Recent US sanctions on Hezbollah in Lebanon – and the prospect of more to come – are only piling on problems for Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Hezbollah-backed government. It has becoming increasingly clear early elections are needed for Lebanon to start down a legitimate path to reform.
The March 8 electoral alliance that backs Diab, which includes Hezbollah and its fellow Shia party Amal, has so far done little to tick the boxes that would lead Lebanon to stability. They have insufficient support from the protest movement. Being Iran-affiliated, they have no foreign allies willing or able to provide new economic lifelines – and they are now incurring the increasing sanctions wrath of the United States in its anti-Iran regional campaign, with the most recent sanctions coming on February 26. And Hezbollah has proved an obstacle to much-needed International Monetary Fund management of the economic crisis. The Shia group said it does not oppose Lebanon seeking the IMF’s advice, but it is against the fund managing Lebanon’s financial crisis.
In addition to mismanagement, Diab’s government no longer represents the opinions of the Lebanese people, who last cast their vote under very different circumstances on May 6, 2018. Then, the Lebanese sectarian system seemed unassailable, even tilting toward Hezbollah and the Shia parties. Now, thanks to a long-coming economic crisis, a months-long protest movement nationwide has demonstrated that the Lebanese are interested in new approaches, new faces, and new politics.
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Established parties, from former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Sunni Future Movement to the once-untouchable Hezbollah and Amal parties, have come under sustained criticism from within their own sects. The Future Movement’s implosion was already cemented by the May 6 election results, where they did poorly.
But Hezbollah and Amal had to wait until the current economic crisis began in earnest and the protest movement evolved before they too became the target of anti-establishment sentiment. This intra-sectarian criticism is new and reflects an evolution of Lebanese public opinion that no government of the March 8 or March 14 blocs, or the combination thereof, can truly represent.
These alliances and their leaders have largely served their purpose – they came about in the aftermath of Rafic Hariri’s assassination, an event that nearly drove Lebanon back to civil war. March 14 and March 8 managed to work out a political compromise that prevented that slide, but they have achieved little else. Instead, they have engendered corruption and enabled foreign interference.
Moreover, deep austerity is coming to Lebanon, regardless of the government. It can be managed austerity, supported by international organizations and allies to ensure that, while painful, it at least is driven by a plan. Or it can be uncontrolled austerity, imposed by economic conditions upon Lebanon, with nothing but the most difficult path forward. In the latter case, Lebanon’s security situation will become increasingly precarious, as protestors target banks and the parties they blame for their misery. Meanwhile, militias and politicians scheme to prevent a chaotic austerity from undercutting their own influence and wealth.
Read more from Bohl: Lebanon will slide into violence unless the elite chooses political reform
Austerity will be painful, but new elections will at least force politicians to campaign on how they will manage its inevitability. That will both beholden them to their voters, and allow voters a stake of responsibility in the final outcome as the difficult times begin to unfold. New elections could also produce new leaders able to offset the increasing US sanctions campaign against Hezbollah, preventing the US from causing further harm to an already difficult situation, especially if new elections could produce a government that isn’t so clearly beholden to Hezbollah.
Lebanon is rapidly running out of time before the economic and security situations begin to deteriorate beyond Beirut’s ability to manage them. To help start the path upward, Lebanese need a chance to break out of the pre-crisis sectarian system and put the country toward a more sustainable path.
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