Nearly a month after the resignation of Saad Hariri as prime minister, Lebanese officials are still debating the appointment of his replacement and the formation of a new government, demonstrating just how out of touch they are with protesters. The longer they take to appoint a new premier, the worse socio-economic conditions become.
Already grappling with an economic crisis, Lebanon has slid even deeper into turmoil since protests erupted against the ruling elite last month, fueled by anger over the corruption of the sectarian politicians who have dominated Lebanon for years.
The protests led Hariri to quit as prime minister on October 29, toppling a coalition government that included the Hezbollah party. President Michel Aoun has yet to call for binding parliamentary consultations to name his replacement, drawing the criticism of rivals and ire of protesters.
The following are potential government scenarios that may take shape:
- Ongoing stalling with no appointed PM: Aoun’s political camp may exploit a constitutional loophole that does not bind the president to call for consultations within a specific timeframe. This will allow him the time to seek more potential candidates and to demonstrate that he was firmly in control of the state and preserving the “dignity” of the Free Patriotic Movement and its leader against the protesters. The stalling tactic allows the FPM to blame the political impasse and deteriorating economy on its rivals. It will also lower expectations and avoid appearing as though the FPM had succumbed to the protester demands. The stalling will deflate the demonstrators and create unease and exasperation that will ultimately lead forces to make do with whatever government that can ensure that life returns to “normal”.
- Hariri forms a government of independents: Such a scenario may “embarrass” the revolt because it will eliminate the sympathy of the Sunnis with the rallies should Hariri’s appointment be met with rejection. Prime ministers in Lebanon must be Sunni. The premiership was already dealt a blow when Hariri was forced to resign, while the president – a Maronite Christian – and parliament speaker – a Shiite – have only been dealt “metaphorical” blows.
Moreover, Hariri’s formation of a government of independent figures raises more questions than answers: How will it set economic policies? How will the powers react if the bank owners refuse to take on the brunt of salvaging the situation? What will Lebanon’s stance be towards regional disputes which the country was dragged into due to the policies of Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and Hezbollah? Most importantly, will the new government be able to rid itself of clientelism and cronyism that have plagued the country for decades?
The Aoun-Hezbollah alliance still rejects a government of independents, claiming it will tighten the noose around the party. Hezbollah has offered unrealistic proposals to tackle the economic crisis, such as turning to China, while the FPM, which is headed by Bassil, has made farcical allegations that the revolt has adopted its demands of combating corruption.
- Government of independents without Hariri: This scenario meets the demand of the protesters to keep the current corrupt sectarian political class out of the new cabinet. This ultimately makes the demand the most difficult to achieve given the presence of the current balance of power. The parties in power will make it very difficult for independent figures to avoid political dictates. Moreover, the balance of power inside the cabinet itself will also be vague. What economic policies will they adopt? What about their political and sectarian views? One must also wonder what sort of international backing will such a government receive. Could it succeed in convincing it and Arab countries that it is serious about wanting to achieve real change and economic, judicial and political reform in Lebanon? This government must also be wary of Hezbollah and its international backers as they attempt to evade western sanctions and use Lebanon as a smuggling portal.
- Government of technocrat and political figures headed by Hariri: Hezbollah and its supporters have been demanding such a cabinet, saying it was the best solution to the current impasse. This government would include party representatives, excluding the Lebanese Forces and possibly Progressive Socialist Party of Walid Jumblatt. Hezbollah and its allies would take advantage of Hariri being appointed as premier. The government would also include figures that rightfully came to light or who exploited the revolt under the guise of the civil society. This new government would pick up where its predecessor left off and resume clientelism and repeat same empty promises to the international community in return for aid packages. The international community and Arab world will not support such a government, which should it be established, will further increase Lebanon’s isolation.
The materialization of such a scenario hinges on the success of attempts to tarnish the image of the revolt and claim that it will fail in achieving its goals.
- One-sided government: Hariri will not be considered to head such a cabinet, which would be formed of Hezbollah and its allies. Technically, Hezbollah and its FPM allies have enough lawmakers to form such a government. However, it would bring disaster to the economy and no one wants to be held responsible for that. It could also lead to more fragmentation among the FPM ranks and the supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal movement. As of yet, there is no reason why officials would resort to forming to such a cabinet. Threats to do so have been dismissed as political and media intimidation. The last time a one-sided government was formed was in 2011 under Najib Miqati and it was met with massive failure.