Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 30 October 2020

Lebanon finally has a new government, but it is a disappointment to its people

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab is looking to the US as Lebanon's financial woes worsen. EPA
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab is looking to the US as Lebanon's financial woes worsen. EPA

Three months ago, Lebanon’s prime minister Saad Hariri resigned from his position after nationwide protests called for the fall of the ruling elite. “We have come to an impasse,” Mr Hariri said as he stepped down, “and we need a shockwave to resolve this crisis.” Yesterday evening, his successor Hassan Diab failed to heed this warning and keep the promise made to the Lebanese. Protesters and civic activists have demanded a technocratic government made up of experts from outside politics. Lebanon has never known such an administration, yet its people know that it is what they need.

Instead, Mr Diab spent 34 days in closed-door negotiations only to produce a Cabinet that is indeed full of political novices, but nonetheless formed the old-fashioned way, through the appeasement of traditional political parties over any deference to merit and competence. Mr Hariri’s Future Movement and its allies boycotted the entire Cabinet formation process, giving Hezbollah a golden opportunity to lobby for a prime minister and government of its choosing. The rapaciousness of the Iran-backed group and its own allies is much to blame for the composition of this newly announced Cabinet, in which most ministers are inextricably bound to extremist interests.

Some have branded the new Cabinet a “Hezbocrat” government. Others are ready to give Mr Diab a chance, not out of conviction but out of desperation

At least 15 of the newly appointed ministers have direct or indirect ties to Hezbollah, their allies and even the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria. Mr Diab’s so-called “rescue” government includes the likes of Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, a former adviser to Amal leader Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah supporter who has served as Speaker in parliament for the past 30 years. Mr Berri and his office have been accused by protesters in his southern strongholds of Tyre and Nabatieh of nepotism and mishandling public funds. Mr Diab has also tasked Ramzi Mcharffieh, an orthopaedic surgeon, with the daunting task of reviving Lebanon’s tourism sector, upon which the country’s economy once relied. Meanwhile Abbas Mortada, another Amal appointment and former provincial official, has been deemed fit to manage both the Agriculture and Culture ministries, as though the similarity of the two words would somehow offer an opportunity for synergy.

Bemused, some protesters have branded the new Cabinet a “Hezbocrat” government. Others are ready to give Mr Diab a chance, not out of conviction but out of exhaustion and desperation. Since October, Lebanon was without a government or a prime minister, even as the nation faced its worst economic and financial crisis in decades. The Lebanese have had to trudge through this quagmire with the added weight of long-standing corruption, unemployment and poverty. The country hosts over one and a half million Syrian refugees, many of whom are unable to feed themselves, and four out of ten young Lebanese are out of a job. High-level corruption has plagued previous governments partly because, until last year, ministries were operating without official budgets, with state funds instead being siphoned off to dishonest officials.

Lebanon is in desperate need of capable leadership to deal with these issues and find a more sustainable system of governance. Some of the country's new ministers could help to steer it in the right direction. The new foreign minister, Nassif Hitti, for instance, is a well-regarded diplomat who was the Lebanese ambassador to the Arab League — a far cry from his predecessor, Gebran Bassil, who is also the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun. Mr Bassil has come to represent all that has gone wrong with Lebanese politics. He is loathed by the protesters, who have accused him of fanning the flames of sectarianism for his own political gains. Another promising minister is Marie-Claude Najem, a law expert who now heads the corruption-plagued Justice Ministry.

Whether Mr Diab has been forced to compromise with Hezbollah or acted out of his own conviction, his new Cabinet falls well below people’s expectations. But this “rescue” government still has a great responsibility: to save Lebanon and fix its economy. It is not clear that it will be up to the task, but for Lebanon’s sake the next steps must be to save its economy and deliver on key demands of its people.

Updated: January 22, 2020 09:14 PM

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