In the wake of this month’s devastating explosion at Beirut port, French president Emmanuel Macron urged a “new political pact” for the Lebanese people, making it clear that reform was needed if the country was to receive the financial support it needs to resolve its economic crisis.
But with Mr Macron, who has led global calls for change, due to return to Beirut next week, the factionalism and horse-trading that has long dogged Lebanese politics is delaying progress. Even as the crisis deepens, there is no agreement on a credible candidate to lead a new government.
Frequently touted as a possibility, despite being ousted after protests last year, Saad Hariri, a three-time former prime minister, made clear on Tuesday that he was not interested in the job. “Certain political forces are still in a state of severe denial of the reality of Lebanon,” he said in a statement, a nod both to his lack of support and the political establishment’s resistance to meaningful reform.
This political “system has hit a wall a long time ago and it’s impossible for it to move forward,” said Bachar el-Halabi, a Middle East geopolitical analyst for ClipperData. Lebanon’s “crisis is huge and unprecedented on all levels and no one is willing to take on that responsibility”.
Lebanon’s government resigned days after the explosion on August 4, felled by huge anger at political corruption and state ineptitude. The administration, led by Hassan Diab, remains as caretakers.
It typically takes months to cobble together a coalition but a new government is urgently needed to steer the country through its worsening economic crisis and to negotiate a bailout with the IMF and regain the confidence of donor countries.
It also needs to manage Beirut’s reconstruction and a surge in coronavirus infections, which spiked following the explosion that killed at least 180 people and devastated much of the capital.
Many attribute Lebanon’s political malaise to the sectarian power-sharing system that dates from the 1990 end of the civil war. A system designed to avoid intercommunal conflict resulted in the emergence of a political class of warlords, who divided the premiership as reserved for a Sunni Muslim. The prime minister is voted in by parliament and chooses the cabinet.
World powers, led by former mandate holder France, have made clear that future help for a new administration hinges on reform and efforts against corruption. “The French have tried to convince everyone to make concessions and have a government that does not necessarily have a political profile, but which is supported by all the factions — a light version of a government of national unity,” said an Arab diplomat.
There are also concerns that regional rivals will try to wield influence on the formation of a new government, the diplomat said, adding that while Mr Hariri had appeared to be the favoured candidate, “the Saudis don’t want him to engage with the job now”.
Mr Hariri’s relationship with Lebanon’s traditional Gulf allies was damaged when he formed a government with Hizbollah, the Iran-backed powerful Shia paramilitary and political party that along with its allies commands the biggest parliamentary bloc.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf powerhouses who funded recovery in the wake of the civil conflict and Hizbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, vehemently oppose the Shia militant movement. Mr Hariri was detained by officials in Saudi Arabia in November 2017 and forced to temporarily resign the premiership.
“The Saudis are more radical in their approach to Hizbollah now,” said Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, meaning they are no longer willing to support a government controlled by the party, which is dominant in Lebanon’s parliament: “The era of appeasement is over.”
Given the US and Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran policies “they won’t be in a rush to bail out the ‘system’ in Lebanon. This is why they won’t offer Hariri a cover”, said Mr Halabi.
Concerns over Hizbollah’s influence as well as corruption and a lack of reform have made Gulf states cautious. “The Gulf states have had a lot of experience of being unable to influence [the government] beyond cosmetic,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the royal court. “You can write as many cheques as you like, but the people with the military force on the ground have the ultimate influence.”
Washington is also worried about Hizbollah’s role but in comments to reporters, David Hale, the top US official on Lebanon said Washington would not veto an administration just because it included the US-designated terrorist group: “Our focus is on the reforms themselves,” he said.
Alternative names floated for the premiership include businessman Fouad Makhzoumi and International Criminal Court judge Nawaf Salam, both of whom have international standing — but lack a popular base.
With a week to go until Mr Macron’s return, Lebanon’s leaders are practising “business as usual,” said one western diplomat.
Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in Paris