Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 May 2019

Now, Lebanon must ensure just governance for all

The long-delayed formulation of a cabinet is an important step, but huge tasks still lie ahead

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrives to attend the first cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital Beirut on February 2, 2019. AFP
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrives to attend the first cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital Beirut on February 2, 2019. AFP

After nine months of deadlock, the recently announced formation of a government in Lebanon is welcome. Teetering on the brink of financial ruin, with public services floundering and protests spreading across its cities, it has long been clear that the country has desperately needed stability and decisive action to fix its mounting political, social and fiscal problems. Prime Minister Saad Hariri said on Thursday that the first priority will be shoring up the nation’s crumbling economy. This will involve shaving one per cent, per year, off the national budget for the next five years. As President Michel Aoun stated, “the circumstances do not allow us to waste time”. Too much time has already been wasted.

But there is cause for hope. Finally deciding on the cabinet – in which administrative positions must, by law, be divided along sectarian lines – will unlock $11 billion in international funding pledged at the Cedre conference in Paris last year. This should drive an eight-year capital investment programme aimed at repairing the country’s shattered infrastructure; particularly its electricity sector, which presently fails to provide adequate supplies for six million citizens. Then there is the appointment of Raya Al Hassan as interior minister. Not only is Ms Al Hassan the first woman in the Mena region to hold such a position – and one of four in the new cabinet – she is known as an honest, hard-working and committed politician.

One of the biggest challenges will be to rein in the influence of Hezbollah. Blame for the governmental impasse can be laid squarely at the Iran-backed Shiite group’s door, having repeatedly derailed talks until it secured for itself the vital health ministry and installed some sympathetic politicians of other denominations in other positions. Some observers are concerned that the group will now use the portfolio to provide subsidised healthcare to its supporters – including those fighting for the Assad regime in Syria – and divert resources to its own ends. This has raised fears that the US could penalise the Lebanese health ministry under sanctions laws signed by by US president Donald Trump in October that prohibit the provision of material support to Hezbollah, pressure international donors to reduce funding or even ban the export of American-manufactured medicines to Lebanon. So far, US officials have simply called for the new government to ensure that its ministries are not used to support Hezbollah, which America classifies as both a terrorist group and an organised crime syndicate. This is only right. Lebanon’s state institutions must be there for the benefit of all its people and must not be leveraged for political gain.

Updated: February 4, 2019 08:15 PM

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