Lebanon’s political class has continually failed to form governments that serve its people. The current talks, which feature the potential return of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, are no exception.
When French President Emmanuel Macron visited Lebanon last month, he announced a roadmap for forming a government and carrying out political and economic reforms aimed at saving the country. He announced that a government of non-partisan technocrats should be formed by September 15 and then carry out series of reforms that would allow the International Monetary Fund and international community to bail Lebanon out.
Macron gullibly assumed that Lebanon political elite would honor their promise and facilitate former Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib to form a government; instead, Adib stepped down after weeks of failing to convince Hezbollah and the rest of the political establishment to cooperate.
While the French Initiative seems to be dead in the water, the entire Lebanese political establishment continue to publicly underscore their full commitment to it. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who heads the biggest Sunni parliamentary bloc and stepped down in the wake of protests in 2019, publicly vowed to form a cabinet of non-partisan technocrats who will allegedly overhaul the entire system.
While Hariri has nominated himself for the role, he presents a number of challenges – some directly linked to himself, others to the political class to which he belongs.
To start, Hariri’s previous record is abysmal. He failed to deliver on any of the reforms he had pledged while heading his three previous cabinets (2009, 2016, 2019). Hariri instead allied with the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement Gebran Bassil, President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law and political heir, which resulted in massive debts and allegations of corruption and mismanagement. As a result, very few Lebanese other than Hariri’s own supporters would wager on him successfully heading a technocratic government. He simply does not fit the profile, nor does his record prove otherwise.
Hariri also presents a target for blackmail from other political parties and sects, who will make their support conditional. Walid Joumblatt, the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party and Druze chieftain, tried this tactic a week ago when he demanded the Ministry of Health in return for his vote for Hariri. This mode of thinking is rife among Lebanon’s political elite and will dictate the cabinet formation process, opening up Hariri to many compromises and concessions that will ensure the failure of his mission.
The main problem with Hariri’s urgent push to become prime minister is that he is peddling President Macron’s simplistic approach to Hezbollah, and consequently its Iranian backers. Macron wrongly believes that Hezbollah can be convinced to act as a rational entity and cooperate on matters related to reform. In reality, successive attempts to contain Hezbollah by making it part of the government structure have only led to collapse, and to Hezbollah rendering all Lebanese state agencies futile.
The fact that Hezbollah and its allies are so anxious for Saad Hariri to be back to power should be enough to shed doubt on the whole drive to form the cabinet, more so when Hezbollah allows its main Christian ally and political fig leaf Gebran Bassil to dictate his own terms.
President Aoun’s last minute postponement of the mandatory parliamentary consultations that were scheduled to take place on Thursday, October 15, were aimed at giving his son-in-law Bassil more leverage and to force Hariri to directly engage him in talks, thus reminding everyone that a cabinet with Hariri as its head will also mean a return of the ever-controversial Bassil.
Above all, Hariri’s willingness to cooperate with Hezbollah will again antagonize and further alienate the US administration and the Arab Gulf states who have showed lukewarm support to any cabinet that would rehash the previous governments. Hezbollah, as well as Hariri, might wish to use the ongoing demarcation talks between Lebanon and Israel to sneak in a new cabinet, but this will not solve any of Lebanon’s problems – it will only make them worse.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. His forthcoming book Conflict on Mount Lebanon: The Druze, the Maronites and Collective Memory (Edinburgh University Press) covers collective identities and the Lebanese Civil War.