Lebanon News

International aid for Cabinet on hold, can Lebanon wait?

Prime Minister Hassan Diab and Damianos Kattar attend a Cabinet session in Baabda, Jan. 22, 2020. (The Daily Star/Mohamad Azakir)

On paper, Lebanon’s new government looks good. And it would be premature to say Hassan Diab’s government will not succeed - at all - in improving the country’s crumbling situation. But the makeup of the government and the way it was formed, coupled with the ongoing U.S. - Iran tiff, makes it unlikely that Diab’s government, the third since Michel Aoun was elected president in 2016 - will last very long.

For starters, the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese protesters have been demanding a government of experts, independent of political parties. A number of the new ministers are self-proclaimed “technocrats,” but many also owe allegiance or feel indebted to those who named them: the traditional political parties. New Public Works Minister Michel Najjar thanked Sleiman Frangieh twice in less than 24 hours after he became minister because the latter named him. Frangieh heads the Marada Movement, which picked two ministers in Diab’s 20-member government.

Protesters also called for early parliamentary elections, and Diab promised this but quickly backtracked during his first speech as premier. He said an electoral law needed to be studied in Parliament before subsequently “discussing” the issue.

Protesters did not want any former ministers being named again. Apart from Diab, there is one other former minister. But a number of the new officials were formerly advisers or closely allied to their predecessors. No ministers were named on behalf of the protest movement although Diab claimed that he was their representative.

This raises the question of whether they will be capable, willing or allowed to make decisions without approval from those who appointed them. These decisions, such as badly needed ones against corruption and restoring looted funds, will be difficult because of the close relationships the new officials share with their predecessors.

If the new government had the backing of the local population, it might be enough to argue to the international community that they should invest and help Lebanon.

Yet with little domestic, public support and a skeptical international community, Diab’s government will face the daunting task of convincing the world that it should help his so-called technocratic government.

The West and its institutions, most notably Washington and the World Bank, will not drop a penny of aid before the necessary reforms are implemented. The U.S. State Department was clear in its message that Diab faces a test. If he passes (responding to the demands of the protesters to implement reforms and fight corruption), international assistance will be “unlocked” according to Mike Pompeo, the top U.S. diplomat. But “only a government that is capable of and committed to undertaking real and tangible reforms will restore investor confidence and unlock international assistance for Lebanon,” he said.

This assistance is separate from aid to the Lebanese Army, which is considered a key regional partner in the fight against Daesh (ISIS) and a tool to push back against the argument that Lebanon doesn’t have capable security forces. Arguments in Washington to halt or cut aid to the Army have so far failed and there is no imminent threat to this for the time being.

British Ambassador to Lebanon Chris Rampling met with Diab Thursday and said the formation of a government was an important step. He, like Pompeo, said that “along with other members of the international community we stand ready to support Lebanon, but we look to this government to demonstrate its commitment to the reforms which Lebanon desperately needs.”

Western diplomatic and political sources have been consistent with this message.

“This government will be given the benefit of the doubt for now and it is not considered a Hezbollah government,” one senior diplomatic source said. But the source added that no aid would be given for now.

Faysal Itani, deputy director at the Center for Global Policy, believes this Cabinet won’t survive the coming economic crunch. And he said, “intuitively” he would’ve thought Washington would reject the government out of hand as a Hezbollah Cabinet and “hope for it to crash and burn.”

But “suddenly they are embracing all the Lebanon nuances, and saying they will work with it if it enacts reforms. I’m sure there is a robust internal argument going on about this in government,” Itani said. “That’s the side that’s winning so far.” One other hope Diab may have is that France, which has long been dubbed Lebanon’s “Caring Mother,” or Qatar, will come to the rescue.

France has little means of dumping in the needed money to prevent an all-out financial collapse. Qatar, on the other hand, does but it has vowed to pump money into Banque du Liban for well over a year, to no avail.

The international community will wait to determine how much and if any assistance will be provided. However, as the economic and financial situation deteriorates, the question is whether Lebanon will be able to wait.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 24, 2020, on page 2.

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