Originally published on Arab Weekly on 20/08/2020
As I write these words, Beirut is overwhelmed by the visit of high calibre foreign visitors: the French president and ministers of foreign affairs and of armed forces, the US under-secretary of state, the Turkish vice-president, the ministers of foreign affairs of Germany, Egypt, Iran and many others…
This proves anew how much love, respect and support Lebanon and the Lebanese people have from their friends around the world and gives hope that the dire economic situation is not forlorn.
However, this surge in international attention on Lebanon is not necessarily all positive. Lebanon reaches this crossroad amid the movement of political tectonic plates in the region whose main players are often blamed — rightfully — for much of Lebanon’s corrosion in the past, present and probably future.
US policy consistently prioritised Israel’s security. Therefore, facilitating a deal on the Lebanese-Israeli borders might require cutting Hezbollah “some slack” internally and delaying sanctions on the party’s brokers and allies who are squeezing the life out of Lebanon. Also prioritising the “Deal of the Century” that is slowly becoming a reality, although rejected by many, will probably cause aftershocks that will be felt in the streets of Lebanon.
On the other hand, France continues to blow hot and cold reflecting its ambivalent and perplexing policies on Lebanon. The French want to save Lebanon but pursue horse-trading between the US and Iran. They want to replace the Lebanese polity altogether but continue to befriend most of the Lebanese politicians.
Meanwhile, Iran could not care less about Lebanon and considers it as a mere pawn on the broader chess-board. They will not hesitate to sacrifice Lebanon for the survival of the regime or of its strategic assets (i.e. Hezbollah).
On the other side of the Gulf, Lebanon’s experience with the Saudi policy is bitter: They drag their allies into compromises and the Syrian quagmire, only to give up later and decide not to invest any further efforts, finances, or political support, leaving Lebanon to its doom.
With the UAE pushing for its own views, Qatar closely coordinating with both Islamists and Hezbollah, Turkey expanding its presence and influence in northern Lebanon as part of its regional policies, Russia focusing on defeating the US in Lebanon, Egypt striving to resuscitate its regional role, Lebanon finds itself dealing with a conundrum of contradictory policies and clashing interests. Such troubled times usually end up badly for the “weakest link,” a characteristic that has become a synonym for Lebanon.
On the internal level, the picture does not seem any brighter. The main political forces are exploiting the Beirut blast disaster to preserve or improve their benefits. Not only completely delusional, they are also in complete denial that the major changes that occurred in October 17 have been further entrenched with the port explosion. They fail to acknowledge that politics can no longer be “business as usual.” On the other end of the spectrum, the politically immature protest movement continues to hem and haw with the rage of a lion but the muscles of a cat.
Is there a way out?
The humanitarian crisis resulting from the Beirut explosion and the economic crisis that has been hitting Lebanon in the past year are only by-products of the real political crisis that has not been dealt with so far. Thus, responding to humanitarian needs alone will only leave Lebanon under even more significant economic pressures. Solving the bigger economic crisis can only be done through working out the political issues.
Political reform must necessarily happen with faithfulness to the “raison d’être” of this country that was initially created to be a land of freedom and refuge to the persecuted, and a bridge between the east and the west. Thus, reform must enshrine internal coexistence and external neutrality, democracy, accountability, human rights and freedom.
While venturing into the uncalculated and unwise suggestion of “system change” is neither relevant nor useful now, building state institutions on solid ground is imperative. This is necessarily at odds with the presence of armed militias as well as corrupt and uncontested leaders of various sects or populist reformists, none of whom can be part of the solution.
At this crossroad, Lebanon needs to take the right path of a credible and legitimate emergency government. It will certainly be met halfway by an international community eager to help. The next government should be impartial and independent with new figures driven by innovative governance paradigms. The top priority of such a government should be to stabilise the situation, organise snap elections and start immediately the long-overdue structural reforms.
In parallel, the international community should not commit the sin of trying to revive a factitious stability through a “national unity government” or try to provide oxygen-funding under the pretext of avoiding collapse, because this will only delay the collapse for a few months and prolong the agony of the Lebanese people.
The momentum for taking the right turn for Lebanon is there, like it has been many times before, but unfortunately looking at the international and local scenery, it is very possible that this momentum could be lost and this opportunity for change wasted.
Pity the nation that continues to be a battleground for competing international interests.
Pity the nation that continues to be led by leaders who lack basic statesmanship and who are less, much less, than what its people deserve.
Pity the nation whose reformists are as corrupt, incompetent and shortsighted as its establishment.
Pity the nation that is neither able to turn the page nor able to start a new one.
Pity the nation that is unceasingly destined to rise from its own ashes and rebuild itself.
Pity the nation… again!