Never has it been more crucial to see our cynicism and ocean-floor-low expectations proved wholly incorrect.
After endless wrangling, Lebanon’s government was put together in exactly the same way as all Lebanese governments before it — posts carved up among avaricious factions, and talk of “blocking thirds” and monopolies over ministries. This is a government compiled under the dictates of Gebran Bassil and Hassan Nasrallah, sealed with the kiss of approval from Tehran.
With central bank official Youssef Khalil as Finance Minister, former Washington envoy (and my old maths teacher) Abdallah Bouhabib as Foreign Minister, and UN envoy Najla Riachi (the sole female appointment) as Minister of Administrative Reform, there have at least been attempts to add appropriate window dressing. The question is whether the international community will suspend its disbelief and reopen the financial taps, despite Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s conspicuous failure to make tangible promises to reform the clientelist and sectarian underpinnings of a fundamentally corrupt system.
What Mikati did tearfully promise, however, is to prepare the ground for next year’s elections. If he fails in everything else, these elections are Lebanon’s sole prospect for salvation, offering citizens the opportunity to pass judgment on utterly irredeemable leaders. This is a nation where suicide rates and use of anti-depressants have gone through the roof. A once world-beating education system is collapsing because of teachers fleeing abroad, as poverty, power and internet cuts, COVID and fuel shortages make school trips impossible. Many children have been out of school since civil unrest in October 2019, and private schools and childcare particularly fell victim to the eradication of most families’ disposable income.
Key to success is whether Khalil and Riachi can restore Lebanon’s financial viability. It’s one thing to slash unaffordable subsidies, because Lebanon’s leaders have never heeded the cries of woe of its citizenry; it is quite another to call a halt to the kleptocratic schemes that allowed factional warlords to live like kings, while cash-starved infrastructure and public services functioned at the level of a failed state. There is debate over whether Khalil’s proximity to the central bank and to Nabih Berri makes him part of the problem or part of the solution.
When Lebanese consider themselves lucky if they have three hours of electricity a day, the ultimate provocation is the energy ministry going to Walid Fayyad — a member of Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, whose monopoly over this department facilitated the draining away of billions of dollars while leaving people in the dark. Likewise, Aoun’s choice of justice minister will be perceived as a means of hamstringing the various probes necessary to spotlight and address mismanagement and incompetence.
A key Hezbollah ally is new deputy prime minister, Saadeh Al-Shami, affiliated with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, while journalist Abbas Al-Hajj Hassan is to be Agriculture Minister and Hezbollah-aligned academics are assigned to the ministries of culture and public works, which have been bywords for Hezbollah corruption and institutional exploitation. As for Hezbollah being awarded the ministry of culture – I am utterly speechless!
Even those who sincerely despise those who assembled this government desperately pray for its success. Never has more been at stake for this drowning nation.
Mikati meanwhile pledged: “I will knock on the doors of Arab countries because we need to rebuild the burned bridges. Lebanon belongs to this Arab world.” But Arab states want more than fine words. Will Mikati’s administration halt the flood of narcotics arriving by the ton in Arab, African and European ports, hidden inside Lebanese-exported goods, while Beirut demonstrates zero interest in investigating how Hezbollah has transformed Lebanon into a narco state? How will Mikati address the awkward fact that Hezbollah’s closest transnational partners have been persistently firing missiles into Gulf states?
With Gulf states’ overriding concerns about Iranian hegemony over Lebanon and its neighbors, will Mikati acknowledge that his government was given the green light only after French President Emmanuel Macron’s special pleading to President Ebrahim Raisi? Ultimately, Iran arguably had no choice but to allow this government to emerge, as the unimaginable levels of human suffering even in Hezbollah strongholds increasingly augured disaster for Tehran’s protégés at the upcoming polls.
Mikati is, before all else, a long-standing friend and business partner of the Assad regime. Already we are seeing an upscaling of Lebanese official engagement with Syrian counterparts. Let’s be clear: Arab boycotts have always been a disaster. The absence of Arab engagement with Iraq after 2003, and more recently Lebanon and Syria, was an open invitation to Iranian supremacy. Hence, Arab engagement must be calibrated to maximize the interests of ordinary Syrians, while minimizing legitimization of a genocidal and criminal regime. Mikati, meanwhile, must choose his international friends and allies carefully if he is to dig Lebanon out of this hole. Eyebrows have been raised after the Mikati family business, M1, purchased a $105 million stake in the Myanmar telecoms market from a Norwegian company that pulled out after the junta insisted on installing intercept software, allowing it to more efficiently crush its populace.
There are unprecedented levels of vigilance among ordinary citizens. Missives from personnel within banks and ministries regarding institutional corruption and shortcomings are avidly followed on social media. Today we require every citizen to turn themselves into an investigative journalist and whistleblower, to monitor if and when this administration fails to perform.
This new government is the old guard’s final — final — chance. If it again becomes a rubber stamp for Tehran, or a launchpad for Bassil’s deluded presidential ambitions, these figures must be punished at the elections as nobody has ever been punished before.
Nevertheless, even those who sincerely despise those who assembled this government desperately pray for its success. Never has more been at stake for this drowning nation.
The appointment of the presenter of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” George Kurdahi — an unforgivable admirer of Assad and Nasrallah — as Information Minister symbolizes all we need to know about this new administration. Is this a rallying call for ordinary citizens to rediscover wealth and prosperity, or is it an invitation for Lebanon’s millionaire warlord elite to continue their corrupt old ways?
Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.