Spot analysis from Carnegie scholars on events relating to the Middle East and North Africa.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun and prime minister-designate Saad Hariri have again failed to reach an accord on a new government. Each side blames the other, strongly suggesting that their relationship has reached a point of no return, making the formation of a new government improbable in the foreseeable future.
Under the post-1990 constitution, the president and the prime minister-designate must sign the decree forming the cabinet. On March 22, Hariri presented Aoun with a draft list of ministers for a government of politically-backed specialists that could implement economic reforms. However, shortly thereafter Hariri emerged from the meeting saying the president was still demanding veto power over the government—meaning a third of ministers plus one—which would allow him and his son in law Gebran Bassil to control the cabinet’s agenda. Hariri also said Aoun had sent him a framework structure for the cabinet, so that the prime minister-designate could fill out the names of ministers and their political patrons. He angrily added it was not his role to fill out documents sent to him, and left.
Coming after five months of disagreement over a government, the breakdown this week occurs as Lebanon is collapsing financially, heightening the threats to the country’s security and stability.
Why Is It Important?
Lebanon has been mired in a serious financial and economic crisis since late 2019, with the Lebanese pound having lost almost 90 percent of its value. The country’s political leaders and parties have done nothing to address this dire situation. Not only do they fear that a genuine reform process would undermine their political power, but the cartel of sectarian leaders ruling the country has lost all cohesiveness since it can no longer agree over how to collectively divide the spoils of the now-bankrupt Lebanese state.
The caretaker government of Hassan Diab, which resigned after the horrific explosion in Beirut Port last August, has limited prerogatives, so its ability to govern effectively is doubtful. That is unless the always practical political class can find a way of providing it with enhanced executive power to do more than merely run current affairs. However, that would require a political consensus, which is lacking today.
What this means is that at the worst moment in Lebanon’s postwar history, the country could face a multifaceted collapse—of its financial system, its economy, and its security situation—with no effort being made to prevent this. Given that over 55 percent of the population “is now trapped in poverty and struggling for bare necessities,” according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, the domestic and regional repercussions could be exceptionally severe.
What Are the Implications for the Future?
Expectations for a new government should remain low. Aoun and Hariri entered the government-formation process with irreconcilable aims, even as the main power broker in Lebanon, Hezbollah, appears not to want a government today. While the party has called repeatedly for one, nothing shows that it ever pushed for such an outcome. Indeed, last week Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, took a position opposed to Hariri’s vision for the government. This ensured that Aoun would toughen his stance in his talks with Hariri, undermining an accord.
This is not the first time that Hezbollah acts in a way that contradicts its declared position, and to many observers in Beirut the party is delaying a government while awaiting negotiations between the United States and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program. In effect, Lebanon is a hostage, ensuring that Washington accepts Tehran’s and Hezbollah’s domination there in any broader regional agreement.
Yet Hezbollah does not seem to be the only culprit. Hariri’s method of negotiating with Aoun, or rather not negotiating, underscored that the prime minister-designate is unwilling to lead a government that does not meet his conditions. Hariri has rejected giving Aoun and Bassil a blocking third, while also refusing to give them the interior and justice ministries. Yet he agreed to give the finance portfolio to Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, suggesting double standards.
It is understandable that Hariri did not want to concede a blocking third, however it is unclear why he refused to discuss other tradeoffs. The cabinet lineup he presented on March 22 was the same one presented on December 9, showing no willingness to compromise. Hariri’s intransigence may have been due to the Saudis’ opposition to his heading a cabinet, as they do not want him to cover for Hezbollah. Therefore, unless he can form one that embraces the exacting terms of his regional patron, Hariri prefers no government at all, knowing Riyadh would block Arab economic aid to Lebanon.
Worse, Hariri cannot afford to step down now as prime minister-designate, because this would only confirm his miscalculation in trying to form a government. That could prove fatal for his ties with Riyadh, which are already strained, and it could push the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates to favor Hariri’s older brother Bahaa. Yet this creates a dilemma for Hariri. If he does nothing in the coming weeks, the pressure will build on him to try to form a government again, or to step down and allow someone else to do so.
When he first announced that he would be a candidate for the post of prime minister in October 2020, Hariri implied that if he could come to an understanding with Hezbollah and Amal, he could push through a program aimed at implementing a French-backed economic reform plan for Lebanon. The implied message was that if there was Sunni-Shi‘a cooperation, other sectarian leaders would have to follow the flow. But it was up to Hezbollah to choose whether it would take his side or that of Aoun and Bassil, Hariri had declared.
Last week Nasrallah replied: Hezbollah would not be forced into choosing. In the process he guaranteed an open-ended disagreement over a new government. Lebanon needs change urgently, but the outcome is certain to be more stalemate, with possibly dramatic consequences for the country and perhaps the region.