchronized with that of France as the Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Bechara Boutros al-Rai, calls for internationalizing the Lebanese crisis to chart a way forward. The important questions now are: will that be enough to overcome the political impasse? And what should the international community do?

The Lingering Political Impasse

It has been nearly 200 days since August 10, 2020, when Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned six days after the Beirut port explosion and his caretaker cabinet has been reluctant to govern given its lack of popular and constitutional legitimacy and an inherent inability to assert itself. It has also been nearly 130 days since former Prime Minister Saad Hariri was reappointed to form a new cabinet, almost exactly one year after he was forced to resign as premier following the public pressure of the October 2019 protests. The French initiative launched by President Emmanuel Macron in September 2020 has failed to chart a path forward to resolve the Lebanese crisis, given the level of domestic tensions and their interconnectedness with external factors. It is not clear if internationalizing the crisis further or neutralizing foreign intervention will help to resolve it, since domestic actors do not seem ready to compromise.

The political “harmony” that bound Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Saad Hariri from October 2016 (when Aoun began his term) to October 2019 (when Hariri resigned) stabilized relations between the country’s ruling elites but exacerbated corruption and mismanagement of public resources by further inhibiting any checks and balances in the political system. This ultimately accelerated the economic collapse. Aoun and Hariri have lost the chemistry that brought them to power together; ultimately, this has made them both weaker today.

More specifically, the sense of cooperation between Hariri and Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil––who heads the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and has presidential ambitions––has today turned into rivalry, if not political vendetta. This cooperation exacerbated Hariri’s already complicated relationship with Saudi Arabia as Riyadh believes Hariri’s coziness with Aoun was an appeasement of Hezbollah, the Lebanese president’s strong ally. It also had implications on Hariri’s popularity as his base and political party, the Future Movement, have become increasingly anti-Hezbollah. Saad Hariri is also being challenged by his older half-brother, Bahaa, who is expanding his role in Lebanese politics with rhetoric against Hezbollah and the ruling class, including his brother Saad.

The 2016 presidential deal Aoun struck with Hariri voided the former’s claimed anti-corruption platform that resonated with his base, hence his FPM has lost some of the public support it had previously enjoyed. Bassil, who was sanctioned last November by the Trump Administration, has hardened his position on forming the government. The FPM recently noted that its 15-year alliance with Hezbollah has failed to build a state, which could be a subtle criticism that Hezbollah is not supporting Aoun enough in his feud with Hariri and has remained relatively neutral.

Both Aoun and Hariri are seeking to reassert themselves by claiming their executive rights in the constitution to form and sign off on the government. By implicitly playing on the sectarian instincts of the powers of the Maronite president and the Sunni premier, they are shoring up their respective bases and deflecting blame from their joint responsibility in the economic crisis, while gaining time until external factors allow the formation of a Lebanese government.

At this point, the internal and external preconditions to form a Lebanese government have not yet materialized.

Former US President Donald Trump’s aggressive approach toward the Iranian regime and its proxies, coupled with the full Saudi disengagement during Lebanon’s gradual collapse, have further complicated Lebanese politics. Hezbollah is less keen to concede in Lebanon before there is clarity in the path of US-Iran nuclear talks. The Iranian regime is using both intimidation and engagement via Lebanon to send signals, and the Biden Administration will have a difficult balance to achieve between engaging Tehran and advancing its interests in Lebanon. At this point, the internal and external preconditions to form a Lebanese government have not yet materialized.

Bkerki Takes Center Stage in Lebanese Politics

Against this background, the Maronite patriarch is raising the alarm and attempting to alter the dynamics of the Lebanese crisis. Bkerki, the Episcopal see of the Maronite Patriarchate of Antioch, has historically played a significant role in national politics. It also has a complex relationship with the current Lebanese president. The former Maronite patriarch, the late Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, politically challenged Aoun when the latter was appointed prime minister, heading a military government in the late 1980s, by endorsing the regionally and internationally sponsored Taif Accords. These accords ended the Lebanese war, allowed the Syrian regime to control Lebanon, and sent Aoun into exile in France. Nearly three decades later, Bkerki is once again challenging Aoun. Throughout history, the presidential palace and Bkerki often competed on who holds the Maronites’ popular support in the country, but they rarely crossed the red line in their interactions. This rule is not expected to change moving forward.

When first appointed by the Vatican in March 2011, Rai was perceived as more politically inclined toward Aoun and the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance, which was closer to the Syrian regime during its rule over Lebanon. This was a divergence from his predecessor, Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, who was outspoken in his affinity to the March 14 Alliance that was challenging the Syrian control over the country. Lebanon is slowly reverting to this political divide between those who are pro-western versus those who are pro-Iranian regime.

In front of a crowd gathering in Bkerki on February 27, Rai affirmed a series of positions in a direct challenge to Aoun and Hezbollah, without naming them. Criticizing Aoun’s refusal of all proposals to form a government, he said: “We are facing a full-fledged coup attempt.” Rai has been mediating for months between Aoun and Hariri, and he seems to believe that Aoun is purposely delaying the government formation to assume enough power for making decisions without a functional cabinet.

Rai also rebuked Aoun’s call for amending the constitution and restoring some powers of the Maronite president, noting that any call to improve the political system should ensure the principles of neutrality, democracy, and Christian-Muslim partnership. The patriarch called for an international conference to help Lebanon demarcate its border and to implement UN Security Council resolutions by ensuring that only the Lebanese armed forces be “Lebanon’s sole defender”—in a subtle reference to Hezbollah’s militant activities and weapons. Rai noted that Lebanon is not looking to have international troops or military bases, but he did not elaborate on how the international community could affectively use pressure to achieve the objectives of helping the country.

There are some observations to make when it comes to Rai’s latest move. First, the patriarch’s call to hold an international conference to force a solution to the Lebanese crisis inherently contradicts his simultaneous call for securing a neutral foreign policy for the country. It also illustrates the extent of despair in Lebanese politics. Second, Rai and Hariri are edging closer to each other politically. In remarks on February 12, Hariri highlighted the need for neutrality in Lebanese foreign policy, noting that “there is no way out of the crisis … without a deep reconciliation with our Arab brothers and an end to using the country as a staging point for attacking Gulf countries and threatening their interests.” However, Hariri is too weak and too eager to return to power to play a significant role against Aoun. Third, the Maronite patriarch has officially opened the presidential battle to replace Aoun in the fall of 2022 and prevent Bassil from becoming president, which means more paralysis in Lebanese politics until a new president is selected, even if a government were to be formed before that time.

The Maronite patriarch has officially opened the presidential battle to replace Aoun in the fall of 2022 and prevent Bassil from becoming president, which means more paralysis in Lebanese politics until a new president is selected, even if a government were to be formed before that time.

Rai’s move tests the major internal and external actors in Lebanese politics. Hezbollah and Aoun are seeking to contain Rai’s move because of the implications of such a confrontation with him. Neither is Bkerki open to such an imminent political battle. Hezbollah parliamentarian Hassan Fadlallah said that “internationalizing is a threat to Lebanon, and we have seen what happened in Libya, Yemen and Iraq.” Bkerki and Hezbollah are exchanging messages after a period of tense relations that started when Hezbollah was critical of the patriarch’s visit to Jerusalem in 2014, which meant passing through Israeli border authorities. Rai seems to be hoping to change the calculations of Hezbollah.

What Can the International Community Do?

Similar to the French initiative, there is little that Rai can do without domestic and foreign support; most notably, there does not seem to be a US-French appetite to open a political front in Lebanon. The US-French joint statement in February commemorating the six-month anniversary of the Beirut port explosion showed a lack of commitment to pressure Lebanese leaders on issues of reform and accountability. The statement spoke about expecting “rapid results on the inquiry into the causes of the explosion” without mentioning any threat of sanctions or referring to accountability, as Washington and Paris hinted in the last few months. However, they reinforced the message that any “longer-term structural support for Lebanon” is contingent on forming a credible government that implements reforms. The United States has scaled down its rhetoric on Lebanon under the Biden Administration and is now closer to the French approach, which means hinting about incentives to form a government rather than punitive measures if a Lebanese government is not formed. However, it is expected that Washington and Paris will continue to have different priorities and calculations in Lebanon moving forward.

One thing is certain: Lebanon will not be as high on the priorities of Biden’s administration as it was during Trump’s. The challenge led by Patriarch Rai might at some point force Lebanon onto the agenda of the Biden Administration, which is still figuring out its Middle East strategy and has yet to have a Lebanon policy to articulate. Rai’s urgent call could push Hezbollah to pressure Aoun to facilitate the formation of the Lebanese government. That will only be reinforced if the United States and Iran start at least a limited engagement, which at some point will compel Aoun and Hariri to find a way to coexist in power once again.

The challenge led by Patriarch Rai might at some point force Lebanon onto the agenda of the Biden Administration, which is still figuring out its Middle East strategy and has yet to have a Lebanon policy to articulate.

The Bkerki initiative argues that Lebanon’s woes have to do with neutrality of the political system; however, the systemic collapse is the result of decades of mismanagement and corruption, including by religious institutions and the banking system. The Lebanese pound has lost nearly 80 percent of its value to the US dollar and the annual inflation rate reached 400 percent last December. All of this means that more social unrest is expected this year.

It is not clear whether Washington or Tehran want to take full responsibility for the mess they helped create, directly or indirectly. This lingering and recurring stalemate has paralyzed Lebanon and shifted the discussion away from the change and reform demands of the Lebanese uprisings to a governing crisis among the ruling elites. Rai’s urgent call aims to revive the existing political system rather than to change or reform it, hence shifting the debate instead to whether the Lebanese oligarchy will find a new power-sharing formula. The international community is also pushing them in this direction, and this points to the absurdity of doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. In the end, only if the Lebanese rise again and organize themselves beyond protests will they force a new agenda on the international community, one that will ultimately save Lebanon.