Three months after outbreak of the Lebanese revolution, Lebanon finally has a new government, headed by the academic-turned-politician Hassan Diab.
He was named to the job by the Hezbollah-led March 14 Alliance, creating a 20-man Cabinet packed with technocrats affiliated either with Hezbollah, Amal, or the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).
Major parliamentary blocs are absent from the new government, including the Future Movement of former prime minister Saad Hariri, the Social Progressive Party of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the Phalange Party of ex-President Amin Gemayel, and the Lebanese Phalange of Maronite leader Samir Geagea.
Diab has to obtain parliamentary approval for his new Cabinet, as specified by the Lebanese Constitution. Demonstrators are adamant that they won’t let deputies reach the premises of Parliament to make that happen
Before stepping down last October, Prime Minister Hariri had promised an inclusive package of economic reforms, which included the slashing of salaries for current and former officials by 50 per cent, doing away with unnecessary government institutions, raising income tax on banks from 17 per cent to 35 per cent, and creating funds for individuals and families in-need. He made no mention where that money will come from since investment and tourism are at a grinding halt, and so are all kinds of foreign direct investment in Lebanon.
To date, Diab has said nothing about abiding by any of Hariri’s reforms, notably maintaining the Ministry of Information, which Hariri had promised to abolish. He is completely unable to raise taxes on banks, however, which are struggling with their own financial meltdown and suffering from a chronic shortage of American dollars.
Those banks have shouldered the brunt of people’s anger, and they have suffered vandalism, reputation slander, and public outcry for failing to return depositors’ money and limiting their ability to withdraw (limited to $200-$300 — or (Dh734-Dh1,100 — a week).
If Diab does nothing about the banking crisis, the protests will only get bigger and bigger, prompting the Ministry of Interior to strike back with force, through its riot police and security services.
Action against banks
The former Interior minister Raya Al Hassan was a refined civilian parachuted into the post by the Hariri team and despite that, repression was high during the last few days of her tenure. Many were shot with rubber bullets, with some losing their eyesight, and hundreds were hauled off to jail.
Her successor Mohammad Fahmi — Diab’s pick for the Interior Ministry — is an army general who headed military intelligence from 1997 to 2006. Such credentials hint that he won’t be any nicer with the demonstrators, especially if they continue to smash bank windows and occupy main squares throughout the capital.
Additionally, any move against the country’s banking sector becomes far more difficult because Hassan Diab’s choice for economy minister was none other than Raoul Nehme, himself a banker who opposes such measures. Until this week, Nehme headed BankMed, a ranking Lebanese bank, and once a banker always a banker, he will find it painstakingly difficult to take action against the same financial institutions that he worked in throughout his life.
Unlocking the aid package
Diab also faces the monumental task of unlocking an $11 billion aid package to Lebanon, pledged by international donors in France back in 2018.
That money was held back and tied to major economic reforms, like reducing the budget deficit by 5 per cent, and political ones, leading to the curbing of Hezbollah’s influence.
Hariri couldn’t do it, however, and it is highly unlikely that Diab will.
Hezbollah currently controls 13 seats in Parliament, which topped with those of its allies, makes up 61 out of 128 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. It maintains a large arsenal and is a state-within-a-state in the Lebanese south, far more powerful than the Lebanese Army.
Hezbollah is officially represented in the Diab Cabinet through two ministers (health and industry), and all other ministers are either affiliates or sympathisers, brought to power through Hezbollah’s blessing.
The new Cabinet is being broadly identified as “pro-Hezbollah”, meaning that the party’s influence in Lebanon is stronger than ever before.
So far, the United States has neither welcomed the Cabinet nor written it off as a Hezbollah creation. If it does, however, Lebanon faces the high risk of US sanctions, whether on individual ministers or the entire government.
And finally, Diab has to obtain parliamentary approval for his new Cabinet, as specified by the Lebanese Constitution. Demonstrators are adamant that they won’t let deputies reach the premises of Parliament to make that happen.
And if they do make it Nejmeh Square, a handful of political blocs are likely to say no. And yet, if Diab manages to obtain approval from parliament, many are asking whether he will call for early elections in order to soothe public anger, as Hariri had promised.
The Free Patriotic Movement, which holds the lion’s share of parliamentary seats at this stage (29 seats), is categorically opposed to new elections.
Early elections would spell out a political disaster for Gibran Basil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun. With no elections in sight, the crisis will drag on and probably get more violent, both from the street and the state apparatus.
Will the new prime minister — with his minimal political experience — succeed in calming the angry street and solving the country’s numerous economic woes?
Throughout history, few academics have succeeded in leading their nations in times of crisis, given that their experience in life is often theoretical rather than practical. Time will prove whether Hassan Diab will be an exception.
— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.