Lebanese politicians seek handouts rather than reforms


Wed 25 Aug 2021

Lebanese politicians seek handouts rather than reforms

Source MENA
Paul Gadalla

Barbers shave their customers in front of their shop due to a power cut in Beirut, Lebanon on August 20, 2021. Photo taken on August 20, 2021. REUTERS / Mohamed Azakir

In his last speech on August 15, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, declared that his country is already “in the midst of collapse”. And, indeed, he could very well be right. Lebanon has fully survey fuel subsidies, plunging many homes into darkness as many people across the country depend on diesel generators to power their homes. Hospitals are struggling to keep lights on while flour mills shut down, raising fears of a shortage of bread. Pharmacies can barely stock medicine as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

One would think that such a grim situation would push Lebanese politicians to form a technocratic government capable of at least adopting a few reforms to save the country from the brink of collapse. But this is where the problem lies: any reform would deprive Lebanon’s sectarian oligarchs of their power. Thus, Lebanese politicians allow the collapse of Lebanon while hoping for as much international aid as possible with the fewest conditions.

Since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, there have been large conferences to help lift the country out of its chronic economic problems. After fifteen years of civil war and conflict with Israel, this was done in the hope of maintaining the unity of Lebanon, as no one wanted to see the country once again become a regional arena of conflict. In a report published in February by the London School of Economics, It is valued that the financial assistance of 170 billion dollars brought to Lebanon by its various supports since the end of its fifteen-year civil war is higher than the amount of the assistance granted to the countries within the framework of the Marshall Plan (corrected for inflation ). Yet, thanks to corruption, much of this money has been poorly spent or stolen, leaving Lebanon heavily in debt and still with poor infrastructure. Even the money intended for Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon was hijacked.

But, now Lebanese politicians are locked in a battle of resolve with the international community over reforms in return for aid. Until now, the Western powers have refused to give large sums to Lebanon until they see the implementation of tangible reforms. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was ready to offer the Lebanese government $ 11 billion in 2020 if it proposed and implemented honest reforms. All he got was a sixty-five page proposal of the government composed of Prime Minister Hassan Diab proposing vague reforms that would be financed by money from the Lebanese diaspora. The IMF did not carry out the bailout. Real reforms, like privatizing state-owned enterprises or cutting spending, would stop the patronage networks of sectarian oligarchs in Lebanon and their access to public funds. In fact, the World Bank noted in 2020 that the current economic depression in the country would be underway. deliberately by the Lebanese political class.

Instead of cooperating, the Lebanese elite resorted to blackmail from the international community while demanding funds with few or no conditions. The leader of the largest parliamentary bloc in Lebanon and son-in-law of the Lebanese president, Gibran Bassil, and former Prime Minister Diab told the international community that letting Lebanon collapse would mean the rampage of the more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon. With Cyprus and Greece close by, this means refugees could end up at the gates of the European Union, something the West is wary of following the 2015 refugee crisis in which a million refugees, mainly from the Middle East, have arrived in Europe. Joseph Aoun, the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, even warned that the army could collapse because the salaries of his soldiers are no more than value $ 84 per month in local currency, down from $ 800 just two years ago. These are certainly threats that cannot be taken lightly.

And their strategy is already working. The World Food Program continues to strengthen its program in the country as the World Bank sets up an emergency fund for Lebanon. Iran, Iraq, and even the we would have sent fuel. On August 4, the day of the first anniversary of the explosion in the port of Beirut, French President Emmanuel Macron even welcomed another donors’ conference for Lebanon where US President Joe Biden promised 100 million dollars and France 100 million euros, but with little mention of the necessary reforms that must be taken in exchange.

Lebanese politicians are already looking to exploit incoming foreign aid. The World Bank is ready to give Lebanon the emergency aid to prevent people from starving to death. The Lebanese government has only given a verbal agreement that it will pay the aid in dollars. Originally, he intended to distribute aid in Lebanese liras at a rate he would set, allowing politicians to exchange dollars at their own price. This would create a new system of patronage in which financial aid to Lebanon would be distributed in different ways by the different oligarchs.

Parties like Hezbollah are more worrying demanding that the Ministry of Finance be attributed to the Shiite sect that it dominates. The Ministry supervise the national budget, the collection of taxes, public debt, customs, land registry, international payments, links with the Lebanese Central Bank, approves the financing of major projects and, above all, allows the disbursement of foreign aid. In fact, any department that needs funds for a project must obtain the signature of the Minister of Finance. With that in mind, Hezbollah wants the finance ministry to control the disbursement of pending international aid and have a say in negotiating and implementing any structural reform, which the party has said. voiced apprehensions towards. This will allow Hezbollah access new funds as it faces sanctions and will give Hezbollah the ability to veto any financial reform it might see as a threat to the party.

So now we find ourselves with the slow and constant collapse of the Lebanese state as its politicians await international aid with the fewest conditions possible. But the question now is who will blink first: the international community or the Lebanese politicians? And will Lebanon continue to destabilize or will international donors give in when they see the population starve?

Paul Gadalla is a former Beirut-based journalist who also worked in communications at Carnegie Middle East Center. He holds a master’s degree in political science and focuses on the Eastern Mediterranean and religious minorities. Follow him on Twitter: @BoulosinDC.


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