“Lebanon moves into greater danger.” “Persevering in destroying Lebanon.” “Arab and international community fear chaos.”
These were the headlines splashed across the front pages of Lebanon’s major newspapers Friday, a day after Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri – a previous holder of the office – abandoned his bid to form the crisis-ridden country’s next government.
Across Lebanon’s vast political divide, disagreements are plentiful but there is consensus on two apparent truths: that Lebanon’s confessional power-sharing system is no longer tenable. And that the withdrawal of Hariri, a long-time Sunni leader who has been a staple of that sectarian system, from the political process could spell unmitigated disaster for the country.
This is Lebanon’s Gordian knot, and as the country approaches its 101st birthday, there are fears that that dilemma could cost this tiny Mediterranean state everything.
Shock and resignation
In recent weeks, Lebanon’s economic crisis – which the World Bank has called one of the worst since the mid-19th century – has picked up speed. Massive fuel shortages have led to hours-long queues outside gas stations, power outages exceed 22 hours a day, inflation has skyrocketed and around 77% of households can’t afford to put enough food on the table, according to the United Nations.
Hariri’s resignation was the last thing the country needed, and yet it was both inevitable and unexpected.
It was inevitable because the three-time prime minister who was tasked with forming a rescue government nine months ago had repeatedly signaled that he would step down. And because trust in his abilities, which dropped continuously over the course of his political career and nosedived after an October 2019 uprising, had all but collapsed.
Time had shown that he was incapable of breaking a stalemate with his arch-rival President Michel Aoun, and unable to regain visible support from his traditional, and vital, regional patrons Saudi Arabia after his mysterious trip there and alleged November 2017 detention – which he denies – in Riyadh. Moreover, there was no evidence that he was working on an economic rescue plan that a new government would enact to pull the country out of its financial wreckage.
But the move was also surprising and devastating. Neither the political elite, nor the burgeoning nonsectarian opposition, nor the international community have coalesced around an alternative to Hariri. Additionally, the international community seemed to throw their weight behind his government formation process in recent weeks, repeatedly warning of the prospect of imminent state collapse.
The European Union sent multiple delegations to Lebanon, urging the ruling elite to resolve the dispute between Aoun and Hariri. Eventually the EU threatened to impose sanctions on leading officials, and has said that a legal framework for meting out those penalties would materialize by the end of July.
Just hours before the resignation announcement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian sent a message to Aoun through their Beirut embassies urging him to expedite the formation of a government. It was a glaring example of the international community’s rapidly diminishing influence in Lebanon.
According to Aoun, Hariri refused to compromise on his line-up. Hariri vehemently denies this. While the truth was somewhere in between, the result was an apparently Pyrrhic victory for Aoun and proof of the paralysis of Lebanon’s political system.
Hence, Hariri’s resignation immediately pushed the sinking Lebanese lira further into the abyss — the local currency saw its biggest 24-hour decline since the start of the crisis, and now has lost over 95% of its pre-crisis 2019 value. Lebanon’s streets, already roiling with anger over a rapidly growing economic crisis and infrastructural decay, became even more restive. Hundreds of Hariri supporters forced the closure of major highways on Thursday night. Molotov cocktails, rocks and fireworks were directed at security forces.
The international community issued strongly worded statements against a ruling elite that consisted of some politicians they once considered allies.
France’s foreign ministry accused the country’s leaders of “deliberately” keeping the political process frozen while Lebanon “sinks into unprecedented economic and social crisis.”
Blinken also tweeted that the US was “disappointed with developments in Lebanon and disheartened that political leaders have squandered the last nine months.”
During a two-hour televised interview shortly after his resignation, Hariri tried to dispel the notion that his attempts to form a government were halfhearted, accusing Aoun of obstructing the process by trying to achieve veto power through the cabinet formation.
His interviewer, Lebanese broadcaster Al Jadeed TV’s chief of news and politics Mariam al-Bassam, repeatedly scoffed at him, berating him for jumping ship and for allowing the Lebanese people “to bear the brunt” of his decision. All the while she recounted a litany of his political and financial flops and questioned his ability to head a rescue government in the first place.
Amid all this turbulence, a cautious calm hangs over the capital Beirut. Nonsectarian political groups are appealing to people on social media to lend their support to a still little-known political alternative that has concocted programs for economic and political reform. But while they have growing legions of supporters, many people in Lebanon have fallen into despair, preferring flight over fight.
At a European visa center just hours before Hariri’s expected announcement, a security guard said to one of the applicants: “Listen, if the politicians can’t work it out today, could you take me with you?”
Elsewhere, emaciated people are rummaging through dumpsters, and formerly middle class folk wait patiently for food handouts. The streets are also pulsating with the sporadic protests by the families of people who were killed in last August’s port explosion, as the anniversary of that devastating event draws nearer.
“I want war because we’re dying anyway,” said one aid worker on the northern outskirts of Beirut – he asked not to be named for fear of compromising his profession.
Another aid worker nearby says he wishes the country would be occupied again, “by whoever, it doesn’t matter.” Pressed for further explanation, it was apparent that the sentiment, which carried echoes of some of the darkest chapters of Lebanon’s history, was driven by desperation rather than rational thought.
But it remains true that people in Lebanon are fully aware of their Gordian Knot. And they are in urgent need of a Lebanese Alexander to take a bold and decisive move to break it.