Lebanese president Michel Aoun has finally set a date for parliamentary consultations to choose a new prime minister, now fixed at October 15, 2020. The delay is startling, coming exactly twenty days after the last candidate, Mustapha Adib, declared failure and returned to his diplomatic post in Germany. The president doesn’t seem to be in a hurry, and nor are his allies in the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Hezbollah.
As people wait, however, their savings continue to be trapped at local banks, slashed by over half due to the sharp devaluation of the Lebanese currency, which is now trading at 8,200 LP to the US dollar. One year ago, it stood at just 1,500 LP. Until midsummer, Lebanese officialdom was actively engaged in loan talks with the IMF, aimed at securing 9-10 billion USD for the treasury but they are now on-hold, awaiting a new government. The cabinet of Hassan Diab is unable to move forward on those negotiations, since it is in a caretaker capacity.
A previous loan of $11 billion, made by international donors in France back in 2018, is also frozen awaiting structural and political reforms in Lebanon that neither Diab nor his predecessor, Saad Al Hariri, were able to deliver. One of the conditions for unblocking the grant was clipping the wings of Hezbollah, which neither premier is capable or willing to do.
Meanwhile, Lebanese importers have been unable to bring any new commodities into the country, due to damage of the Beirut port and the fluctuating currency, As a result, there is a sharp shortage of basic commodities, which are now being rationed by the private sector. At some supermarkets customers are being prevented from buying more than two items of any commodity (like Nescafe jars) and the same applies to pharmacies hoarding popular medicine like Advil and Panadol. Petrol stations are also now prohibited from filling up cars with more than 20 litres of gasoline.
These items are bought from abroad using American dollars, which are now a scarce commodity in Lebanon, and yet, sold to end users in Lebanese currency. Importers simply cannot raise the price of those goods in accordance with the value of the American dollar, due to the diminishing purchasing power of ordinary Lebanese.
But the Lebanese political elite doesn’t seem to mind the miserable state that the population is in. They don’t mind waiting until mid-October for the president to begin political consultations on a new premier, taking into account that the formation process is open-ended and can take months. Diab did it in 44 days but it took nine months for Tammam Salam to get the job back in 2014. Making the rounds are the names of former premieres Saad Al Hariri and Najib Mikati, in addition to Mohammad Al Baasiri, the ex-deputy governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon.
Baasiri has a slim chance of becoming premier, however, since he is vetoed by the two Shiite parties, Amal and Hezbollah. Both fear his firm connections to the United States. They would prefer restoring Hariri to the premiership, although his candidacy could be vetoed by Saudi Arabia.
Hezbolalh wouldn’t mind a Hariri comeback, however, assured by the mild response that it got from him after the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) issued its verdict into the assassination of his father, Rafik Al Hariri last August. Although a member of Hezbollah was blamed for the murder, Hariri has refused to escalate with the party nor do anything serious about the accused member who remains at bay, hiding within Hezbollah territory.
The French Initiative
President Aoun’s son-in-law Gibran Basil is not in favour of a Hariri comeback, nevertheless. Hariri has set forth a series of conditions for returning to power, among which is creating a cabinet of technocrats, in accordance with the French initiative of President Emmanuel Macron. During his back-to-back visits to Beirut, Macron demanded a cabinet of independents, chosen for their political merit rather than political affiliation. He also insisted that no post is reserved exclusively for any party or sect, as Macron had wished, breaking the Shiite community’s monopoly over the Ministry of Finance.
The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) claims that Hariri is not a technocrat but a politician, no different from their leader, Gibran Basil. Both are heads of political parties who command a powerful bloc in the chamber of deputies. If Hariri returns, they say, then it is imperative for Basil to return with him. Hariri wants to avoid a Bassil comeback, at any cost, given that much of the popular anger that erupted in Beirut last October was due to Basil’s autocracy during his tenure at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
For their part, Hexzbollah has put forth a suggestion calling for a techno-political cabinet where sovereignty posts (like foreign affairs, interior, and defence) are kept with the political parties while service-oriented portfolios (like transport and electricity) are handled by independent technocrats.
Basil has come-up with a counterproposal, which comes to the liking of his father-in-law, President Aoun. He is calling for giving sovereignty posts to minority groups (Druze, Armenians, and Greek Orthodox) while service posts to the major sects (Sunni, Shiite, and Maronite). This he claims would relieve the new premier from finding a suitable Shiite for the portfolio of finance or a Sunni for the ministry of interior.
A third proposal, put forth by ex-Premier Mikati, calls for a 20-man cabinet where six ceremonial portfolios of state (with no specific duties) go to the political parties and 14 to independent technocrats. This proposal is not to the liking of President Aoun or Bassil, however and will not get past the drawing board because it offers Hezbolla and Amal just two seats in the next government.
The Aounists are clearly not in a hurry to form a new government. Any new government would have to call for early parliamentary elections, which is a popular demand. The jury, as they say, is still out in Beirut.
— 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.