Late last week, Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister and the scion of the Hariri political and business clan, decided to nominate himself as a candidate to form the next Lebanese government.
Mr Hariri put his name forward unilaterally after Mustapha Adib, a former diplomat, failed in his bid to form a government of technocrats that could push through a raft of reform measures. The measures were sorely needed in order to save the country from economic collapse and unlock a financial aid package from the international community.
These measures were championed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Lebanon in the aftermath of a cataclysmic explosion in Beirut in August, which levelled much of the city and rendered more than 250,000 people homeless. Mr Adib’s bid failed due to the intransigence of Hezbollah and Amal, the main Shia parties, who insisted on naming the new finance minister.
Mr Adib’s failure and Mr Hariri’s self-proclamation coincide with the one-year anniversary of a popular protest movement that began on October 17, 2019. The protesters have called for the removal of a craven and corrupt political class that has brought Lebanon to ruin.
The movement has won admiration around the world for its creativity and – most notably – the absence of sectarianism. Mr Hariri was in power at the time it began, and its popularity was responsible for his resignation.
His return does not bode well for any real departure from the political class that has proved so problematic for Lebanon. A lack of substantive change would be seen as a betrayal of the uprising.
The nominal spark that lit the protest movement in Lebanon was a proposed tax on WhatsApp calls, but it was only the latest stick to break the proverbial camel’s back. The Lebanese had weathered decades of poverty and nepotism under a system that distributed power based on sectarian affiliation.
Hezbollah, beholden to Iran, maintained military supremacy, a gun that it wielded to cow its opponents, and sometimes assassinate them. It created a state within a state.
The war in Syria worsened the destitution in Lebanon. One million refugees sought shelter across the border, adding to an existing population of 4 million. Hezbollah’s intervention to secure the regime of Bashar Al Assad in Damascus led to a spillover of violence, including suicide attacks by terrorist groups and sectarian clashes in major cities like Sidon and Tripoli.
As citizens suffered, many of the country’s political elites continued to enrich themselves and wield influence to expand their patronage networks and protect their ill-gotten gains, leaving ordinary people without even basic services, like 24-hour access to electricity or water or garbage disposal.
The preeminent slogan of the uprising was “kellon yaani kellon”, or “all of them means all of them”, a brave proclamation that demanded nothing less than the ousting of the entire political class. The movement captured global attention last October with its good humour, musical prowess and sheer joy.
It did not last, largely because the depth of the depravity of most of the ruling class had not yet become apparent. A monumental economic collapse shortly began unravelling Lebanon's entire financial system, the very structure of which was morally corrupt.
Banks were reliant on fictionally high interest rates meant to attract US dollar deposits, which were then loaned to the government. As the state and banks ran out of foreign currency late last year, tens of billions of dollars were transferred abroad, and ordinary citizens paid the price, locked out of their bank accounts to preserve bankrupt institutions.
More people were plunged into poverty as the currency eventually lost 80 per cent of its value, and Lebanon became the first Arab nation to experience hyperinflation.
Then came the explosion in August of thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate that had simply been left unattended in the Beirut Port. The destruction is such that there is no word that quite captures the catastrophic levels of criminal negligence, and yet the same political elites who held power before remained in control after.
Finally, the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the country, with thousands of cases reported daily. The country now has over 55,000 officially recorded cases as of this writing.
The jubilation of the protest movement has been replaced by a hopelessness that things could ever change and an overwhelming desire among young people to leave.
Mr Macron’s initiative is laudable but ultimately unlikely to succeed. It may succeed in pushing some limited reforms that would head off further poverty, destitution and food insecurity. But in their essence, his proposals are meant to urge a shift in power away from a political elite that has long profited and cemented its power through the misery of ordinary citizens. Asking them to give it away voluntarily is a fool’s errand.
Mr Hariri himself may not be personally responsible for the calamity the country finds itself in, but he is still considered a member of the elite political class. So, it is difficult to see his return as a signal that meaningful change will materialise.
Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National