Beirut: The situation in Lebanon is on a downward spiral, as the country has been suffering severe shortages of vital products including fuel, medicine and medical products, angering the public.
Lebanon’s currency hit a record low Saturday, reaching 18,000 pounds to the US dollar. The pound has lost more than 90% of its value since the crisis began.
In October 2019 protesters called for the removal of the political class that has run the country since the end of the 1975-90 civil war and has been blamed for corruption and mismanagement that has ruined the country’s economy.
Impact on armed forces
Since the civil war, through wars with Israel, militant bombings and domestic turmoil, Lebanese have considered their military as an anchor for stability, one of the only institutions standing above the country’s divisions.
But the military is now threatened by Lebanon’s devastating financial collapse, which the World Bank has said is likely to rank as one of the worst the world has seen in the past 150 years.
On June 17, 2021, a virtual conference was held in Paris to raise funds for the Lebanese Army. Unlike previous events, this one was not about counterterrorism, military hardware, or technology, but humanitarian aid to serve the basic needs of the Lebanese officer class.
They have come under increased pressure in recent months, as the value of their salaries have dropped to comically low levels, due to sharp devaluation of the Lebanese pound.
This has put soldiers and officers on the verge of poverty, something that can lead to mutiny, revolt, and perhaps, a coup d’etat. It was the collapse of the Lebanese Army in 1975 that led to the rise of militia rule, something that can very much happen again today, explaining why all sides have taken keen interest on courting the Lebanese officer class.
On May 26, Army Commander Joseph Aoun visited Paris, where he met his French counterparts and was received by President Emmanuel Macron, expressing serious fear about a collapse of the armed forces.
“The situation is so bad that some officers stationed in southern Lebanon have transformed their military bases into agricultural fields,” said Nidal, a young Lebanese officer who spoke to Gulf News on condition of anonymity. “Instead of training we are now growing fruits and vegetables, then selling them to provide bread for our families, and our troops.”
Soldiers driving cabs
Elsewhere, he added, some are driving cabs in the evening to make ends meet. “This is the biggest humiliation for Lebanese soldiers and officers, which if not addressed, will lead to collapse of the entire military institution.
The Lebanese Army is saying that its annual non-military needs stand at $100 million ($40 million of which goes to medical supplies, healthcare, and medical insurance for troops).
One week before the conference, Director of General Security General Abbas Ibrahim visited Iraq, where he obtained $2 million in medical support to the Lebanese Army and an increased supply of crude oil to Lebanon, up from 500,000 barrels to 1 million, to be paid for not in American dollars but in Lebanese pounds.
Friends in need
Meanwhile, other states have also been responding to the humanitarian needs of the Lebanese Army and the donor list currently stands as follows: Egypt (300 tons of foodstuff), UAE (334 tons), Jordan (40 tons), Morocco (80 tons), Kuwait (40 tons) and Oman (120 tons). France has sent 200 parcels of foodstuff and 76,000 ready-to-eat meals, Spain has provided food aid worth 250,000 euros, while the US increased its support to $150 million, up by $15 million from 2020.
But that’s only a fraction of what Lebanon needs. The Lebanese state needs $6 billion in annual salaries, $110 million for wheat importation, $1 billion for medicine, and $3.7 billion for petroleum. It has none of it.
The Beirut port explosion tore down half of the city and estimates vary on how much it would cost to rebuild, but they range from anywhere between $15-20 million.
International donors meeting in France had pledged $11 billion in aid to Lebanon back in 2018, but that has been conditioned to far-reaching reforms that include — among other things — clipping the wings of Hezbollah.
Lebanon then began talks with the IMF to secure a $9-10 billion loan but that too has been put on hold until the country’s political elite manages to form a government. That too seems nowhere in sight.
Lebanon ‘is hell’
“Is hell” said Lebanese political analyst Fadi Akoum. He was referring to a statement made by President Michel Aoun in September. “Many thought it was a slip of tongue on Aoun’s part,” explained Akoum to Gulf News. “Clearly from the reports he was getting, he knew that hell was coming.”
That process has been stalled since last October, when Saad Hariri was tasked with forming a new government, replacing that of Hassan Diab, which resigned right after the port explosion.
To date, he has failed to come up with a suitable government, due mainly to a political tug-of-war with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Gibran Basil, son-in-law of President Michel Aoun.
Hariri’s bid for a political comeback was supported by his own Future Movement and three strong players within the Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition – Hezbollah itself, the Shiite Amal Movement of Speaker Nabih Berri, and the Christian Marada Party of Suleiman Frangieh.
Desire to be president
Christian politician Gibran Basil, who is also Aoun’s son-in-law, is unhappy with Hezbollah, for two reasons. Late last December he asked Hezbollah to revisit the Mar Mikhail Agreement of 2006, which famously brought Aoun to power in 2016. Although Hezbollah agreed to the idea in principle, it has persistently delayed discussion on the topic, not wanting to give the impression that it supported Basil’s bid for president in October 2022.
Second was its continued support for Hariri, against all odds.
“Basil needs Hezbollah if he has any hope at becoming president,” said veteran Lebanon commentator Michael Young, editor of Carnegie Middle East Centre’s Diwan Blog. Speaking to Gulf News, he explained: “But he also wants to avoid a new government in which he doesn’t hold veto power. He’s completely dependent on the party today, and Hezbollah is quite happy with this situation. The more the situation deteriorates the more latitude Hezbollah has to shape Lebanon in its image.”
Question of Christian ministers
Basil is currently making two demands that Hariri has been unable to accommodate. One is for him to name all nine Christian ministers in the cabinet, and second is control of powerful portfolios like interior, defence, foreign affairs, and justice.
He has supported his argument claiming that Druze leader Walid Jumblatt would never allow Hariri to name Druze ministers, and nor would Hezbollah allow him to select Shiite ministers. Why then should the FPM allow him to name Christian ministers?
Hariri has agreed to give Aoun an expanded cabinet of 24 ministers, after having previously insisted on only 18. An expanded cabinet allows the prime minister to give more seats to Hezbollah, Amal, FPM, and the Druze. He has also agreed to give Aoun the portfolios of defence, interior, education, social affairs, culture, and economy.
But he is suggesting that foreign affairs is given to the Druze, a proposal flatly rejected by Basil, whose FPM have controlled the Foreign Ministry for almost an entire decade.
Traditional power threatened
In return for depriving them of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hariri would offer them the Ministry of Interior, which has traditionally been held by a Sunni Muslim, appointed directly by Hariri and usually a member of his Future Movement.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is mediating between the two sides, and has suggested accommodating the Aounists with the Ministry of Economy. Hariri said no, however, claiming that this would jeopardise talks with the IMF and the World Bank, due to the FPM’s relationship with Hezbollah.
The two sides are also quarelling over the portfolios of health, energy, and public works. Health is important because it is at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19, and the post is currently in the hands of Hamad Hasan, a Hezbollah protégé.
Object of desire
The Ministry of Energy is on everybody’s wish list because it will play an important role in the country’s future when international firms start drilling for natural resources in Lebanese waters. The drilling is currently on hold due to disagreement over territorial waters between Lebanon and Israel.
As for the Ministry of Public Works, it is projected to lead the reconstruction of Beirut, when/if investment money starts coming. Hezbollah had wanted the portfolio of Public Works but Hariri said no, fearing that this would scare off investors and possibly lead to new sanctions by the United States.