Conditions in Lebanon today betray a slide toward the total failure of state institutions amid a precipitous downturn of the country’s economic and social indicators. Arguably, never has a state been so bereft of a government dedicated to its survival and perpetuation, nor has a nation been this devoid of an ethos that unifies its people. It is indeed no exaggeration to state that Lebanon today is sleepwalking toward the proverbial abyss while its officials behave as if they are not responsible for the current state of affairs. To add to the severity of the crisis, Lebanon’s Arab and regional neighbors and the international community appear to have forsaken it, preferring to focus on their own strategic, political, and economic interests.
To be sure, what was once called the Switzerland of the Middle East is in danger of experiencing the total bankruptcy of its political formula, the bottoming out of its economy, and profound social disintegration, all conditions of a failed state. Confessional elites who have agreed on Lebanon’s consociational setup can no longer engineer necessary compromises, either because they have absconded from their responsibilities or retrenched to protect their positions. The economic collapse has robbed the government of the budgetary mechanisms to alleviate the dire conditions. Furthermore, the political stalemate and economic deterioration have reduced Lebanese society to an atomistic and individualistic struggle to stay afloat amid chaos and instability. This may very well lead the country to a military explosion that engulfs everyone.
The government of Prime Minister Najib Miqati has not met in official session since October 12 when Shia ministers affiliated with Hezbollah and the Amal Movement announced their boycott of cabinet meetings. They were protesting what they considered the politicization of the investigation into the August 4, 2020 explosion at the Port of Beirut. The investigating judge, Tarek Bitar, had summoned former ministers of different political stripes, some of whom now are members of parliament, for questioning about their role in storing the ammonium nitrate that caused the blast and ensuing devastation at the port and its surroundings. The accused have filed numerous protests and motions to stop Bitar’s investigation or to force him to quit, but these have been rejected by judicial authorities; the latest such rejection was issued on December 7. Bitar himself appears to be steadfast in his mission, despite these motions and obstructions. In the end, whether he succeeds in bringing anyone to justice remains uncertain despite public clamor, especially from the victims’ relatives who are slowly losing confidence that those responsible will be held accountable.
The government of Prime Minister Najib Miqati has not met in official session since October 12 when Shia ministers affiliated with Hezbollah and the Amal Movement announced their boycott of cabinet meetings.
Two former Amal Movement ministers and current parliamentarians—Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zuaiter—were among the accused and summoned, but they have refused to appear in front of Bitar. As its ultimate ally in the political system, Hezbollah has thrown its weight behind Amal in defending the two officials. For his part, Khalil—the right-hand man of powerful Speaker of Parliament and Amal Movement leader Nabih Berri—has accused Bitar of leading the country to civil war. On October 14, the two parties organized a protest to demand the judge’s dismissal, but it incited street battles in which six were killed and 30 were injured. They subsequently accused their main Christian challenger, the Lebanese Forces Party headed by former warlord Samir Geagea, of ambushing the protesters, in the process setting the stage for confessional confrontations. As of this writing, Hezbollah and Amal continue to boycott, and indeed stall, the government.
The return of the government to work is vital. In addition to trying to arrest the economic slide, the government must prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections next year; without them, the stalemate is likely to continue and outside economic assistance will be delayed. But these elections, too, have their own sets of complications and calculations.
Originally set for May 2022, these were pushed up to late March. A parliamentary majority voted to amend the 2017 electoral law because the original followed the holy month of Ramadan, during which fasting and religious activities would limit campaigning. Another vote passed to disapprove a proposal to designate six seats to represent the Lebanese diaspora. Both of these votes were rejected by President Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) in parliament. The FPM appealed the votes to the country’s Constitutional Council which on December 21 failed to rule on the appeal, meaning that the amendments to the electoral law will stand.
The FPM appealed the votes to the country’s Constitutional Council which on December 21 failed to rule on the appeal, meaning that the amendments to the electoral law will stand.
Aoun and his FPM say that the March date coincides with cold weather and the Lent period and would result in smaller turnout. They also protested Parliament’s rejection of the proposal to allow Lebanese to vote according to their current places of residence instead of their ancestral homes, as has been the case since the creation of the country. The FPM also considers the diaspora vote to be very important for its electoral fortunes. Approximately 245,000 Lebanese expats have registered to vote, more than two and a half times the 93,000 who did so in the last election in 2018. But the FPM may very well be mistaken in counting on diaspora voters since most tend to be critics of current political conditions in Lebanon and blame the entire ruling class, including the president’s circle, for causing the country’s collapse.
The presidential polls are set for late October 2022, six years after the election of President Aoun who, by all indications, is bent on supporting the nomination of his son-in-law Gebran Bassil—who also leads the FPM parliamentary bloc. But hopes for the presidential round depend on the results of the parliamentary poll since the Chamber of Deputies chooses the president, first by a two-thirds majority and then, failing that, with a simple majority of 65 deputies out of 128 (at present, this would be 59 out of 117 because 11 members have either resigned or died since the last election). Currently, an FPM-Hezbollah majority controls the chamber and the two parties are maneuvering for a parliamentary election that reproduces this majority. Still, there is no guarantee that Bassil will become president, even if that comes to pass, since Hezbollah has other Maronite allies who count on the party’s support in a presidential bid. On the other hand, if that majority is lost following the election, neither Bassil nor any other Hezbollah ally has a chance of holding the presidency.
There is no guarantee that Bassil will become president since Hezbollah has other Maronite allies who count on the party’s support in a presidential bid.
Competitors and the popular opposition fear that Aoun’s partisans and the Hezbollah-Amal duo are planning for a number of scenarios, given Hezbollah’s influence on the political process. First, they could try to hold the presidential election before the parliamentary polls, since they currently enjoy a majority in parliament. This can assure them of a president who is fully to their liking. Second, they could force this majority to extend the tenure of the current parliament that would elect a president in October, one who could be like Aoun. Third, they could extend President Aoun’s term itself, despite his advanced age and enfeebled condition. All of these scenarios help them control the presidency for a while longer because they do not trust whether the next parliamentary round will sustain their majority or allow their opponents to control the Chamber of Deputies.
In the interim period, and until parliamentary elections at least, the Miqati government continues to suffer from stalemate and ineffectiveness, pending the fate of the Beirut explosion investigation and its presiding judge Bitar. Miqati does not appear to be interested in forcing the hand of the boycotters by calling a government meeting, fearing that it would precipitate the collapse of his cabinet. If Hezbollah’s and Amal’s ministers persist in the boycott, the meeting would be dubbed unconstitutional since the Shia component would not be present. This may very well result in the collapse and resignation of the cabinet at the time a replacement government is almost impossible to form. On the other hand, these ministers would participate in government meetings only if their original demand of firing Bitar is met, a situation that truly spells the death of whatever is left of Lebanon’s rule of law and the writ of state institutions.
In addition to other issues besetting the country, this government stalemate has been complicated by a serious—and potentially devastating—boycott of Lebanon by countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It was precipitated by statements by former Minister of Information George Kordahi criticizing Saudi involvement in the Yemen war, which became public in October. That Kordahi’s pronouncements were made months before he became minister did not assuage the boycotting Gulf states; indeed, his appointment after his infraction was even more hurtful. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Beirut and, except for the UAE, expelled Lebanon’s ambassadors from their capitals. Saudi Arabia also announced the suspension of all imports from Lebanon.
That Kordahi’s pronouncements were made months before he became minister did not assuage the boycotting Gulf states; indeed, his appointment after his infraction was even more hurtful.
What matters to the Gulf states—as was evident in comments to Al Arabiya Television by Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan on October 31—are other and more serious issues related to Hezbollah’s role in, and control of, Lebanese politics. As Kordahi first refused to resign following the diplomatic rift caused by his statements, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah went on television to defend him and criticize what he called a Saudi Arabian violation of Lebanese sovereignty. Gulf states are also concerned about Hezbollah’s role in Yemen, where its fighters are assisting the Houthis in attacking Saudi territory with ballistic missiles. So far, Kordahi’s resignation on December 3 and an intervention by French President Emmanuel Macron during a visit to the Gulf have not broken the logjam or restored essential relations between Lebanon and the Gulf states.
A recent development in Beirut could have made Lebanese-Gulf relations even harder to smooth over. A group of Bahraini dissidents belonging to the Al-Wefaq group held a news conference in southern Beirut—Hezbollah’s stronghold close to the capital. Bahraini Interior Minister Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa objected to the move in a telephone call with Lebanese Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi, who immediately issued orders to deport the Bahrainis. Such quick action followed repeated attempts by President Aoun and Prime Minister Miqati to restore relations with the Gulf, which they and most Lebanese know are essential for Lebanon’s well-being and rehabilitation. Thus far, however, Miqati can only point to a telephone call from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which was brokered by President Macron during the latter’s visit to the kingdom on December 4.
The Hope Remains in Credible Elections
As Lebanon nurses a crippled economy and financial losses of up to $69 billion, its government stalemate, elite negligence to deal with impending disasters, and regional ostracism are likely to finally push the country into the category of a failed state. To arrest the quick slide, or to slow it down, Lebanon’s institutions must hastily agree on a schedule for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in 2022. The Lebanese diaspora must be allowed to participate in these elections because it complements the calls for change and reform made by young and dedicated activists who filled the streets of Beirut in October 2019. And despite Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon and its antagonism toward the Gulf states, official Lebanon must continue to seek the restoration of good Lebanese-Gulf relations. With the current dire conditions, no one should expect the coming days and months to be easy. Indeed, state failure—if it becomes complete—would be very difficult to reverse in the absence of a national elite dedicated to protecting and salvaging institutions from the ruins of a nation that could not properly address its calamities.