On December 22, French President Emmanuel Macron will travel to Lebanon for the third time in five months. While his plan is to visit with French UN peacekeepers, Mr Macron will also be keen to see where Lebanon's politicians are in forming a new government. Such a government is necessary to carry out economic reforms, in return for which the French president promised in September to mobilise international financial assistance for Lebanon.
Mr Macron was criticised for wasting his credibility in pushing the hopelessly corrupt Lebanese politicians to enact reforms. There were those who said the French president was bound to fail for wagering on these officials, while others condemned Mr Macron’s dialogue with Hezbollah. The French President took a more sanguine view, saying that as the party was an essential component of Lebanese political life, trying to circumvent it made little sense.
Some time ago, however, the French recalibrated in Lebanon by saying that it was up to Lebanese officials to save their own country. In that way they played down Mr Macron’s stalled initiative to encourage Lebanon to set up a government of apolitical specialists and implement a reform plan that could unlock aid from the International Monetary Fund and other international institutions.
But Mr Macron is still keen to help Lebanon once the politicians can get over their deep divisions and form a government. The reason is that if nothing is done soon, Lebanon risks reaching a stage of complete collapse, without enough foreign currency reserves to finance the importation of vital necessities such as food, medicine and fuel. Within a matter of weeks, the government is expected to remove subsidies on a wide range of products, which will accelerate hyperinflation.
In this context, social unrest is likely. France continues to want to provide a safety net if that happens, as instability in Lebanon could have a negative affect on Europe. More realistically, the French maybe assume that once everything breaks down, the latitude of Lebanese politicians to resist reform will diminish, so that French intervention will be needed to help the country out of its mess.
The Trump administration has taken a more hardline position on Lebanon and on the Macron initiative. Last September, in private a US official visiting Beirut did not hide his mistrust of France's contacts with Hezbollah. While the official stated that Washington did not want to undermine the French plan, he noted that the administration would soon introduce sanctions against people not tied to Hezbollah, representing an escalation from sanctions past.
A week later that is exactly what happened when Washington sanctioned Ali Hassan Khalil and Youssef Fenianos – Lebanon's former finance minister and its former transport minister. Mr Khalil is a close collaborator of parliament speaker Nabih Berri, while Mr Fenianos is an ally of the pro-Syrian Christian politician Suleiman Franjieh. The sanctions were supposedly not aimed at derailing the French initiative but that is precisely what they did.
Negotiations over a government came to a standstill, as Mr Berri, the indirect target of the sanctions, apparently concluded that he had nothing to gain by being flexible on the government then being formed and nothing to lose by playing tough. The timing of the US move was questionable. And while other factors helped to block the process, sanctions were the icing on the cake.
Much the same happened when Saad Hariri began forming his government in October. There were inherent obstacles to the cabinet-formation process, not least the mistrust between Mr Hariri and Gebran Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun. However, when Mr Bassil was also sanctioned by the US in November, it again made progress all but impossible, as Mr Bassil, feeling threatened, saw no reason to facilitate things.
The US has long used sanctions as if they were a silver bullet that could resolve intractable problems. But the reality is they rarely do. In Lebanon’s case they had the effect of hindering the only serious proposal available to help spur the country's economic revival. Washington’s hard line may satisfy some people – and few regretted seeing Mr Bassil targeted. But when the country urgently needs a government, the sanctions only made matters worse.
Lebanon's politicians form a corrupt cartel, so it is easy to take pleasure in their distress. But the delay in forming a government, on which international pressure could be put to introduce reform measures, is mainly causing suffering among Lebanon's population, with roughly 50 per cent estimated to be below the poverty line. While the US can take satisfaction in refusing to talk to Hezbollah and obstructing the Macron plan, it offers nothing tangible to help Lebanon.
That is why it is imperative that the international community and the new Biden administration put their full weight behind the French initiative and use it to break the resistance to reform from Lebanon's reprehensible politicians. Yes, it may mean engaging indirectly with Hezbollah but no realistic change can happen if the party is left out. Lebanon is nearing a point of no return. The consequence may be a social explosion and even famine. Avoiding this must be a priority.
Michael Young is a Lebanon columnist for The National