Into its third week and the stand-off between protestors and the elite in Lebanon is still holding strong as thousands of Lebanese are calling for a radical overhaul of a system which collapsed under its own weight of corrupt warlords who have looted the state coffers for decades
But do they know what they want? And how relevant is Hariri’s resignation?
Hariri resigning could mean a new anti-corruption agenda installing itself within the political institutions – whether he comes back as PM with his own cabinet hand-picked, or is dispatched to the darkness of opposition.
Or it could mean just a rearrangement of the window dressing to keep the old guard in place.
The call from protestors to install a new government cabinet of technocrats who are not part of the political elite will have to be heeded; the question is whether it will be done properly or disingenuously. Your technocrats or mine?
But his resignation was fundamentally based on a clash of personalities. And its personalities which play a huge role in Lebanon, which operated under a sectarian power sharing system for decades – one which many Lebanese claim they are tired of, but which they are still very much attached to, despite the protests, the chanting and even the partying.
The problem Lebanon has is that while many want change, few, if any, are able to provide any lucid vision of what that might entail.
Consequently, this places even more emphasis on political figures. It’s unlikely that a new European style of democratic apparatus will permeate the Lebanese government. What is more likely is that the old system will stay in place, but a genuine crackdown on corruption – which is seen to work – will be forced to take root.
The fundamental difference of opinion is thus. Hariri plus two other groups (socialist Druze and ultra Christian conservative ‘Lebanese Forces’) all believe this should be done through installing an entirely new cabinet of technocrats, based on their individual merit. The opposition to that plan, from Aoun and Hezbollah, is that this can be done from within the existing political framework, with less fuss.
Hezbollah is keen not to let the country descend into chaos but also invested heavily in the Aoun-Hariri power sharing model which kicked off on October 31st 2016. In short, it fears that the Hariri plan would ultimately lead to an entirely new breed of MPs which would erode its support base.
Indeed, the baying crowds need to see an entirely new approach to governance and responsibility of office. For the moment, this has put a spotlight on key figures as their resignation is seen to be a swift and clean antidote to decades of embezzlement and greed. The house speaker, for example, Nabih Berri, has been in the job since 1992 and so entire generations of Lebanese know no other. But even his own supporters are tired of his rapacious embezzlement of state funds and running the south of Lebanon almost like a mafia chief, according to a leaked US cable. Aoun himself, also profited from the ‘wasta’ (kinship)corruption system, and is from a different age which no Lebanese understands or align themselves to. His background is military and he is hated for running the country along the same lines as any clueless dictator, taking his lead from Hezbollah and showing a vociferous disdain for anything whiffing of democratic reform.
And how can you trust a man who lies about his age, to have the best interests of the country at heart, let alone the economy?
Hariri’s original proposals, which were accepted, fall short of the mark on saving the economy also. One has to question how serious he was about banking transparency of the elite or a new anti corruption agency, when, in fact, he agreed at least to close down the previous one – a farcical set up of a minister and a fax machine in downtown Beirut run by an Aoun supporting minister who is considered part of the elite.
What Hariri does see though is the removal from office of key figures which are universally loathed for their personal aggrandizement – both financially and politically – and his resignation was based on this. It is said in Beirut that he visited Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hezbollah, on the day of his resignation where he demanded that the president’s son in law, Gebran Bassil, be removed from his post as foreign minister.
Bassil is despised by protestors and is seen as a epitome of greed and graft – who was actually made a minister by his father in law, President Michel Aoun – through the corrupt political system, based on tribalism and kinship. But worse, the odious Bassil – recently reported in Lebanon for taking boxes of cash from Iran, disguised as Red Cross aid parcels – is being groomed by Hezbollah to inherit the presidency from Aoun.
He’s actually seen as Assad’s man in Beirut.
For many Lebanese, even those not interested in confessional politics, this is what is at stake. Aoun’s presidency, tainted by journalists and protestors being beaten up and jailed and corruption reaching new levels, has made Lebanon more or less a tin pot African dictatorship, complete with succession of heirs, no power nor water, a garbage crisis, a local currency under threat of being devalued and a new level of lawlessness taking root.
Even Aoun’s own daughters are enraged by Bassil becoming President and want him kicked out, believing their father’s legacy had been stained. And Bassil also became the focal point of particularly vitriolic chants from the protestors.
And so, for Hariri, it was clear that a quick and decisive way to quell the protestors’ anger, would be to do some culling. The removal of Bassil is key, he believes, to moving forward.
Hezbollah has resisted this though as indeed has Aoun as Bassil represented a new, younger face to represent Iran’s interests in a country where there aren’t too many candidates for such a job.
And getting Berri to step down as House Speaker will also be difficult. The sheer pusillanimity of these characters is what is fundamentally wrecking the Lebanese economy as is their idea that it is the poor who should pay for their call-centre governance with a whatsap tax, which is what ignited the protests on October 17.
A caretaker government with Hariri still acting as PM is the most likely of scenarios in the short term, while Hezbollah, Aoun, Berri and Bassil all try and manipulate MPs to vote for the status quo with a new Sunni PM, possibly Raya al-Hassan, the current minister of interior who is from Tripoli and has no stained record of graft. If they however go for a Hariri come back, then this will be seen as a survival ticket for themselves – as it will mean Bassil leaving the cabinet and the protestors’ fevered demands for early parliamentary elections possibly cooling. To re-elect Hariri, which is not at all a far-fetched scenario – will almost be the starter’s pistol on a revolution, one which will be keenly watched both by wobbly Gulf Arab rulers in the region and even as far as Algeria and Morocco. The problem is there is not the time for such previous stand offs which have left Lebanon without a government. There simply isn’t time left to experiment further with the Hezbollah-Aoun ruse.