June 9, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 284

Powerplays In The Rubble: What Next for Lebanon?

June 9, 2021 | By Alberto M. Fernandez*
Lebanon | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 284

According to the World Bank, Lebanon is seeing an economic and financial disaster of historic proportions rarely seen since the mid-19th century.[1] Most Lebanese today are newly poor, money is worthless and electricity, food, medicine, and water are all scarce commodities. It still has no real government as rival corrupt politicians struggle for position, divvying up the crumbs of power, while the ultimate arbiter and hegemon, the terrorist group Hizbullah, looks on.

The best-case scenario seems to be that a coalition government will be formed soon, likely with former prime minister Saad Hariri, that will be able to turn the spigots of foreign aid back on. A few billion in hard currency from the West and some Arab states would then supposedly stabilize Lebanon – prop up the currency, promote good governance, and implement some reforms – and at least prevent it from collapsing further. Elections would then be held in 2022. That seems to be the theory. And this rosy scenario is supposed to unfurl while Hizbullah still remains in ultimate control and the same politicians that oversaw the Lebanese debacle in the first place remain on top.

A more likely worst-case scenario would be continued economic collapse, further delaying government formation intended to delay May 2022 parliamentary elections so that the same crowd can stay in power even longer. A collapse that leads to the implosion of remaining institutions and low-grade gang warfare. While someone like the despised presidential son-in-law Gibran Bassil, a key Hizbullah ally, maneuvers in the rubble to gain the presidency in October 2022.[2] With maybe another Hizbullah war against Israel thrown in, following the conclusion of a new American-Iranian nuclear deal.

It does look like Lebanon will need a miracle to survive so it is then quite timely that Pope Francis will be meeting with Lebanese Christian religious leaders at the Vatican on July 1.[3] This is a message of support to Lebanon and particularly to the Lebanese Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Butros Al-Rahi who has chided politicians for failing to form a government, openly criticized Hizbullah, and urged that Lebanon pursue a policy of active neutrality, distancing itself from regional conflicts.

The Lebanese need and deserve some basis for hope for what looks like a grim future. Some in the Lebanese diaspora, especially Christians, place their hopes in calling for federalism, dividing the country into smaller, decentralized political entities. They are not wrong in that decentralized entities closer to the people, responding to local realities, would be a boon not just for Lebanon but for many states in the region. However, the trend in the region has and continues to be towards the centralization of power and those that hold such power jealously guard it. The idea that those who centralize power today in Lebanon would willingly surrender it is ludicrous.

The concept of devolution of powers, of divisions into smaller entities is also, of course, anathema in the contemporary Middle East, built as it is on centralizing ideologies centered on Arabism, or on Turkish and Iranian nationalism. Division is what the Western imperialists are supposed to have done as, indeed, Lebanon itself was seen by Arab nationalists as an artificial construct created by France for the Maronites.

The Lebanese disaster has, perhaps, had a few incidental benefits for Lebanese along with so much suffering. Certainly, many cherished political and economic illusions have been punctured. The fantasy that Lebanon could flourish on the basis of a political and economic Ponzi scheme has been unmasked. The hope that you can somehow develop stability, a state, and an economy without true sovereignty has been shown to be illusory. How can you do so when a political-military entity immune from any real accountability can plunge you into war or crisis at any moment? Lebanon's "resistance state" has been very costly, especially for the Lebanese. There was a rare chance for a real change in 2005, but this was effectively buried by Hizbullah in collaboration with Michel Aoun.

While the Lebanese have painfully been divested of many illusions, one wonders how much these illusions remain entrenched among the international community? Rather than kicking the can down the road or doubling down on strengthening dubious institutions and collaborating with even more dubious political partners, the time is perhaps ripe for a more aggressive form of contingency planning for Lebanon. This means preparing both for a deeper disaster – the chaotic worst-case scenario which seems to be happening now – and the best outcome scenario, which is intimately tied with domestic politics in the coming year.

With people fighting over food and gasoline in Beirut while electricity goes off during a hot summer, planning for a no government/further implosion/hunger scenario is a logical move. I have been one of those mocking the $1.8 billion (since 2006) spent by the U.S. in supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and certainly the idea that it would ever be a counterweight to Hizbullah is ridiculous.[4] But perhaps the LAF will soon have a role to play in preventing further chaos in parts of the country.  

Lebanon's economic problems are also intimately connected to its political problems. Economic help for Lebanon is essential but, should it come, it must have a political dimension, one that is heavily tilted in favor of an admittedly shaky democratic processes, so elections in 2022 are a must in shoring up Lebanon's vital if battered civil society. Hizbullah and its political allies will do all they can to delay and cheat (and kill, if necessary,) in such a situation. Above all things, they want to avoid any sort of popular accounting at the ballot box in response to the catastrophes of the past few years. It is not too early for local and international opponents of the Nasrallah gang and its front men to be preparing as well.

Here there is a very slim, but real, chance at change. Just as Hizbullah will have its favorites, both for parliamentary elections and for the presidency, so should the international community (and in reality, this means France, the United States, and some Gulf Arab states) have its allies and play political hardball in 2022. And supporting the usual political crowd with the same blandishments Westerners have heard for years just does not seem like a very good bet.

Both the U.S. and France have taken some small steps in punishing local bad actors involved in corruption or political obstruction and that should continue and expand into the pre-electoral period. Paradoxically, such aggressive intrusive steps carefully planned and implemented by the international community are therapeutic interventions aimed at strengthening a Lebanon that has a slight chance, a small possibility, of emerging from the ruins. Lebanon needs a miracle, no doubt. But also, tough and ruthless political international gamesmanship by those who seek to save her from destruction.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1],  June 1, 2021.

[2], June 7, 2021.

[3], May 30, 2021.

[4], May 21, 2021.

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