One day ahead of French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Lebanon, a new Prime Minister was designated to form a new government, which is supposed to deal with the most challenging time for Lebanon. Besides the economic collapse and inflation, the Beirut blast presented another layer of frustration that exposed Lebanon’s ailments to the international community. As humanitarian aid poured into Lebanon from across the globe, both the US and France came in with a political initiative, and offers for assistance.
Between Macron’s first visit after the blast, and his second visit earlier this week, much has happened. Hezbollah made sure – through the number of sectarian clashes they initiated in Lebanon – to bring back fears of civil war, and thereby bring out the French and European fears of a new wave of refugees from Lebanon. Accordingly, Macron came back with what seems to be a willingness to compromise, and instead of the “new political accord for Lebanon,” which he suggested upon his first visit, he stressed on stability of Lebanon upon his second visit.
Two main indications suggested this sudden change: Macron’s statement that Hezbollah is elected by the Lebanese people and that it should be a partner, and that he decided to conclude his visit with a grand meeting at the presidential palace, with all representatives of the political elite attending. In a way, the French president blessed the choice of the nomination of the new PM designate Mustafa Adib – who represents the same political class – and did not stress on a government outside political parties.
With Macron leaving, the priority seems to be forming the government and starting the reforms, stated by the program set by Macron. Hezbollah officials stated that they will consider the French proposal and are in principle ok with ninety percent of it, while they expressed clear objection to holding early parliamentary elections. The PM designate is not expected to have problems forming a new government – expected to take ten days to be finalized – as he was nominated by the Shia (Hezbollah and Amal), the Sunnis (all of the former prime ministers, including Hariri and Siniora) and half of the Christians (the Free Patriotic Movement, in addition to Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. But because of all that, he is also being rejected by the street and protestors.
It is not a secret anymore that Macron decided to play the mediator and compromiser, instead of the savior, in Lebanon, a tradition that has always been adopted by France in Lebanon and the region in general. And since Hezbollah gave its blessing to the PM designate and the majority of the French plan, it is somehow safe to say that Iran has given its blessing to the French initiative.
However, Paris does not have the money to bail Lebanon out, and without the US blessing, CEDRE aid will not be released, and other international aid will stay on hold. Without the US coordination and green light, Macron could only put on a show, but while performing this show on the Lebanese stage, the political class in Lebanon, orchestrated by Hezbollah, were given a lifeline and a boost by the French president, and therefore feel now encouraged to hold on to power, something that will only drag Lebanon further into the abyss. Macron seems to have only delayed the funeral.
Right after Macron left Lebanon to Iraq, assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker landed in Beirut with a clear message; that he will not meet with the political class leaders. The Trump administration did agree to give Paris a chance to lead the process of change in Lebanon, but Washington will not follow Paris’ lead if it doesn’t fulfill the conditions and guidelines already set by the US.
Of course, despite his endorsement of the same political class, Macron did stress on certain reforms, and threatened with sanctions in case they were not implemented. These include major issues such as electricity, airport and port, and central bank auditing, and it remains to be seen whether the political elite will agree to make serious concessions and compromises in the next three months, the time frame set by Macron before he visits Lebanon again in December of this year to reevaluate the situation. Also it remains to be seen if Macron will actually carry out his threats of sanctions if these reforms were not met.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun (C-R) meets French President Emmanuel Macron (C-L) at the Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut, Lebanon on August 31, 2020. (Getty)
CONTEXT AND SCENARIOS
Macron gave Lebanon’s political class three months, which means that they have a margin of maneuver until December; that is after the American presidential elections, which will determine whether the current Trump administration will continue its maximum pressure campaign on Iran and its regional proxies, or a new Biden administration will take over and ease the pressure on Iran, Hezbollah, and maybe adopt the French initiative.
Macron knows this, and hopes that his initiative will be endorsed by the US, and if not by this administration, then by the next one, and that’s probably why he decided to revisit Lebanon after the US presidential elections in November. However, by doing that, Macron disappointed the Lebanese street, who were disillusioned by his earlier statements of real change and a new political accord.
For the Lebanese people who have lost almost everything: their jobs, their savings, and their homes, Macron betrayed them by floating the Lebanese political class for a few more months. Macron gave a very clear lifeline to a class of corrupt politicians, headed by Hezbollah, who has been threatening the Lebanese people with civil war if they try to demand change, and who have used brutal force against the victim to protect the criminals.
For the people who have endured all this violence in the streets since October 17, 2019, Macron still gave these violent rulers another chance. But the US still has a different opinion on Lebanon, and only see this country from a Hezbollah and maximum pressure perspective, and therefore, the priorities are very different. For France, stability is the main priority, while for the Trump administration, containing Hezbollah in Lebanon tops stability. That’s why it will be difficult to for the US to adopt a French initiative that wouldn’t pressure Hezbollah.
In the next three months, Lebanon’s new government will have to prove to France that it is capable of doing some reforms. Hezbollah might make a few concessions here and there in order to save face and maintain power. But post the Beirut blast, the problem became bigger than a few reforms: it is a matter of trust, a trust in the political class, and mainly a trust in the political system that governed Lebanon for the past hundred years.
Therefore, in the next three months, three forms of political pressure should be exerted on the Lebanese front. The street should continue the pressure against the political class through the protests, the French should continue pressuring for reforms through the threats of sanctions, and the US should continue pressuring the French to make sure their plan is taken seriously by the Lebanese, and that their communication with Hezbollah does not empower the party or its Iranian sponsors.