Can a New President Save Lebanon?

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun recently vacated the presidency after six years in office, leaving behind constitutional chaos and a political vacuum at the top of a collapsing country. Five sessions in parliament have failed to elect a successor due to ceaseless bickering among a fractured ruling establishment and the unabashed obstruction of this vote by Iran-backed Hezbollah, the main power broker in Lebanon.

While this isn’t a first for Lebanon, disputes over a caretaker’s powers bode badly for a government that needs to take critical actions to forestall the free fall toward which Lebanon is headed. Technically, a cabinet in a caretaker role cannot issue decrees or make important decisions, such as jumpstarting oil and gas exploration that would help unlock foreign investment and generate sources of income for economic recovery. Lebanon and Israel recently reached a historic agreement that demarcates Lebanon’s disputed southern maritime border after years of hostilities.

Lebanon’s parliament can now do nothing except elect a president; to be successful, a candidate needs to first secure two-thirds of MPs’ support. Lebanon has been without a functioning government since the May parliamentary elections as factions, once again, were unable to agree on its composition. And the past six years are anything if not an indication that no president can be elected without the backing of Hezbollah, which holds a majority of seats in parliament.

Aoun himself took office in 2016 amid turmoil that had left Lebanon without a president for more than two years. A deeply divisive figure, he returned after 15 years in exile, thanks to an unholy alliance with Hezbollah. Aoun’s presidency was marred by political crises and the worst economic and social catastrophe in decades — made possible by a nationally-sponsored Ponzi scheme, dubbed “deliberate depression” by the World Bank, whereby private banks offered exorbitant interest rates to big depositors for money then lent out to the state, leading to soaring public debt. 

The ensuing cataclysmic meltdown manifests itself today in pervasive economic deterioration — severe currency devaluation, inflation and unemployment — worsening social services and basic necessity shortages, massive middle-class attrition and the overall destitution of the population (almost three-quarters of the people live in poverty), together with the disintegration of state structures. This newest constitutional crisis means that Lebanon will be unable to enact elemental reforms necessary to finalize a deal to unlock $3 billion of much-needed International Monetary Fund assistance.

Other highlights of Aoun’s presidency include the rise and then demise of mass protests among the Lebanese that rallied every sector, class and gender in a moment of anger against the entrenched status-quo with the expectation of revolutionary change. A deadly ammonium nitrate mega-explosion — widely blamed on government negligence — then decimated much of the capital city, leaving more than 200 dead, 4,000 wounded and 300,000 homeless. To date, nobody has been charged with causing the explosion, and Aoun and his assistants have been accused, through inaction, of enabling the underlying mismanagement and corruption that led directly to the blast.

Most insidious has been the symbiosis between the kleptocratic political class — with Aoun at its helm — that has depleted Lebanon’s economic viability and the foreign interference, through Iran’s patronage, that has jeopardized its sovereignty. As a result, the political establishment was able to counteract all challenges to its stranglehold, entrenching itself by providing opportunities to its economic partners for kleptocratic appropriations. The institutionalized smuggling of subsidized fuel to Syria over the past decade is but one example of how the fuel cartel — through questionable contracts — sapped the local market to sell fuel derivatives at double the price in Syria, simultaneously threatening critical institutions such as hospitals with blackouts and depriving Lebanon of at least half a billion dollars annually.

This political elite that was able to eschew accountability for even the most egregious of incidents ultimately outlasted even the promising emerging grassroots culture. Most disheartening to a public severely disillusioned with dysfunctional state institutions has been the inability of well-meaning activists and reformists, who continue to be plagued by confusion and internecine conflicts, to take advantage of opportunities for meaningful change.

Can a new president save Lebanon? Unlikely. Anyone who comes into office will have to make concessions to Hezbollah and the ruling establishment, leaving little room for maneuver. Ultimately, the only hope for this devastated country and its people may rest in the dozen or so reform-minded newcomers who won seats in parliament in May. The void ushered in by the constitutional crisis may unexpectedly offer a chance for these proponents of reform to evolve.

It is therefore, more than ever, imperative that these actors and their civil society counterparts unite in action and vision to help sow the seeds for the reinvention of Lebanon, one that is sovereign, inclusive and economically viable — and, with it, the possibility of politics of a new order.