x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Benighted Lebanon needs a change from tunnel vision

Lebanese are braced for weeks, if not months, of mind-numbing debate over the formation of a new cabinet and who will be the prime minister.

The outgoing government swept to power in a bid to save Syria and Hizbollah from the tribunal into Rafik Hariri's murder. Joseph Eid / AFP
The outgoing government swept to power in a bid to save Syria and Hizbollah from the tribunal into Rafik Hariri's murder. Joseph Eid / AFP

As the Lebanese brace themselves for weeks, if not months, of mind-numbing debate over the formation of a new cabinet and who will be the prime minister, it is worthwhile examining what went before. I say this because last month's resignation of the prime minister Najib Mikati, the billionaire businessman who accepted the top job after Saad Hariri, another billionaire, was ousted in a bloodless coup in January 2011, brought to an end one of the most shambolic governments in the country's post civil-war history.

Not only did the pro-Syrian government take the country to the brink of civil war, its breathtaking incompetence has decimated what was a robust economy. Growth fell from about 8 per cent in 2010 to 1.5 per cent last year and according to the ratings agencies, the best we can expect this year is 0.5 per cent.

Inflation has doubled to 6 per cent in two years, while the cabinet overspent by a cool US$11 billion (Dh40.4bn), a fifth of GDP.

The closest it came to having a plan was to hand key portfolios - energy and telecoms in particular - to the so-called technocrats from the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a party whose veneer of righteousness has since been stripped bare by their poor performances and accusations of corruption.

The energy ministry, headed by Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of the FPM leader Michel Aoun, did little to address Lebanon's electricity crisis, arguably the biggest scandal of the past two decades. He did sign a two-year $350 million deal with a Turkish firm to lease two generator ships, but these, we learnt, would make up only the shortfall incurred by routine maintenance.

And what of all the bullish talk of Lebanon exploiting its potentially game-changing natural oil and gas resources?

Without a government, the process is on hold. And while international companies bidding for exploration and drilling contracts will be aware of Lebanon's, shall we say, quirkiness, any delays will surely test their patience and confidence in this tiny Arab nation.

The government swept itself to power in a desperate bid to save Syria and its Lebanese ally, Hizbollah, from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the court investigating the 2005 murder of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Once the Arab Spring began to pollinate the Levant, the tribunal's job changed to saving the Syrian government.

This tunnel vision, and the government's reluctance to take any action that would reflect badly on Syria's Al Assad government, resulted in the security situation deteriorating and the economy, especially tourism, retail, property and investment confidence, suffering as a result.

To make matters even worse, there appears to be no mechanism to reverse this dire situation. No cabinet in the past decade has made a genuine attempt to create an economic roadmap, but the private sector has always been there driving the economy, leaving the political class to focus on consolidating sectarian support at home and sucking up to regional patrons.

This is the Lebanese way.

But the civil war in Syria has proved decisive and the old formula is not working. Tourism is dead and house prices have plunged. There is growing poverty and unemployment, fertile conditions for the sectarian hatred that has turned Tripoli, the country's second-biggest city, into a war zone. Sidon is on the edge and Beirut is by no means immune.

So what of the future?

Picking a new prime minister from the Sunni political class is the main challenge. Saad Hariri, who has been in exile in Saudi Arabia since April 2011, doesn't look like returning to Lebanon any time soon.

Indeed, and despite considerable support back home, the whispers suggest that he is not returning. Mr Mikati, the only Sunni candidate remotely acceptable to both sides, looks the likeliest candidate.

"[The] Lebanese can surprise you," said a friend, who refused to succumb to the idea that, this time we really are in trouble. I'd say it was all rather predictable.

 

Michael Karam is a Beirut-based freelance writer