Lebanon’s Big Small Step Forward

James Denselow
James Denselow

After 13 months of deadlock during which time layers of the Lebanese state and society have accelerated into an economic tailspin, white smoke emerged from the halls of Lebanon’s political elites with the announcement of a new government.

Unlike the iconic scenes in Kabul weeks earlier, this important step in the right direction for Lebanon barely made the Western press. Visible and chaotic scenes can grab headlines whilst Lebanon’s insidious crisis is both too complex and too incremental for much of the world to get its head round.

Perhaps the richest man in the country is new Prime Minister and to him and his cabinet lies the epic task of reversing a series of events that have forced all three-quarters of the Lebanese population into poverty. “The situation is very difficult. But it’s not impossible if we united as Lebanese. We have to put our hands together,” Prime Minister Navin Mikati told the press on Friday. “We are all going to work together, united with hope and determination.”

An EU statement in response to the news of a new government outlined their belief that “all parties involved should show the same resolve and ability to compromise, to adopt without delay the measures needed to ensure that the immediate needs and further legitimate expectations of the Lebanese people are met.”

The British Foreign Secretary issued a similar call for the new government to “be followed by implementation of urgent reforms”, going on to warn the new Lebanese leadership that “the UK supports Lebanon, but we must see concerted action”.

Whilst many seasoned observers of Lebanese politics are envisioning low expectations as to what the new government can and will do, there can be little doubting the scale of the challenge and its urgency. “We will tackle solutions to the fuel and medicine shortages in order to end the humiliation” to the population, Prime Minister Mikati said during the first meeting of the new leadership.

Tackling fires whilst attempting to address the root causes to Lebanon’s political wildfire crisis is the order of the day. Massive reforms and changes to the way the country is governed are clearly needed, but will a group of politicians who’ve emerged from the traditional months long horse-trading over control over ministries and patronage be the ones to deliver perhaps the most radical overhaul of Lebanese politics in the country’s history?

If the new government can stop hospitals having to switch off their ICU notes and protect the currency from sliding into complete worthlessness, the macro ambition is to unlock IMF support and the serious money that comes with it. Already the news has come through that Lebanon is to receive $1.135 billion in what are described as “Special Drawing Rights (SDRs)” from the International Monetary Fund to help the crisis-hit country tackle its deep economic depression.

Yet bigger money requires bigger reforms and herein lies the existential question facing this new cohort of Lebanese leaders. They are essentially products of a political system that they are now being asked to destroy in order to save the country. That’s the question at its most stark.

In its subtler forms the debate hinges on whether the IMF and the international community will settle on commercial banking reform and a restructuring of the Lebanese public sector, but even these are vast issues for a political team formed from consensus politics and prone to collapse for all the reasons that it took thirteen months to form.

Collapse would seem more likely than success unless those backers of each and every new Cabinet member realise the zero sum nature of that gamble if the country becomes essentially unliveable; with no fuel, no electricity, no infrastructure and a currency that is literally not worth the paper it is printed on.

A third alternative to success or collapse is increased competition along more historic sectarian lines. We’ve already seen how the politicisation of the country’s attempt to secure fuel has brought in Iranian tankers, US diplomats and a Lebanese delegation to Syria. Further unhelpful regionalisation or internationalisation of the crisis risks taking events into uncharted territory where prospects of violence become much more real. So the jury is now out for a critical few weeks and months that should tell us which way Lebanon is heading next.

by: James Denselow

James Denselow,