Lebanon’s politicians announced a new government on Friday, ending 13 months of negotiations involving three potential premiers — independent Lebanon’s longest period without an executive authority.
L’Orient Today / 10 September 2021
Prime Minister Najib Mikati arrives in Baabda on Friday. (Credit: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)
BEIRUT — Lebanon’s politicians announced a new government on Friday, ending 13 months of negotiations involving three potential premiers — independent Lebanon’s longest period without an executive authority.
President Michel Aoun and new Premier Najib Mikati signed decrees appointing Mikati as the leader of a 24-member government of supposed technocrats, although media reports suggested that the new ministers owed their positions to members of the traditional political elite.
The new cabinet will be tasked with nothing less than rescuing the country from collapse, as the provision of basic goods and services — including food, water, fuel, electricity, health care, education and internet — teeters on the edge of breakdown.
“There are steps that the government will take as soon as possible to save the country,” Mikati said during a news conference held after the government formation was announced on Friday, giving few specifics.
The crisis — the worst since Lebanon’s 1975–90 Civil War — began two years ago as US dollar inflows to the country failed to cover the financial system’s dollar liabilities, presaging a financial collapse. It was only exacerbated by leaders’ inability or unwillingness to address fundamental flaws in the financial system — still present to this day — and the disastrous Aug. 4, 2020, Beirut port explosion, which killed at least 218 people and caused the government of Hassan Diab to resign.
The country is now beginning to feel the full weight of the collapse’s impact, as the crisis has seen Banque du Liban’s foreign currency reserves reduced to some $14 billion. As a result, the central bank says it is no longer able to sustain the subsidy scheme that once kept many essential goods and services, including fuel and medicine, affordable for many residents. This has led to shortages in recent months and forced officials’ hand in making the controversial decision to gradually end subsidies, leading drug and fuel prices to skyrocket.
“We have no desire to lift subsidies, but there is no money to continue it,” Mikati said, adding that the bank’s money has run “dry.”
The new cabinet will need to address the sprawling, multifaceted crisis after it receives a yet-unscheduled vote of confidence from Parliament, fully empowering it to take decisions and implement any agreed-upon reforms.
For the past year, the creation of a new cabinet has been the top priority in addressing the country’s crisis, and has seen the international community intervening, in vain, to hasten it. French President Emmanuel Macron set it as the first step in his failed road map for Lebanon’s recovery, initially pushing for a new government by Sept. 15, 2020 — nearly one year ago; France later announced that it had formulated a sanctions scheme for Lebanese officials responsible for stymieing the cabinet’s formation.
Officials from Gulf countries and other regional actors also met with Lebanese political leaders in a bid to press for the cabinet’s formation.
With the government now formed, “I will not miss an opportunity to knock on the doors of the Arab World,” Mikati said. “The government represents all of Lebanon, not certain groups, and I will communicate with all international bodies to secure people’s basic needs.”
“We will deal with anyone for the interest of Lebanon,” including Syria, but not Israel, he added.
Mikati, a billionaire tycoon, succeeds where two before him failed. The first man appointed to form a government after the Beirut port explosion, diplomat Mustapha Adib, threw in the towel on Sept. 26. His successor, three-time former Premier Saad Hariri, then spent nearly nine months attempting to negotiate with Aoun to no avail. He resigned on July 15, clearing the way for Mikati’s nomination later that month.
Mikati’s cabinet comprises 24 ministers from various backgrounds, including lawyers, academics and former diplomats in Lebanon. Although Aoun and Mikati vowed to form a government of technocrats, media reports suggested that the new ministers owed their positions to members of the traditional political elite.
Jad Halabi, a project officer at United Nations Women, tweeted, “Only one woman … was announced as Minister today. This puts Lebanon’s representation of women in cabinet at a dismal 4.1%, plunging Lebanon’s rank [in terms of female government representation] to 175th out of 182 [in the world]. This is a large step down from ranking 42nd with 30% representation in the outgoing government.”
Given the tortured negotiations that went into forming a government, the prospects for agreement on a plan to raise Lebanon out of its crisis remain in question. And if there is an agreement, there is no guarantee that it will be received well by a population whose views largely range from skeptical of most politicians to outright hostility toward all — especially after the Oct. 17, 2019, mass uprising against the elite.
Another constraint to addressing the country’s woes is the short time frame for action: national elections in May will bring a new Parliament, at which point Mikati’s government will be considered resigned.
“I pledge to hold the parliamentary elections on time, and I have the intention to hold municipal elections on time as well,” Mikati said. Municipal elections are also scheduled for next year, as are presidential elections as Aoun nears the end of his six-year term on Oct. 31, 2022.