Lebanon’s politicians retreat to back rooms to plan new government

Little indication the resignation will lead to far-reaching changes demanded by street protests

Vigil for the victims lost in a massive explosion, in Beirut, Lebanon August 11, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Lebanon’s political players moved into traditional backroom manoeuvring on Tuesday to replace the collapsed Hezbollah-aligned government.

They seemed oblivious to protesters' demands for all of them to quit after the Beirut port disaster a week ago.

The government of Hassan Diab resigned on Monday after less than eight months in office after the explosion that killed 171 people and left thousands wounded and homeless.

Independent diplomat Nawaf Salam has fleetingly emerged as a replacement for Mr Diab, who led the most pro-Hezbollah government since the end of the civil war in 1990.

Mr Salam, an international judge who is regarded as acceptable to the protest movement, was discussed last time as a possible prime minister.

He has no base among the country’s powerbrokers and established political groups.

The country has been in economic free-fall since the currency collapsed last year and the state defaulted on its debt in March.

Bans on dollar withdrawals to halt a run on the banks have exacerbated the popular frustration.

The economy's dire situation and the need for long-term rebuilding and recapitalisation funds is putting pressure on the traditional elite, who had mostly endorsed or acquiesced to the Diab government.

They might succumb to a compromise that at least looks different to the political formula of the past decade,

The formula consists of the elite retaining their share of the spoils while Hezbollah and its allies ultimately hold on to political power and foreign policy decisions.

In a surprise move, Alain Aoun, a senior parliamentarian in the Free Patriotic Movement, which leads the largest bloc in Parliament, did not rule out Mr Salam, who they opposed last time.

The Free Patriotic Movement is led by former foreign minister Gebran Bassil, son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, who is allied with Hezbollah.

Mr Bassil remains perhaps the most powerful Christian political figure in Lebanon and he is seen as the man pulling the strings in the presidential palace in Baabda.

Alain Aoun told The National  that talks had started for a new Cabinet to "fulfil the international community's requirements for helping Lebanon".

He said he did not want to mention anyone as nominee, but: “Of course, you know that people are reporting that Nawaf Salam is an option.”

Most parliamentarians uncharacteristically went under the radar since representatives of the political class, including Hezbollah, met French President Emmanuel Macron in Beirut on August 5.

Pro-Hezbollah legislator Hagob Baqrodian of the Armenian Tashnak Party told Lebanese radio on Tuesday that his party had not decided who to back for prime minister.

“The picture has not become clear,” Mr Baqrodian said.

During his trip to Beirut, Mr Macron indicated he had an initiative to help steer Lebanese politicians into qualifying for international aid.

But few expect the French proposals to move the political system towards meeting the aspirations of protesters and civil figures.

The authorities crushed their uprising in January but their cause was revived after the huge official incompetence shown by the explosion.

Veteran Lebanese political analyst Youssef Bazzi, told The National  that the French proposal would replicate a "national unity government", such as the one that preceded Mr Diab's.

Hezbollah and its allies held significant power in that government, led by Saad Al Hariri and including Mr Bassil.

Mr Hariri resigned in response to street demands in October 2019. Mr Bazzi said a main condition for him to return as premier this time would be the exclusion of Mr Bassil.

Ever the flexible operator, Mr Bassil is indicating that he favours another proposal, apparently backed by the US, for a more neutral government led by Mr Salam.

“This way neither Mr Hariri nor Mr Bassil are in government,” Mr Bazzi said.

He said the outcome was likely to be another compromise that failed to produce any real reform.

The civil movement is advocating a new order that departs from decades of political and financial corruption, and a breakdown in the rule of law since Lebanon’s Second Republic was established in 1990.

Al Bayan Al Watani, a cross-sectarian group of civil figures, said that after the explosion the removal of the political class “was not enough”.

The group said the Lebanese leaders should be boycotted internationally, blacklisted and have their assets confiscated "in favour of the victims of their tyranny, which have become countless after the crime in Beirut".

Al Bayan Al Watani was referring to the explosion and its victims.