After Saad Hariri resignation, any new Lebanese government would be severely tested

Even if a government of technocrats takes over – as per popular demand – it would have to work against the vested interests of the political class

epa07957969 (FILE) - Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks during a press conference in the Government palace at downtown Beirut, Lebanon, 18 October 2019 (reissued 29 October 2019). Hariri on 29 October said he will submit his resignation to the president following about two weeks of anti-government protests that started against proposed taxes and later continued against corruption and economic situation.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
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For almost two weeks, in a near universal rejection of the political class and its mismanagement of the country, well over a million Lebanese have been in the streets. They have demanded the government's resignation, its replacement by apolitical technocrats, an end to austerity as Lebanon faces a major economic crisis and accountability for the profound corruption of the politicians.

On Tuesday their demands bore fruit, when Prime Minister Saad Hariri tendered his resignation – as well as that of the government to President Michel Aoun. Mr Hariri had presented a vague reform package last week that was rejected by the protesters, even if it did show that under pressure the government could find nearly $4 billion it had not thought to tap earlier. Mr Aoun had followed this up with a lethargic address that suggested an old and tired man who was not in charge.

Ironically, the person who most hardened the government’s backbone was the Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. He had twice made a speech rejecting the departure of the government and expressed purported sympathy for the protesters while refusing to budge on any of their demands. Several days ago, party thugs descended on a downtown protest to hurl rocks and sticks at the demonstrators, injuring several people.

What has stung Hezbollah and its allies in the Amal Movement is that the nationwide protests have spread to Shiite areas, where the parties’ hegemony was thought to be complete. Despite warning against a fall of the government, Nasrallah failed to neutralise the dissatisfaction within his own community, where people have also been suffering from dismal economic conditions.

No one should expect the politicians to readily back a government expected to embody everything that is contrary to their way of doing business

More worrisome for Hezbollah were the possible consequences of the uprising. The party appeared to believe that if any concessions were made to the protesters, this could precipitate the collapse of a political order that Hezbollah carefully helped build up in the last decade to protect its interests and weapons. Worse, if popular pressure could push for change in the political system, the party feared, it might eventually encourage the public to demand Hezbollah’s disarmament, which the party regards as a red line.

Hezbollah’s attitude has provoked much criticism among protesters. But one thing the party already has to take into consideration is that its margin of manoeuvre with regard to a conflict with Israel has disappeared. If Hezbollah is asked to open a front with Israel on Iran’s behalf, this would lead to major Israeli destruction of Lebanon – Shiite areas in particular – and likely provoke an angry backlash from a population at the limits of what it can endure.

Mr Hariri's resignation indicated that Nasrallah's ability to affect outcomes was diminished in this moment of national upheaval. Hezbollah's and Amal's anger with protesters exploded in the hours before Mr Hariri's resignation. Suddenly, Nasrallah transformed his party into a perceived enemy of a majority of the Lebanese population, one defending the failing, corrupt status quo.

Yet any new government would be in for a major challenge. While a government of technocrats might have popular backing, it would have to work against the vested interests of the political forces who control the public administration that implements governmental decisions. The political class would have no interest in seeing such a government succeed; on the contrary.

The consequence of this is a paradox: While the political class has plundered Lebanon mercilessly, it has to be brought along with the measures adopted to salvage the economy so as not to block them. Moreover, its approval is needed to give a parliamentary vote of confidence to any new government. Yet no one should expect the politicians to readily back a government expected to embody everything that is contrary to their way of doing business.

One thing that may compel the political class to act is a more interventionist approach by the donor countries who committed to helping Lebanon at an international conference, known as Cedre, last year. These countries have pleaded with Lebanon to engage in economic reform, an effort the political class has implemented very reluctantly and slowly, fearing that they and their patronage networks and cash cows would be undermined in the process.

With Mr Hariri’s resignation, it is a good time for the Cedre countries to take a stronger line on the introduction of economic reform measures through a new government. The leverage these countries enjoy is considerable, as a collapse of the pound appears inevitable in the wake of the government’s dallying on reform and Lebanon’s urgent need of cash inflows to stabilise its precarious finances.

A bankrupt Lebanon is one that is far more likely to implement real reforms and the donor community has to take advantage of this to impose a specific road map that takes into consideration the protests of recent weeks. Putting all of the financial burden on the Lebanese population would be a disaster, though, and ways should be found to raise revenues from alternative sources. Effectively, it may be useful to place the economy under a sort of international trusteeship.

Will the political class and Hezbollah accept this? Maybe not, but with up to two million people in the streets it will be difficult for anyone to stop genuine economic reform measures. Nor will Hezbollah’s violence prevent the tsunami of recrimination from growing if reform is blocked. Lebanon faces dark days ahead but this time at least the political class may be caught in the middle of that bitter endgame.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut