It took the Lebanese prime minister nine months to form a government. The period was filled with challenges that cast a dark shade over Lebanon and its people. And now that the government has been formed it appears poised to make things worse.
To begin with, it is not a “national unity government.” This is a Hezbollah-controlled government that will only further empower the organization and its allies. Despite itsdiverse appearance on the surface, featuring four women and a carefulsectarian balance, Hezbollah and its allies have the biggest part of the cake. They can now control all the significant decisions in Lebanon.
The devil is in the details.
THE ECONOMY AND ITS DISCONTENTS
The new government was formed amid soaring public debt in Lebanon to the tune of $84 billion — 150 percent of the gross domestic product — and unemployment believed to be around 36 percent. In early January, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the country’s long-term investment issuer ratings to Caa1, from B3. Weeks later, Moody’s downgraded the country’s three largest lenders.
In his first statement as Prime Minister, Hariri said that his government would enact reforms that will allow it to unlock around $11 billion in soft loans and grants pledged by international donors at a conference in Paris last year. At the time of the CEDRE conference, Hariri pledged to reduce the budget deficit as a percentage of the gross domestic product by five percent in five years.
The ongoing deterioration began well before the parliamentary elections and is rooted in numerous factors unrelated to the current political situation, including a decrease in remittances from expatriates, rising global interest rates, a drop in overland exports to Persian Gulf countries due to the Syria war, and the previous government’s failure to pass key reforms.
In any case, even if the CEDRE pledges come through, they will not be enough to ease Lebanon’s crushing public debt without structural reforms to address widespread corruption. The country’s deteriorating infrastructure needs immediate attention—especially air transport, electricity, waste management, water, and roads.
In a sign of the prior government’s interest in dealing with corruption, Lebanon created a ministry for combating corruption in December 2016. However, it is no longer part of the new government.
HEZBOLLAH AND SANCTIONS
In the May parliamentary elections, Hezbollah and its allies won more than 70 of the 128 seats, while Hariri lost more than a third of his bloc. Hezbollah’s enhanced mandate has enabled it to strong-arm Hariri intomeeting all of its demands. As expected, Hezbollah now holds direct control over the Ministry of Public Health and two other ministries, while its allies will hold most of the sovereign portfolios. Ali Hassan Khalil of the Amal Movement remains at his post as finance minister, while Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil is staying on as foreign minister. Elias Bou Saab, also part of Aoun’s bloc, is now the new defense minister.
So this is a Hezbollah government, not a “national unity” government. A designated terrorist organization has now has either direct or indirect access to all the ministries it needs to advance its domestic and foreign agendas.
Hezbollah’s main priority today is to use the new government to alleviate its own financial challenges. U.S. and international sanctions have affected Hezbollah’s budget and network of social services. As a result, Hezbollah’s relationship with its support base has deteriorated.
But having gained the Ministry of Public Health – despite U.S. efforts to prevent the power grab – Hezbollah now enjoys access to a large portion of the state’s budget. After the Defense, Education, and Interior Ministries, the Health Ministry commands Lebanon’s fourth-largest budget at $338 million per year. But most significantly, while most of the money in the top three ministries is allotted to salaries, the majority of Health Ministry funds are given directly to the public. So Hezbollah can use the ministry’s funds to directly serve its support base, including and especially those fighters who have been wounded in Syria.
The U.S., for its part, has the option of pressing the international community and international donors to reconsider their aid to the Lebanese Health Ministry. The U.S. can also reconsider its aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces. Lebanon and its state institutions would be more vulnerable to such sanctions as the pressure on Iran continues and Hezbollah’s control over Lebanon increases.
The possible exposure of Lebanese state institutions to sanctions might not be the only exposure. As the line that separates Hezbollah from the Lebanese state grows even blurrier, Israel may begin to regard the state as Hezbollah’s main hub. Many Israeli officials have already warned that the Lebanese government will be held accountable ifHezbollah gains furthercontrol.
Today, Hezbollah coordinates directly with the Lebanese army and controls the Defense Ministry through itsallies. It can meanwhile makewar on Israel without defering to the Lebanese government. Accordingly, Israel will probably not differentiate between Lebanon and Hezbollah, or among the various parts of Lebanon for that matter, in its next war with Hezbollah or Iran.
This threat has grown more serious after recent tensions over the discovery of Hezbollah’s tunnels into Israel, in addition to the news that Hezbollah has been moving its precision missile project from Syria to Lebanon. The new Lebanese government will have to deal with the consequences.
As to how the government will handle tensions with Israel, it does not appear that Lebanon will adhere tointernational efforts to mitigate the conflict, such as UN Security Council Resolution 1701. It is also unlikely that Hariri and his government will stand against Hezbollah if the latter opts to continue digging tunnels or buildingmissiles in civilian areas or in close proximity toLebanon’s key infrastructure.
In the event of war, it is also unlikely that the pro-Hezbollah government will receive the same support it received in 2006 for reconstruction.
REFUGEES AND THE SYRIAN REGIME
In another attempt to avoid dealing with thorny issues, Hariri gave the refugees portfolio to a Hezbollah ally. In the eyes of many Syrians and Lebanese, Hariri seems to have abandoned the Syrian refugees, and probably will not stand against his foreign minister,Gebran Bassil, if the latter decides to visit Damascus and meet with Bashar Al-Assad.
Lebanon will likely endorse the Russian plan to return the Syrian refugees to Syria, even if that means that many of them will be imprisoned – or,at best, be forcibly conscripted into the Syrian army. Lebanon will turn a blind eye to the fate of these refugees if they go to Syria. As these refugees might go on to attempt to flee to Europe, European concerns might be the only deterrent toLebanon’s plan to force them out aggressively.
Hezbollah and its allies are determined to help Assad re-enter the Arab diplomatic scene via the Lebanese arena. And Assad is counting on it.
The new Lebanese government will return Syrian refugees to Syria, help Assad reenter the Arab fold, expose state institutions to more sanctions, and expose Lebanon to more Israeli threats and attacks. Last but not least, the new government will likely fail to improve the economy. The repercussions will be very grave for Lebanon and its people. Meanwhile, amid more violent conflicts in the region — from Syria to Yemen — Lebanon will likely not top the list of regional priorities.
Yes, Lebanon has a new government after nine months of broken promises and challenges. But the new government will not save Lebanon.