Same Old Hariri, Newly Traumatized Lebanon

After a year of chaos, a familiar face is returning to the top of a country that desperately wants change.

By Anchal Vohra, a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East.
Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrives to attend a church service for former French President Jacques Chirac at the Saint-Sulpice church in Paris on Sept. 30, 2019.
Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrives to attend a church service for former French President Jacques Chirac at the Saint-Sulpice church in Paris on Sept. 30, 2019. MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images

Lebanon has come full circle. A year ago, a million Lebanese thronged the streets and demanded the removal of the entire political class, as they chanted “Killon yani Killon”—“All of them, we mean all.” Now, Saad Hariri, the prime minister who resigned soon after the uprising engulfed the country, is staging a comeback. A decision about whether he is to become Lebanon’s next prime minister is expected to be made this week.

Other politicians from the old guard who previously ran the country under its sectarian constitutional system are also deploying familiar pressure tactics to retain control over ministries. Some, like Gebran Bassil—a former foreign minister and the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun who was much criticized by last year’s crowds and ultimately forced to resign—will back Hariri’s return if it paves the way for his return as well, senior political sources told Foreign Policy.

Hariri will ostensibly bring in a government made of technocrats—other than, of course, himself as the man in charge—to solve the nation’s deepening economic crisis. But even before he is sworn in he has had to compromise with Hezbollah and its Shiite ally the Amal Movement on the post of the finance minister. Hariri has agreed that a Shiite will head the crucial ministry. It was already implicit that it would be a name satisfactory to Hezbollah and Amal, but Yassine Jaber, an independent member of parliament affiliated with the Amal Movement, said it clearly. “Hariri has given his consent that he will pick from the names suggested,” Jaber said.

The finance minister’s signature is needed on every decree passed by the government, which grants him and his backers a veto over government decisions. Moreover, he has access to official documents that are needed to prove past graft and wasteful expenses. A puppet finance minister will ensure immunity for Hezbollah and its allies. Electricity supply comes under the Ministry of Energy and Water, and for decades it has been run, or rather run into the ground, by Bassil and Aoun’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). It guzzles state revenue while nevertheless failing to provide people 24-hour-a-day electricity. Reforming electricity supply is a leading commitment agreed on by all political parties in accordance with the French initiative to bail out the country that Hariri has said he intends to implement. But political sources told Foreign Policy that he is under pressure to choose a candidate for the ministry who is to FPM’s liking.

Such politicking indicates that Lebanon’s political class is unruffled by the crises swallowing the country and is still busy plotting how to pull the strings of any future government. If it was ever in doubt, it is now clear that Lebanon’s ruling elite never intended to relinquish power and were just playing for time.

However, Lebanon has run out of time. Over the last year, decades of corruption and financial mismanagement culminated in a steep and unimpeded economic deterioration, further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The local currency plummeted by nearly 80 percent and made salaries earned in Lebanese pounds almost worthless. In parallel, prices of basic commodities skyrocketed. Capital controls imposed by banks denied people their hard-earned savings, and thousands more plunged into joblessness as the coronavirus necessitated a string of lockdowns.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, thousands of tons of unsafely stored ammonium nitrate exploded at Beirut’s port. Despite repeated warnings about the danger the explosive presented to neighborhoods nearby, multiple government agencies turned a blind eye and are now held responsible for the catastrophe in public opinion. The explosion left many parts of the city destroyed and uninhabitable. Billions of dollars are needed to resurrect the city, on top of the $10 billion bailout Lebanon has sought from the International Monetary Fund to revive the economy and pay its bills.

In April, an estimated 75 percent of Lebanese were in need of aid, and many relied on charity as well as on historic government subsidies on flour and fuel. However, those subsidies may soon be withdrawn. According to the central bank director Riad Salame, the man accused of playing a key role in causing the monetary crisis, the reserves cannot guarantee subsidies for much longer. That is a dark picture by any standards, and yet there is little apparent remorse or a sense of urgency among the political elite.

Even if, after making all the compromises and assuaging bruised egos, Hariri is sworn in and is pushed by the French to usher in reforms, they will be minimal, according to over a dozen civil society members, experts, and politicians who spoke to Foreign Policy.

Last week, on Oct. 17, a few hundred Lebanese gathered at Martyrs’ Square, the epicenter of the protests in downtown Beirut, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the uprising. Again they demanded the political class be gotten rid of, and again they unfurled the Lebanese flag as they chanted “thawra,” “revolution.” Some, however, conceded defeat and admitted they had achieved nothing, outmaneuvered by the ruling elite. Amani Saleh was marching with her compatriots and filming the demonstration on her phone. Her eyes, ringed with maroon and golden eyeshadow, drooped with shame and disappointment as she said, “Nothing, nothing has changed so far.” But while she thought Hariri would not deal with the endemic corruption, inefficiency, and sectarian politics, the genesis of Lebanon’s multitude of crises, she thought he might convince Europe to shell out some money. “He has contacts with Europeans, maybe he can bring in dollars or euros,” she said.

Others were even more pessimistic. Norma G., who asked not to give her full name as she feared she might be identified and tracked by the authorities, said the Lebanese had tried Hariri “many times,” but that every time he had been taken for a ride by Hezbollah and its Christian allies. “He is talking to the same politicians again, like Hezbollah,” she said. “He is one of them, he won’t change anything.”

Gilbert Doumit, who contested the last election in 2018 on a civil society, anti-establishment ticket, but lost, dismissed Hariri by citing an aphorism often attributed to Albert Einstein. “He cannot change anything because no problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it,” Doumit said. However, the former candidate did not take any responsibility for the protest movement’s own failings, namely the absence of a united front to fill in the vacuum left by the failure of the old guard and to offer a new generation of leaders. He said fielding a singular leadership from the protest movement would have divided the people and broken its momentum. Despite his caution, that warning has come true in any case: The movement is split among many citizens’ groups and is leaderless.

Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst, said that expecting politicians to reform a system that has benefited them for so many years is like asking patients to cut off their own oxygen supply. He gave the now-familiar explanation of the workings of Lebanon’s confessional system: The political elite have been using the public sector as personal fiefdoms, handing out jobs to coreligionists to buy their loyalty and make them dependent on their sectarian overlords-cum-party chiefs. For decades the same political parties have been in charge of the same ministries, which has allowed them to engineer enough loopholes to ensure that public money runs the operations of their political parties. “When they distributed the economic sectors among each other they ensured their way of financing themselves,” Nader said. “For instance: Hariri’s al-Mustaqbal or Future Movement controls telecom, so they got the advantage. Bassil’s FPM controls electricity, so they are getting an advantage. That is why, I repeat, they cannot reform. It is suicide for them.”

Hariri’s strategy seems to be to use the French backing to cobble together a cabinet and then wait for the results of U.S. elections and, he would hope, a Joe Biden presidency. If Biden wins next month, and if he is softer on Iran than his predecessor, then he might make it easier for Hariri to procure an IMF bailout. But that would depend on what sort of agreement Biden would arrive at with Iran to assuage concerns of regional allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. Hezbollah is Iran’s most effective proxy and a self-professed enemy of Israel. Containing the group’s growing strength in Lebanon and the wider Levant will be an important part of any U.S. government’s foreign policy.

Hanin Ghaddar, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said there was no reason for Biden to give in to Iran. “When Obama made a deal with Iran he was in his second term and he was in a hurry, the Iranians were not in a hurry. This time the Iranians are in a hurry but Biden is not,” Ghaddar said. “He has other priorities so Iran and Hezbollah will be forced to make concessions unless they want to live with the status quo and don’t feel the pressure of the economies in their countries collapsing.”

Hariri’s political backers also hope that the dire economic situation may force other political parties to allow him both to form a government and to push through at least enough reforms to compel the West to loosen its purse strings. But the Lebanese who demonstrated on the streets to warn about the crisis their leaders were driving them into now find themselves engulfed in it. That is the Catch-22 they face. Lebanon cannot sign a deal with the IMF without a government—but as long as the political elite is still in a position to infiltrate any future government with their own people, the revolution of the past year will have been rendered pointless.

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra