Explainer

Does Lebanon Finally Have a Government That Can Fix the Mess?

Probably not. But after a year of stalemate, even old faces are better than none.

By , an intern at Foreign Policy.
Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati
Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati arrives for the first cabinet meeting of the new government in Baabda, east of the capital, Beirut, on Sept. 13. ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

Lebanon finally got a new government this month, more than a year after the deadly port blast that that killed 217 people, injured 7,000, and swept away the former government. Well, “new”—as always for Lebanese politics—might be a stretch. But at least after a year of stasis, the country has found a couple of dozen people to form a working government, including a game show host, a billionaire, and a former central bank official. 

Taking the hot seat as prime minister is Najib Mikati, a telecommunications billionaire and one of Lebanon’s richest businesspeople, who was caught up in corruption charges after serving as the prime minister twice before. Do-overs are pretty common for Lebanese prime ministers, even acting ones: One of the interim leaders in the last year, Saad Hariri, the son of an assassinated prime minister and a former prime minister himself, was one of two people who tried and failed to form a government after the blast.

Just getting a government is long overdue. France, Lebanon’s colonial patron, made the formation of a workable government a condition of any financial support, a position echoed by multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. But few people are under any illusions that the latest batch will be able to deliver real reforms to a country that plummeted into one of the world’s most severe financial crises since the mid-19th century, with more than half the population slipping under the poverty line. 

Lebanon finally got a new government this month, more than a year after the deadly port blast that that killed 217 people, injured 7,000, and swept away the former government. Well, “new”—as always for Lebanese politics—might be a stretch. But at least after a year of stasis, the country has found a couple of dozen people to form a working government, including a game show host, a billionaire, and a former central bank official. 

Taking the hot seat as prime minister is Najib Mikati, a telecommunications billionaire and one of Lebanon’s richest businesspeople, who was caught up in corruption charges after serving as the prime minister twice before. Do-overs are pretty common for Lebanese prime ministers, even acting ones: One of the interim leaders in the last year, Saad Hariri, the son of an assassinated prime minister and a former prime minister himself, was one of two people who tried and failed to form a government after the blast.

Just getting a government is long overdue. France, Lebanon’s colonial patron, made the formation of a workable government a condition of any financial support, a position echoed by multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. But few people are under any illusions that the latest batch will be able to deliver real reforms to a country that plummeted into one of the world’s most severe financial crises since the mid-19th century, with more than half the population slipping under the poverty line. 

With a ruling class stacked with wealthy businesspeople and politicians, too many familiar faces—whose corruption and negligence are what many blame for the current situation—are still dominating Lebanon’s political scene. 


Hang on: If Lebanon’s government collapsed after the Beirut blast, who has been running the country for the last year? 

The explosion of a couple thousand tons of poorly stored aluminum nitrate blew out a lot of windows, blew up a lot of buildings, and shattered the government of then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab. Thousands of outraged Lebanese took to the streets to protest the deadly mismanagement of the whole affair. That came after decades of self-serving leadership that infiltrated every part of life in Lebanon, including extreme currency devaluation, skyrocketing food prices, and daily power outages. The Lebanese pound, or lira, has lost more than 90 percent of its worth in two years. As of December 2020, food prices had increased by up to 400 percent compared to the year before, with clothing prices rising 560 percent, and furnishing, household equipment, and maintenance soaring by 655 percent. 

But Diab continued on as a caretaker prime minister steering a government with little to no power as two prime ministers-designate—Mustapha Adib, followed by Hariri—each abandoned their posts after failing to form a new government of their own, leaving the political factions to spend the year disagreeing over a new lineup. Lebanon’s power-sharing system is drawn up on sectarian lines; historically a Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, and a Shiite Muslim speaker of parliament. That insistence on the post-civil war factional division of spoils means that many familiar—if ineffective—faces keep cropping up in the same jobs.


Who are the new and noteworthy? 

Lebanon is not going to get high marks for including women in government. Najla Riachi was appointed as administrative development minister, the only woman to sit at the table of 24—a sharp decline in number from the record-high six who served in Diab’s 20-member cabinet. 

Of the other 23, one who stands out is Youssef al-Khalil, now finance minister. A former official in the Lebanese central bank for nearly four decades, Khalil directed the bank’s financial operations department and orchestrated the program that attempted to bring more U.S. dollars into the country by offering attractive interest rates on larger deposits. That same program intensified Lebanon’s banking crisis, dried up deposits in commercial banks, and left civilians with wiped-out bank accounts, unable to withdraw their cash. 

But who wants to be a millionaire? That’s a question reserved for George Kordahi, Lebanon’s new information minister, who happens to be the former host of the Arabic version of the show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Meanwhile, Firass Abiad, who spearheaded Lebanon’s health care efforts since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, is Lebanon’s new health minister. Both a new and friendly face, Abiad is one of Lebanon’s few figures respected by the public. 


Why does having a new government matter? 

Well, for starters, the political impasse made it nearly impossible for foreign aid to flow in. Without a functioning government, Lebanon is not going to get any relief for its $90 billion debt load; a new government, as retreaded as it is, at least gives the country a chance to regroup.

Among his first moves as acting finance minister, Khalil agreed to hire a New York-based company on Sept. 17 to restart the forensic audit of the central bank. A government that can tackle corruption is a major prerequisite for a financial bailout from the IMF and international donors. The initial audit had fizzled out after months of internal disagreements and attempted cover-ups, which led to a deadlock in the process. 

And then there’s Hezbollah, deemed a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, but a political force in Lebanon, which backs two ministers in Mikati’s cabinet. Hezbollah most recently came to the rescue in the country’s diesel fuel shortage, in ways that the government hasn’t. The group brought in more than a million gallons of Iranian fuel into Lebanon from Syria on Sept. 16, one day before the government secured its own shipment from Iraq. Though the move violated U.S. sanctions imposed on anyone doing business with the Syrian government, it was a small relief to the desperate civilian population, which continues to endure power cuts and hours of long lines at gas stations.


Will the new government change anything? 

Unlikely. The new government will most likely apply cosmetic touch-ups to these deep-rooted problems, just enough to secure votes for Lebanon’s traditional sectarian parties. 

The biggest problem is that the country is broke, not just broken. Finding a way to patch up the financial shortfall, shore up the currency, deal with the debt load, and restore a semblance of sanity to everyday life is priority No. 1—or should be—for the new government. But skepticism abounds in what most analysts consider a kleptocratic state. 

During a Sept. 17 interview with CNN, Mikati said this is a “transitionary period toward change” and that he is hoping to lead a government that will “take the country toward elections and let the people decide who they want later on.” Lebanon’s next general elections are set to take place next May, if they aren’t postponed. 

Ultimately, the Lebanese are in the dark much of the time, without gasoline, struggling to buy their daily bread. They are left with one question, which—like the new government—is a familiar one: How can those who caused the demise of a country be the same people to fix it? 

Zinya Salfiti is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @zinyasalfitii

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