Lebanon on the Brink

External parties are using their local proxies to block the formation of any government

By Abdelbari Atwan

Lebanon is experiencing an uncharacteristically un-festive Christmas holiday season, with thousands of demonstrators gathering in central Beirut and other cities to protest about the country’s economic condition and the thwarting of efforts to form a government — after it had seemed that agreement on a cabinet line-up, which would have been an invaluable gift for the new year, was imminent.

The process of putting together a government has been held up for seven months by differences over the allocation of portfolios and the row about the inclusion of independent Sunni MPs in the cabinet. This has left many Lebanese convinced that external players have been using their local proxies to prevent the formation of any government in Lebanon, either before or after the holidays.

The public quarrel over the representation of the bloc of Sunni MPs allied to Hezbollah blew up after prime minister-designate Saad al-Hariri refused to appoint any of its six members to the government. A compromise was agreed under which each of these MPs would nominate another figure and President Michel Aoun would select one of these. But this solution unravelled in turn when the Lebanese president chose Jawad Adra as the prospective minister. The other MPs protested that he did not represent them, and accused Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of effectively trying to enlarge its own bloc — thereby giving itself 11 out of 30 cabinet posts and effective veto power over government decisions. So things went back to square one.

The demands for lower taxes and food prices, improved public services and free health-care made by the demonstrators who took to the streets of Beirut largely echo those of the ‘yellow vests’ in France who have shaken up French politics in recent weeks.

Lebanon’s public debt has reached nearly $100 billion and the World Bank estimates that a third of the country’s inhabitants live below the poverty line. These certainly do not include the members of the political elite who have been fighting over cabinet seats and important state posts.

Hariri has now decided to go on vacation until the new year, while declaring that he will remain silent about the country’s growing crisis, on the grounds that “sometimes silence is necessary for others to listen.” But we do not think he will find anyone to listen to him. The choice of Hariri to form a government, in this difficult juncture in the history of Lebanon and the region, is one of the main impediments to the country recovering and overcoming its mounting problems.

Lebanon could be on the brink of an explosion with popular frustration at the status quo reaching unprecedented levels. And if such an explosion were to occur, it would be extremely difficult to control.