Anxious to salvage his reputation after a major political defeat, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab tendered his government’s resignation on August 10, blaming it on decades of corruption that has supposedly become larger than the Lebanese state itself. While his characterization of said corruption is not far off the mark, Diab’s speech made it seem as if he had not lived in Lebanon for decades, participated in its politics and political life, or noticed the scourge that has now deprived him of his wish to be the country’s savior. Listening to him excoriating the corrupt political class prompts one to question whether the former American University of Beirut professor really had a clue about the mission he undertook when Hezbollah and its allies chose him last January to steer the ship of state through Lebanon’s choppy waters.
Now in caretaker capacity, Diab will merely run the moribund bureaucracy as the country’s president, Michel Aoun, Hezbollah/the Party of God, and their supporters and opponents converge upon the task of choosing an acceptable candidate for premier, one who would be able to form a new cabinet. The process is going to be very difficult and even more divisive than in the past. Nevertheless, Lebanon needs a quick turnaround to address its calamitous conditions, which were exacerbated exponentially by the August 4th explosion at the Port of Beirut. The economy is still in collapse as inflation soars and the exchange rate of the Lebanese pound to the US dollar vaporizes the people’s ability to fend for themselves.
As for the aftermath of the explosion itself, health authorities have declared that, so far, some 200 persons have perished, thousands have been injured, and hundreds of thousands have been made homeless or displaced. While the blast has caused some $3 billion in direct damage, its collective economic impact may reach as high as $15 billion. This is all after the country failed to persuade international financial institutions to help it address its gradual but devastating economic catastrophe before the Port of Beirut went up in flames.
A French-sponsored international donors conference on August 9th netted some $300 million, an amount representing welcome humanitarian assistance to deal with the immediate effect of the explosion. Lebanon’s larger needs will wait until donors, investors, governments, and international lending institutions are convinced of an effective reform agenda that Lebanon, so far, has not been able to provide, let alone implement. But such a reform agenda does not appear to be possible so long as the same political class, benefiting from a labyrinthine sectarian patronage system, controls the levers of power. There is no doubt that Diab meant well in trying to corral the forces of corruption; his mission, however, became more difficult because he possessed no political power of his own and was made to push a certain political and economic agenda agreed upon by Hezbollah and President Aoun. Indeed, his tenure was inconsequential. His was a fool’s errand: he signed onto ideas and projects without regard to their efficacy and utility, mainly because the Hezbollah-Aoun duo cherished them. To be sure, he pretended to lead a governmental effort to change an ossified system, only to discover that his struggles led nowhere. In fact, Diab ended up being the scapegoat he was always intended to be; all along, neither the Lebanese nor the international community believed he could lead the country away from the abyss.
The question now is who can be a proper replacement to form a government that gives the Lebanese people and those in the international community the confidence in a chief executive for Lebanon. A related and pivotal question is whether the Lebanese political system will even allow such a successor to be appointed. In addition to the necessary task of rooting out corruption and corralling the bureaucratic machinery of the state to address the unprecedented political and socioeconomic conditions in the country, that person will have to satisfy the demands of the majority of Lebanese for a radical change from old politics.
At this moment there is a political vacuum brought about by the collapse of the Hezbollah-sponsored political process, which helped bring Diab to Le Grand Serail (the prime minister’s headquarters), and by the inability of the official opposition––those outside of that process––to provide an alternative. It is indeed very doubtful that Hezbollah and Aoun, no matter the degree of control they have, would be able to choose another nonentity like Diab. Equally unlikely is that the former premier, Saad Hariri, would be given the nod because he and others before him had a string of failures that helped bring the country to the current disastrous juncture.
Simultaneously, however, there are inchoate ideas emanating from a nascent popular movement that began in earnest in October 2019 but still has not coalesced around a specific program for change. The strongest element of this movement is its non-sectarian composition, which undoubtedly makes it a true representative of a new nationalist ethos. Perhaps this is what exposed it to the ire and persecution of sectarian forces supporting the Hezbollah-Aoun duopoly. In fact, it was also a threat to other forces outside this power base, those that still benefited from the sectarian system.
The protesters of October 2019 demanded an independent and technocratic government led by a person who was proven to be neutral and capable of regaining the confidence of the public and the international community. Such a government could supervise the writing of a new electoral law that does away with sectarian quotas and divisions, makes the entire country one electoral district, and governs a new round of early elections on the basis of proportional representation. An added and essential ingredient is a license to prosecute an anti-corruption agenda, one that would convince the Lebanese that their country could return from the abyss of corruption. For the international community, this government would give assurances that future assistance to help fix Lebanon’s problems would not be purloined by the same politicians who have led the Lebanese state to its failure.
Despite the dire circumstances, hope for Lebanon must not be sacrificed to despair. The country possesses the intellectual and technical expertise to truly rise from the ashes of destruction. If the explosion at the Port of Beirut illustrated something positive, it was the country’s youth rushing with rudimentary implements to clean the streets before the failed Lebanese state even showed up at the scene of destruction. An opportunity has arisen in Beirut to really build a new nation one hundred years after the creation of Greater Lebanon in 1920. It must not be wasted.