Columnist

No luxury of time

American-Lebanese journalist Mouafac Harb.

The team is losing one-nil and the game entered into injury time, but the losing team decided to resort to wasting time. This is what the Lebanese leaders are doing in the wake of the crisis that has engulfed the country more than a year ago and is now threatening the integrity of the country.

Despite the pressing economic challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the political clique sees no urgency in forming a Cabinet. They play the traditional local game while keeping an eye on international developments to determine if they are unfolding to their favor. Hezbollah and its alliance with the presidency were negotiating under the threat of US sanctions and showed some flexibility.

However, they became emboldened following the results of the US Presidential elections, and expect a more lenient Biden administration because of its moderate stance toward Iran. This political rationale may explain the current Cabinet debacle. Hezbollah and its allies believe they have survived a hardline Trump administration and they still have little more than one month to go before the power transfer in Washington. Whether this logic is realistic or not, there is one reality: the country is inching closer toward a total economic collapse with all its implications.

Lebanon’s history is a continuous political crises with intermittent violent conflicts, but now a social crisis is brewing. The national currency has collapsed and hard currency is difficult to obtain while the Central Bank reserves are shrinking and threatening to stop subsidies of basic goods, which will certainly lead to a social upheaval of a magnitude never seen in the modern history the country before.

Sectarian tension coupled with social miseries is a recipe for disaster. A disaster that could lead to the disintegration of the state and subsequently threaten the fragile Lebanese unity. It is a high stake gamble that local leaders are playing.

When it comes to Lebanon Mark Twain would have been wrong. In Lebanon, history repeats itself and it doesn’t only rhyme. Never in the modern history of the country leaders managed to reach a settlement without foreign intervention. The problems in Lebanon are home-made but solutions always imported and never made in lebanon.

The confessional system makes it difficult for sectarian leaders to compromise or give away privileges, because it would be viewed by their constituents as a sell out and a betrayal.

The Oct. 17 uprising and the series of sporadic protests that followed have threatened the political establishment. Recent college student council elections showed that the anti-traditional political parties sentiments are on the rise, making it difficult for the sectarian leaders to yield power bases and give away privileges.

Only economically stirred protests can threaten the political establishment and threaten its hold to power, because it crosses the sectarian divide. Some in Washington and in Gulf states link any future assistance to Lebanon to Hezbollah arms and grip over the state and argue that suffocating the economy may create an anti-Hezbollah wave forcing the Iranian-funded group to disarm or at least agree to fold into the Lebanese state armed forces.

While the anti-Hezbollah sentiments are growing and more vocal even within its community, the economic hardship, unlike what some have hoped, sidelined the issue of Hezbollah's arsenal and its presence in Syria for the time being. During one of his recent trips to Lebanon, French president Macron showed no desire to invoke Hezbollah’s arms at the moment.

The only game in town offering a road map for economic salvation is the French initiative which encompasses the CEDRE conference with the support of the European Union. It takes months for the new US administration to review its foreign policy and the process of confirming the national security team of the new president may delay such review.

The first signal of any change or update in US policy would first be detected by France and US-European allies. Which means the French initiative will gain some American steam given the upcoming administration’s desire for collective efforts with allies in tackling regional conflicts. The recent positive signals that the Gulf political crisis may be nearing an end, could also give some hope that the French initiative may see some light.

Mouafac Harb is a veteran American-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut.

 

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