Hezbollah a ‘major architect’ of Lebanon’s new government

Analysts say Lebanon’s new contested cabinet must regain international community’s trust and stem economic crisis.

Lebanon''s President Michel Aoun heads the first meeting of the new cabinet at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun heads the first meeting of the new cabinet at the presidential palace in Baabda [Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – The formation of a new government in Lebanon after months of political deadlock is unlikely to quell continuing protests, analysts say.

The new government, which consists of 20 ministers, is led by the newly-appointed Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who has been the frontrunner for the position for weeks.

His government is expected to face economic collapse and widespread corruption – something hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have been protesting since October.

In its first meeting on Wednesday, the cabinet pledged to form a ministerial committee that includes the finance, judicial, and foreign ministers. Also expected is a government plan to address pressing issues grappling the country, including its banking and electricity crises.

Describing it as a rescue government, Diab said the new cabinet does not represent a political group or party.

Although the ministers are a mix of professionals and former political advisers, experts say the lineup does not live up to the expectations of the people who have been demanding a technocrat-led government.

‘One colour’ government

There are two major political coalitions in Lebanon: March 8 and March 14. The first most notably includes former Prime Minister Saad Hariri‘s Sunni-led party, and the latter includes Iran’s backed Hezbollah movement and its allies.

The deal for a new cabinet came after an agreement by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a major parliamentary bloc, and its allies including the Free Patriotic Movement led by Gibran Bassil, President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law.

Hariri’s Future Movement party and others aligned to the west and Saudi Arabia have had no influence over the decision.

People were quick to express their dissent on social media, calling the new cabinet a “one colour” government aligned to Hezbollah.

Imad Salamey, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University, said Hezbollah was a “major architect” of the new lineup of ministers to whom it “owes allegiance and depends on its survival amid public unrest”.

Its makeup does not live up to the protesters’ aspirations in “formation nor orientation”, Salamey told Al Jazeera.

Similarly, Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, said this was the case mainly because most of the new ministers are related to a political party.

“Basically they could not have become ministers had they not been endorsed by the different political parties,” Yahya told Al Jazeera.

While the new government represents the traditional, confessional-based power-sharing system, it has been a hallmark of the protest demands.

Calls to dismantle ruling parties, that include groups which transitioned into politics since Lebanon’s civil war, have also been a major demand of the protesters.

Mona Fawaz, professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the American University of Beirut, said the process of selecting the cabinet did fall into the “typical” power-sharing system that the political class has “mastered” in Lebanon.

She also noted that several ministers are closely affiliated to banks, which might not sit well with the people.

“[This], at a moment in our history where we expect a government to address the financial crisis without favouring banks at the expense of people, is a very bad omen,” Fawaz, who is a backer of the protests, said.

Challenges ahead

While it has come to light that the new government, despite some independent figures, mostly consists of ministers linked to the political elite, the government not only has to gain public trust, its most significant challenge is to stem economic deterioration.

Yahya said the current crisis is so deep it “threatens the sustainability of Lebanon”.

“I don’t think we can underestimate, or overemphasise, how challenging this crisis is. It’s a triple crisis on the economic front … there’s also a political crisis overlaying all of this,” she said.

Over the past few months, the Lebanese lira lost about a third of its value against the US dollar, deepening the country’s economic crisis.

A shortage of foreign exchange led banks to enforce capital controls, which has prevented many from being able to withdraw their earnings and savings.

Banks have also capped weekly withdrawals at a few hundred dollars while limiting international transfers. The move led people to lose trust in the country’s banking system, further shaking the economic stability.

Another pressing challenge facing the current government is to regain international confidence in its ability to impose economic reforms, professor Salamey said.

“But this requires, among others matters, attracting Arab and western financial support that has been withdrawn due to growing Hezbollah political influence in the country,” Salamey said.

“It is unlikely that this government will be able to present itself as detached from Hezbollah and the Syrian regime,” he said, referencing Hezbollah’s support for the Syrian government that is struggling to return to the international community.

With Hezbollah seemingly running the show, western donors, in particular, may withdraw support to Lebanon. The Iran-backed movement has been designated a terrorist organisation by the United States government. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union have also designated the group or its military wing as a terrorist organisation.

This may lead to a situation that would most likely “expedite the country economic collapse and political chaos”, Salamey warned.

‘Police violence’

Last week, two days of violence marred the mostly peaceful protests that began on October 17. Security forces fired rubber-coated bullets, water cannon, and tear gas canisters at protesters, injuring more than 460 people.

The violence continued on Wednesday with police using water cannon to contain protesters throwing rocks in Beirut.

Despite condemnation from the United Nations and international rights groups, Fawaz believes that the state strategy to respond to protesters will include increasing “police violence”.

According to Salamey, the only possible way to quell people’s anger is to call for an early election – a main demand – that accommodates “public aspiration for a civil state and non-confessional parliament”.

However, he does not believe that will happen. The possible scenario that might unfold if the government is unable to call for a national dialogue conference, he said, is that it resorts to “security measures” to violently suppress the protesters.

Source: Al Jazeera