Can the new Lebanese government repair the mess more than a year after the explosion in Beirut?


Lebanon finally got a new government this month, more than a year after the deadly port explosion that killed 217 people, injured 7,000, and swept away the old government. Well, “new” – as always with Lebanese politics – might be overstated. But at least after a year of stasis, the country has found around 20 people to form a functioning government, including a game show host, billionaire and former central bank official.

In the hot seat as Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, a billionaire and one of the Lebanese the richest businessmen, who were caught up to corruption charges after having been prime minister twice before. Takeovers are quite common for Lebanese prime ministers, even interim ones: one of last year’s interim leaders, Saad Hariri, the son of an assassinated prime minister and a former prime minister himself, was one of two people who tried unsuccessfully to form a government after the explosion.

It is high time we had a government. France, colonial patron of Lebanon, made the formation of a viable government a condition of any financial support, a position taken up by multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. But few people have any illusions that the last batch will be able to bring real reforms to a country that has fallen into one of the most serious financial crises since the middle of the 19th century, with more than half of the population falling below the poverty line.

Lebanon finally got a new government this month, more than a year after the deadly port explosion that killed 217 people, injured 7,000, and swept away the old government. Well, “new” – as always with Lebanese politics – might be overstated. But at least after a year of stasis, the country has found around 20 people to form a functioning government, including a game show host, billionaire and former central bank official.

In the hot seat as Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, a billionaire and one of the Lebanese the richest businessmen, who were caught up to corruption charges after having been prime minister twice before. Takeovers are quite common for Lebanese prime ministers, even interim ones: one of last year’s interim leaders, Saad Hariri, the son of an assassinated prime minister and a former prime minister himself, was one of two people who tried unsuccessfully to form a government after the explosion.

It is high time we had a government. France, colonial patron of Lebanon, made the formation of a viable government a condition of any financial support, a position taken up by multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. But few people have any illusions that the last batch will be able to bring real reforms to a country that has fallen into one of the most serious financial crises since the middle of the 19th century, with more than half of the population falling below the poverty line.

With a ruling class filled with wealthy businessmen and politicians, too many familiar faces, of which corruption and neglect are what many blame for the current situation, still dominate the Lebanese political scene.


Hang in there: what if the Lebanese government collapses after the explosion in Beirut, which has ruled the country for a year?

The explosion of a few thousand tons of poorly stored aluminum nitrate blew up many windows, blew up many buildings and shattered the government of then Prime Minister Hassan Diab. Thousands of indignant Lebanese took to the streets to protest the deadly mismanagement of the whole affair. It came after decades of selfish leadership that permeated all aspects of life in Lebanon, including the extreme devaluation of the currency, skyrocketing food prices and daily blackouts. The Lebanese pound, or lira, has lost over 90% of its value in two years. In December 2020, food prices had increase up 400% from the previous year, with clothing prices increasing 560% and home furnishings, household equipment and maintenance prices climbing 655%.

But Diab continued as interim prime minister leading a government with little or no power as two prime ministers designate – Mustapha Adib, followed by Hariri – each stepped down after failing to form a new government, leaving the political factions will spend the year disagreeing on a new formation. The power-sharing system in Lebanon is developed along sectarian lines; historically a Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister and a Shia Muslim speaker of parliament. This insistence on dividing the spoils between factions after the Civil War means that many familiar faces, while ineffective, continue to appear in the same jobs.


Who are the new and remarkable?

Lebanon will not get good marks for including women in government. Najla Riachi has been appointed Minister of Administrative Development, the only woman to sit at the table of 24, a sharp drop from the record six who served in Diab’s 20 members cabinet.

Of the 23 others, the one who stands out is Youssef al-Khalil, now Minister of Finance. An old official at the Lebanese central bank for nearly four decades, Khalil headed the financial operations department of the bank and orchestra the program which attempted to bring more US dollars into the country by offering attractive interest rates on larger deposits. This same program intensified the banking crisis in Lebanon, dry deposits in commercial banks and left civilians with shattered bank accounts unable to withdraw their money.

But who wants to become a millionaire? This is a question reserved for George Kordahi, the new Lebanese Minister of Information, who happens to be the former host of the Arabic version of the show. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Meanwhile, Firass Abiad, who spearheading Lebanon’s health efforts since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the new Lebanese Minister of Health. Both a new and sympathetic face, Abiad is one of the some figures respected by the public.


Why is it important to have a new government?

Well, for starters, the political stalemate made the influx of foreign aid almost impossible. Without a functioning government, Lebanon will not get any relief for its $ 90 billion debt; a new government, however retreaded, at least gives the country a chance to regroup.

Among his first steps as interim finance minister, Khalil agreed to hire a New York-based company on September 17 to restart the forensic audit of the central bank. A government capable of fighting corruption is a major precondition for a financial bailout from the IMF and international donors. The initial audit had fizzled out after months of internal disagreements and cover-ups, which led to a deadlock in the process.

And then there is Hezbollah, considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, but a political force in Lebanon, which supports two ministers in Mikati’s cabinet. Hezbollah recently came to the rescue of the country’s diesel fuel shortage in a way the government has not. The group brought in over a million gallons of Iranian fuel to Lebanon from Syria on September 16, a day before the government got its own shipment from Iraq. While the move violated U.S. sanctions imposed on anyone doing business with the Syrian government, it was a small relief for the desperate civilian population, who continue to suffer from power cuts and hours of long lines at petrol stations.


Will the new government change anything?

Unlikely. The new government will most likely apply cosmetic touch-ups to these deep-rooted issues, just enough to get votes for Lebanon traditional sectarian parties.

The biggest problem is that the country is broke, not just broken. Finding a way to close the financial deficit, consolidate the currency, cope with the debt burden, and restore some semblance of sanity to everyday life is the No.1 priority – or should be – for the new government. But skepticism abounds in what most analysts see as a kleptocratic state.

In an interview on September 17 with CNN, Mikati said it was a “period of transition to change” and that he hoped to lead a government that “brings the country to elections and let the people decide who they want later.” The next legislative elections in Lebanon should take place next May, if they are not postponed.

Ultimately, the Lebanese are in the dark most of the time, without gasoline, struggling to buy their daily bread. They are left with one question which, like the new government, is familiar: How can those who caused the demise of a country be the same to fix it?


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