Lebanon Takes a Step Forward but Risks Still Remain
Over the last two years, headlines about Lebanon have been negative. Nearly 80% of the Lebanese population is living below the poverty line. The World Bank has deemed Lebanon’s economic crisis the worst to hit the country since the mid-19th century. Much attention has focused on the problem of corruption, one of the root causes of suffering in Lebanon.
Over the years, the Lebanese have lost faith in the state. A recent poll from Zogby Research Services showed that the people had much higher confidence in civil society (85%) and the October 17 Revolution (65%) than in parliament (29%) or traditional political parties (19%). For these reasons, US policy has rightfully focused on combating corruption and providing aid directly to the Lebanese people.
Lebanese Americans Urge Crisis Resolution
Fortunately, over the past few weeks, three encouraging developments in Lebanon have dominated the news. The first was an announcement that the country had reached a staff-level agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The second was that opposition groups have assembled their candidate lists for the upcoming parliamentary elections. The third highlighted that Lebanon took a courageous step in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The US has made resolving the crisis in Lebanon a priority. The Lebanese American community has stood firmly behind these efforts to aid the Lebanese people and enact necessary reforms. On the eve of the most recent IMF negotiations in March, a delegation of Lebanese American business and civic leaders undertook a trip to Lebanon, where they met people in the government and the political opposition, as well as religious leaders from all major sects, and those who ran NGOs. The delegation carried a message for key leaders: Lebanon is on the verge of collapse. They urged authorities to conduct upcoming parliamentary elections in a timely, fair and transparent manner. They also found that the prime minister and his economic team were eager to conclude an agreement with the IMF speedily.
The delegation also met the minister of interior who indicated he was prepared to hold elections on time. He also said that the parliament had allocated the resources necessary to hold fair and free elections. Separately, the UN has pledged aid to support the internal security forces across more than 6,000 polling stations across the country.
The IMF Staff-Level Agreement Is Promising
It is encouraging now to see that the IMF staff-level agreement concluded quickly. In religiously diverse Lebanon, agreement can be hard to reach. This time, the Maronite Catholic president, the Sunni Muslim prime minister and the Shi’a Muslim speaker of parliament speedily agreed. Hopefully, this might start the process of implementing badly-needed reforms to support the economic and social needs of the people.
The staff-level agreement is a good start, but the next hurdle for the Lebanese government will be to follow through with necessary legislative actions to implement this deal. Therefore, the coming elections that choose a new parliament on May 15 are critical. The new parliament will have to rebuild the economy, restore financial sustainability, strengthen governance and take anti-corruption measures, remove impediments to job-creating growth, and increase social and reconstruction spending, initially in the electricity sector. Without such actions by the new parliament, no IMF relief will be forthcoming.
May 15 Parliamentary Elections Are Tricky
The upcoming elections offer Lebanese citizens the chance to vote for reformist candidates who advocate change and good governance. As a first order of business, a new parliament will be faced with enacting reform legislation in order to meet the requirements of the IMF and bring badly needed economic relief. But how “new” the new parliament will be after the elections is in question. Will it be dominated by Hezbollah and its allies who will resist change and reform or by new leaders who will move a reform agenda forward?
The Lebanese American leadership delegation met with a diverse group of reformist candidates. While it is clear that the Lebanese people have more political options, the visiting delegation found an opposition movement that is divided about how to best engage politically. The proof of this division came out recently when political party lists were finalized on April 5. Instead of joining together, most opposition groups announced lists competing with one another.
The lack of coordination among the opposition diminishes the chances of the reformists. The good news is that if the opposition can take away 10 of the 128 seats up for election from the current Hezbollah-Christian coalition, the balance of power in parliament will shift decisively away from the old guard. This is not a big figure but even this may prove hard to achieve.
A New Opening in the US-Lebanon Relationship
Both elections and the deal with the IMF have come at a time when the US has turned its attention to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war has caused shortages of wheat and fuel. Inflation has spiked. Yet Lebanon has taken the courageous decision to condemn Russian atrocities and voted with the US at the UN. No other country in the Middle East has been so clear and forceful in its condemnation of Russia.
The IMF staff-level agreement and Lebanon’s condemnation of Russia are creating a new opening in the US-Lebanon relationship at a time when both countries can be helpful to one another. Thanks to the US, Lebanon could possibly come to a historic agreement on its maritime border with Israel. It could import electricity and natural gas from Jordan and Egypt to overcome its electricity and energy shortages. However, all of this is contingent on voters electing a reformist parliament.
The agreement with the IMF could mark a turning point in Lebanon’s history, or it could turn out to be yet another disappointing tactical maneuver by Lebanon’s ruling elite. The future is now squarely in the hands of the Lebanese voters to elect a government that is willing to take the risks necessary to save the country. It is certain that Lebanon’s actions so far have caught the attention of the Biden Administration and the Congress. They would be more than willing to help a government and people courageously standing up to Russia and embracing reforms.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.