In the past twelve months, the Lebanese people have had to contend with a catastrophic economic collapse, a global pandemic and the loss of the country’s main trading port. People are scared, frustrated and, with no end in sight, competition for the scarce resources available are pitting communities against each other. Politicians have totally failed to respond to the crisis and have abused their power for their own political and financial ends. As a result, the kleptocratic political class has completely lost the will and support of the Lebanese people.
Its diversity has, in good times, been a symbol of what is so special about Lebanon. Today, however, the sectarian settlement, enshrined in the constitution in 1943, is an outdated, dysfunctional relic that enables the corruption, cronyism and incompetence that dominates Lebanon’s body politic.
Many Lebanese people are also crying out for change. In the past twelve months, and beyond, a significant movement has grown, one which cuts across sectarian lines. It is united in the belief that the status quo is broken and that the system does not work for or support ordinary people. For a year these protestors have repeatedly and loudly taken to the streets to voice their anger. Two prime ministers have already been forced to resign due to popular pressure.
Following the tragic explosion in the Port of Beirut on August 4, a clear window of opportunity to enact reforms was missed. Prime minister-designate Mustafa Adib, who became the premier on 1 September following nationwide protests with the specific intention of implementing much-needed reforms, was never given a chance to succeed. From the moment he attempted to form an independent cabinet, the established system reverted to type and thwarted reform. Vested interests got in the way and blocked his efforts, rendering him politically impotent. Barely a month later, on 26 September, Adib resigned and former Prime Minister Hassan Diab took over the reins once again as caretaker premier.
Despite a laudable attempt from President Emmanuel Macron to tie desperately-needed foreign aid to the formation of an independent technocratic government, Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies refused to play ball. Why? Because the group cannot countenance losing control of the finance ministry, which – under the existing sectarian settlement – has traditionally been held by their Shia faction. It was Hezbollah’s intransigence that forced Adib to resign.
The need for fundamental change has never been more pressing. Lebanon needs a Prime Minister and an accompanying transitional government that is truly independent, meritocratic and not beholden to the existing political parties. Until ministers are nominated on the basis of competence, instead of sectarian loyalty, there will be no change. This is what everyone in Lebanon, except the political class, has acknowledged.
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There will be no quick fix for the country, so I urge the international community to stand with the Lebanese people and to help make genuine reform a reality. Only a truly independent government will amend the constitution and introduce a truly democratic, non-sectarian parliament, one committed to reform rather than one defined by confessional divisions. Creating such a parliament is the first step to achieving change. Its legitimacy would allow it to draft an entirely new constitution that has democracy and the rule of law in its heart.
Recent sanctions announced by the United States directed at corrupt individuals – including former ministers linked to Hezbollah, such as Ali Hassan Khalil and Yusuf Finyanus – are a step in the right direction. As the Lebanese political establishment has proved itself unwilling and unable to change, the international community must speed up the process and targeted sanctions against corrupt politicians. This is a strong start.
Yet these sanctions will only succeed if Hezbollah is removed from the political process. This can only happen when the international community finally acknowledges what Hezbollah’s own leadership already does: it is a unified organisation that does not distinguish between its notionally separate militant and political wings. The belief that these wings are operationally distinct is not credible and ultimately serves only to prolong the suffering of the people of Lebanon.
Instead, by adding the political wing of Hezbollah to the list of terrorists organisations, as countries like the UK, Germany and the United States have done, major international actors like the European Union could make a big difference. Such a move would limit the influence of the main benefactor from Lebanon’s sectarian settlement – Hezbollah itself.
This cannot happen soon enough. As I write, the disliked former Prime Minister Saad Hariri has just been chosen to replace caretaker Hassan Diab after manoeuvring to regain the office over the last month. Unfortunately for Lebanon, Saad is not the PM they need if they hope to enact any reforms. During his last administration, Saad had a clear chance to enact a package of economic reforms specifically to reduce the growing deficit. He failed, frozen by his dependence on Hezbollah to remain in office.
A roadmap to peace already exists – the Taif Accords were agreed by all parties over two decades ago at the end of Lebanon’s civil war. It sets out the framework to abolish political sectarianism but, unfortunately, it has largely been ignored as no time frame was included in the agreement.
As such, the process could be started tomorrow by any government with the will to pave the way towards a new political settlement free from the current sectarian constraints. This is a tall order and not something Lebanon can do on its own. It will be necessary for the international community to lead many of these efforts and support others. But, unless something is done, the window to save Lebanon is closing quickly.
Daniel Kawczynski is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury and Atcham