Middle East In Focus
The Lebanese parliament has approved the formation of a new government a full nine months since voters went to the polls. The government will be led by the leader of the Sunni block in parliament (and current prime minister), Saad Hariri, who now will have to contend with an emboldened Hezbollah. The new government has been welcomed by Iran, but the Israeli government dismissed the news as yet another extension of Iranian influence in the region. For most observers, however, the main question remains whether Mr. Hariri and his ministers will be able to deliver economic reform to a country in desperate need of economic growth. The alternatives seem to be a status quo propped up by international aid, or failure and violence.
In a brief statement published by the Iranian daily Tehran Times, the Iranian government sounded an optimistic and unifying note, though, considering Iran’s long history of interference in Lebanese politics, it may not be entirely genuine: “‘The Islamic Republic of Iran congratulates the Lebanese government and nation on the formation of new government, which was an outcome of sympathy and understanding among all Lebanese groups and clans’, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said on Thursday. This success ‘shows the will of a nation and its leaders to shape their future within the framework of independence and without any foreign pressure’, he added, according to the Foreign Ministry website.”
According to the Jerusalem Post, however, Israel’s prime minister was quick to assert that the new Lebanese government remained under the control of Iran so long as Hezbollah has an important role to play in it: “Iran controls Lebanon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday, two days after Lebanon formed a new national unity government with Hezbollah getting the influential health ministry.... ‘Iran has many branches’, Netanyahu said. ‘One of them is Hezbollah that has now joined Lebanon’s government. This is actually misleading; Hezbollah essentially controls the government of Lebanon, which means that Iran controls the Lebanese government.’"
The National’s Raghida Dergham sees the formation of the new government as an important step forward in avoiding “economic collapse,” as well as — perhaps — preventing Lebanon suffering a proxy war between Israel and Iran: “The long-awaited formation of a Lebanese government could be an indication that there is an international consensus to stop Lebanon from becoming a fully-fledged failed state, and to block attempts to turn it into an active military arena for either Iran or Israel.... But corruption and under-the-table deals between Lebanon’s political players have made a mockery of the country’s institutions and caused financial hardship to Lebanese citizens. Political accords and vague promises of reform are therefore not enough to rescue Lebanon from economic collapse. The fate of Lebanon is in the hands of its rulers, leaders and ministers, not just at the whims of international and regional accords, as some would have us believe.”
Al Jazeera’s Anchal Vohra reminds us that Lebanon plight is bigger than the Iranian-Israeli conflict, and also speaks to the Sunni-Shia rivalry in the region: “Although Hariri maintains his position as the political leader of the Sunnis in Lebanon, losing Sunni voters revealed his weakening grip on power.... The politics in the tiny state of Lebanon is a microcosm of the bigger currents flowing in the region and can serve as an indicator of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Hezbollah's ability to put pressure on Hariri suggests that Iran and not Saudi Arabia currently has more influence in Lebanon.... On the streets of major cities across Lebanon, protests will not stop. Lebanon has witnessed a winter of demonstrations as thousands marched across the country, demanding jobs, better healthcare and an end to corruption.”
Lebanon’s economic woes are one of the main sources of concern for many regional observers, including Khaleej Times writer Christiane Waked, who identifies the issue as the government’s number one priority: “Lebanon has been struggling with its economy in recession. The unemployment rate is high and the infrastructure is crumbling, and needs investment.... The Lebanese economy needs urgent attention of the government. The leaders should start thinking of solutions that can ease the burden on the Lebanese, and find ways to better utilize the aid doled out by the international community.... After a long wait of nine months, the Lebanese expect the government to work and put the country back on a stable growth trajectory. The long process of government formation has disrupted work processes and lives, and has pushed the country further into a slowdown.”
The Hariri government faces a number of key economic challenges, but is likely to receive significant support from various United Nations agencies, which have for years “shielded,” as Asharq Alawsat’s Nazeer Rida puts it, the country from the ongoing economic and security instability: “The United Nations raises a security, economic, political and diplomatic umbrella over Lebanon – a country suffering from economic deterioration, security threats on the southern border, and tensions of political alignments.... The UN approach initially focused on peace and security. To that end, the UNIFIL in the south plays an important role in maintaining stability on the southern border. UN contributions also focus on other pillars called the ‘pillars of stability’ which address issues of governance, the rule of law and human rights, and support municipal or parliamentary elections.”
Some, including Al Arabiya’s Firas Maksad, argue that Lebanon’s overreliance on the UN, and the international community’s overall willingness to provide support regardless of the failure of successive Lebanese governments, may actually be doing more harm than good for the country and its people: “While the impulse to preserve Lebanese and regional stability is understandable in this otherwise turbulent part of the world, continuing to pump money into an increasingly corrupt political order will not solve Lebanon’s structural problems and will, at best, provide only short-term relief…. There is an alternative path out of this crisis, however. It is one that could spare Lebanon’s people the hardship of financial collapse but stops short of empowering the deeply flawed and rotten model Lebanon has come to represent. The more sustainable approach is to insist that politicians deliver on the basic economic and structural reforms they pledged to undertake at the April 2018 Paris IV donor conference.”