In late May, in an indirect reference to the failure and cynicism of Lebanon’s politicians, a report by the World Bank underlined that the country was facing a prolonged and deliberate economic depression, which possibly ranked among the top three most severe crises since the mid 19th century.
Despite this, the country’s cabinet-formation process, which has lasted for nine months, has gotten nowhere. The prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri, has just returned to Lebanon to decide whether he will pursue his efforts or give up. Both he and President Michel Aoun have refused to compromise on their conditions and few people are optimistic they will do so in the coming weeks.
Mr Hariri does not have easy choices. Unless he shows more flexibility and imagination with Mr Aoun, and unless Mr Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil cease blocking Mr Hariri’s actions in the hope that this will make him give up on forming a cabinet, Lebanon’s disintegration will accelerate. This is a sensitive moment for Mr Hariri, whose decisions will largely determine his political future.
It is no secret that the prime minister-designate does not have unconditional support from his major regional sponsor, Saudi Arabia, which even people in his circles will admit. Nor has Mr Hariri visited the kingdom in a long time. Without Saudi endorsement, Mr Hariri’s claims that his government could attract Arab money for Lebanon’s economic revival are questionable.
While this has not prevented Mr Hariri from trying to form a government, it has determined how he has approached the process. Had he come across as too accommodating, it would have undermined his communal credibility and reinforced regional doubts about his weakness. That is why the prime minister-designate has been intransigent with Mr Aoun, and why he has refused to meet with Mr Bassil, regarded as the real decision-maker on the presidency’s side.
Yet Mr Hariri cannot be indifferent to the costs of not forming a cabinet. Amid significant domestic, and even regional, scepticism about his return to power, his inability to do so would only deepen the prime minister-designate’s political marginalisation. That is what Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil are hoping for.
Mr Hariri may be consoled by the fact that he seems to have solidified his support within the Sunni community, which has backed him in the standoff with Mr Aoun. His anticipation is that he will be able to cash in on this during parliamentary elections next spring. A successful outcome for his lists of candidates, he feels, could revive his political fortunes, put Mr Aoun on the defensive, and strengthen Mr Hariri’s hand with some of the Arab countries that doubt him today.
There is one problem, however. Because Lebanon is breaking apart and the situation is likely to only worsen by election time, Mr Hariri’s gamble may fail if he doesn’t form a government now. Because an increasing number of Lebanese will hold him partly responsible for their dire situation, the elections may well bring bad surprises for members of the political class, including Mr Hariri.
Another factor that may affect his plans is that some of Mr Hariri’s major funders are leaving Lebanon. One of his main backers, Jihad Al Arab, a businessman who had won numerous public contracts, announced recently that he was shutting his Lebanese operations and going abroad. He is apparently not the only one who has taken such a decision, which means that Mr Hariri’s patronage networks may take a significant hit at a crucial time for him.
Another problem is that Mr Hariri, if he withdraws from forming a government, may try to prevent another Sunni from taking his place by denying him the approval of his mainly Sunni parliamentary bloc. It is to avoid such an outcome that Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker and currently the principal mediator to resolve the government imbroglio, reportedly wants Mr Hariri to name a Sunni replacement if he steps down, providing him with communal legitimacy.
If Mr Hariri were to block the arrival of an alternative prime minister it would be dangerous, as the stalemate would continue, with disastrous consequences for Lebanon. It may also mean that his remaining foreign promoters – Egypt, Turkey, and Russia – abandon Mr Hariri, concluding that his motives were all about political power, not reversing Lebanon’s financial and economic free-fall.
The paradox is that in 2016 Mr Hariri had wagered that a new relationship with Mr Aoun would revive his political viability, which had taken a hit in 2011, when he was ousted as prime minister with the help of the Aounists. Mr Hariri was essential for bringing Mr Aoun to the presidency. Today, because of both local and regional constraints, he is unwilling to adapt in a similar way.
It is not difficult to win against Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil in the court of public opinion. That is how incompetent the president has been and how destructively his son-in-law has behaved. But the challenge today is not about winning the argument, but about saving Lebanon. In that regard, Mr Hariri has appaeard to be part of the problem. He will have to be careful in the months ahead as public discontent rises.