| 17 April 2024, Wednesday |

What’s happening in Lebanon matters to Europe. Here’s why

Why should anyone care about Lebanon?

Yes, it has offshore oil, is a potential gold mine in pharmaceuticals, grows top quality marijuana and takes pride in one of Hollywood’s favorite fashion designers, Elie Saab, a report published by euronews on Tuesday said.

But doesn’t Hezbollah run a spider’s web of worldwide terror networks from there? And what about the Mafia-style corrupted political system that puts Al Capone to shame? Not to mention the killing or maiming of presidents, premiers, politicians, journalists and activists often regarded as little more than a temporary inconvenience.

At least France does, it seems.

Since French President Emmanuel Macron waded into the quagmire of Lebanon after one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosions rocked the capital Beirut last year, his much-vaunted rescue plan to save the country’s financial meltdown has hit a stalemate.

And a probe into what caused the explosion at the port of Beirut where improperly and negligently stored chemicals detonated, claiming the lives of at least 200 people and causing €13 billion in damage, has gone nowhere.

There’s only one thing all can agree on – the country is on the brink of falling into an uncertain and terrifying freefall.

Lebanon is already a failed state in multiple ways; the local pound currency has dwindled significantly, losing nearly 90% of its value. Everyone’s money has disappeared down the drain from empty vaults of collapsed banks. Half the country is trapped in poverty, and food riots are looming. Yet, as it is left to drown in an ocean of debt of its own making, the international community appears to have done virtually nothing practical to halt it.

What else can go wrong? It depends on who you ask for such predictions in fractured Lebanon. A renewed civil war? Yet another war with Israel? A return of Syrian forces to police the volatile nation? The rise of a new Iranian-style Islamic State? Or a breakdown into mini-states where rival sects, Christians and Druze, Muslim Sunnis, and Shiites might live in harmony. Three decades ago, the former federation of Yugoslavia, which included Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, was raised as a promising model for multi-religious harmony in Lebanon. We know how badly that turned out – a bloody war-torn disaster on the doorstep of Europe.

The only scenario that’s not being tackled is the expectation of a magical return to normality as Lebanese pack their bags and run away. If you asked what they needed most of all right now, it would be a fully functioning cabinet to stop their accelerating havoc. Since their president and a prime minister in waiting are entangled in a political battle of wills, it is beyond their reach.

So, who’s at fault? Well, again, that depends on whose side you’re on. Suppose you’re in the camp of the octogenarian Maronite Christian President Michel Aoun. In that case, it includes the armed Shiite militants of Hezbollah whose fighters helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cling onto power during a decade of civil war, allied with Russia and Iran.

The opposite side is led by a PM-designate, 50-year-old Saad Hariri, who is seen favourably in the West. Like his father, the five-time premier Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated 16 years ago, he is battling a Lebanese president against uneven odds in a climate of fear and intimidation. Once, it was Syria that could issue threats against Hariri the elder and his allies. Now Hezbollah, with a whip hand over Lebanese politics and Iran and Syria, all side with the embattled president.

To make matters more complicated, the ageing president’s key advisor is his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil. A former Foreign Minister and leader of the largest Christian political bloc in parliament, suspected by opponents of being the real power behind his close relative’s throne. The United States slapped sanctions on him last year over “systemic corruption” and the political relations he and his father-in-law, the president, have with Hezbollah. Bassil brushed off the U.S. punishment as meaningless, but the French government has since been mulling similar action on suspect Lebanese politicians, so he could find himself in deeper international trouble.

Saad Hariri’s picks for a new government are intended to follow the French-led economic rescue plan. It insists on a technocrat-only cabinet to enact reforms and drag the country from its reliance on state institutions that act as fiefdoms for the interests of sectarian political groups. President Aoun has rejected them 18 times. And his opponents claim he intends to contain a Hariri premiership through insistence on having veto power on cabinet decisions in any new government.

Hariri is not without his own setbacks. A two-time prime minister, he was the only leader to step down last year in the face of failed street demonstrations to topple the country’s entire ruling political elite. And seen over time, his father’s legacy and that of his own efforts to re-position the once war-torn country as a success story are regarded by opponents as an abject failure.

Internal and external political pressure is building up. The economic asphyxiation won’t stop unless a transparent, reform-capable cabinet is put in place. Hezbollah officials may sound upbeat as the French shift gear. Still, the Iranians seem in no rush to break the deadlock any time soon. It may give them leverage in combating Washington’s policy in the region at a time when a resumption of indirect talks over a possible U.S. return to the Iran nuclear deal is underway.

Something has to give to make any progress. Political alliances can shift with the wind in Lebanon, but the risks of doing so are historically high as its leaders know only too well. When Rafik Hariri changed the political course dramatically, it was the beginning of his end. His son Saad is walking in similar footsteps. Little wonder he rarely leaves his heavily fortified home in central Beirut.