No doubt the biggest news of the week is the long-awaited settlement between the Emirates and the Israeli state under Trumps personal supervision. One followed our articles during the last few months can hardly be any surprised by this development, nor its strange reasoning that the total normalization “was saving Palestine” by putting the incorporation of the West Bank – or what little is left of the Palestinian state – into Israel. Like if Abū Zabī took a huge burden upon itself, only to save the Palestinian state and with no self-interest at all. Especially after last Ramadan it was clear that such a step is close, which was full of clear messages to the people in the Gulf that the move is only natural.
Reactions are still pouring in and it was told that the formal “agreement” will only come in weeks. In this climate, as there was no surprise whatsoever, all is still guessing which state can be the next, since Netanyahu now openly taunts the Arab League saying that after the Emirates other Arab states will follow suit soon. Therefore still waiting for more details we decided to put this matter on a halt.
Yet the other, even more, the serious reason for this decision that Lebanon after the shock of the explosion in the Beirut port is clearly in a downward spiral. Many things happened, which are less discussed and soon will be completely forgotten. Yet these have huge significance over the future of Lebanon. The decision of the Lebanese government of Ḥassān Diyāb was somewhat expected. But there are many details which really question how much was the decision of the Prime Minister and the result of the blast and the following protest, or rather some mechanism working on the downfall of this government caused it. A mechanism which finally triumphed, but to the least for the benefit of Lebanon.
What really happened after the blast? What are the international pressures on Lebanon and what is expected by the fall of the cabinet? Will the next elections help? Can the international intervention bring help, or will only increase the problem? What did Ḥassān Diyāb achieve, and what are the less know details of his fall? Where is Lebanon heading?
The waves after the quake
Last week we dealt in length with the explosion in the Beirut port. We also mentioned that in the reaction of the explosion massive protests broke out, which even occupied many public buildings. Many opinions held that these were the main reason for the downfall of Ḥassān Diyāb’ government. The cabinet clearly started to bend under pressure, as on Saturday 8 August the Prime Minister promised new elections. This, however, still did not mean the fall of the government, only that its mandate got very limited. This could have even exacerbated change, as with no big expectations the government could have led a throughout investigation on the incident and laid the ground for structural monetary reforms. Some, however, did not want to wait that much. And soon a series of resignations started in rather dubious circumstances, which sealed the faith of the government.
On 9 August Minister of Environment and Administrative Development Damīānūs Qaṭṭār and Minister of Telecommunications Manāl ‘Abd aṣ-Ṣamad announced their resignations. That still head little weight, as these portfolios not of primary concern, and they were both non-partisans. Thought ‘Abd aṣ-Ṣamad, who as Minister of Finance introduced the VAT to Lebanon in the late ‘90s, was a more known person, but she is hardly the strong character whose leave could have shaken the government. It is also interesting that they only announced their resignations, but they haven’t actually resigned from the government officially for days. A strange practice, which was to be followed by many soon, which showed that certain cabinet members are panicking and just want a somewhat face-saving exit.
The first real change was the least surprising. On 10 August Minister of Finance Ġāzī Waznī officially resigned, and after the government session that day he did not take part in the emergency session about the investigation and the immediate relief. On one hand that is the least surprising development. Clearly ever since this government took office the biggest pressure was on Waznī to figure out a way to avoid a total collapse in a way that Lebanon does not become a pawn in the hand of foreign investors. The example of Greece a few years ago was a specifically terrifying example to be avoided. Waznī was supposed to root the chronic corruption, and though he had some significant initiatives – which we will touch soon – he practically had nothing to present, when the Beirut explosion hit. And after the tragedy surely the burden is even much bigger because funds had to be allocated for relief, somehow the Beirut port, the lifeline of the Lebanese economy has to be relaunched and the huge foreign aids have to be channeled. Under such a burden it is not surprising that Waznī buckled and did not want to continue. On the other hand, however, his resignation was somewhat surprising, as he was one of the only two cabinet members of the Shia Amal Party, the closest ally of Ḥizb Allah. Either it was intentional, or not, it gave the impression that Ḥizb Allah pulled the plug.
The very same day, on 10 August another three ministers resigned. That had the impact that by night the government broke and Ḥassān Diyāb regained. But until that many things happened. First Minister of Economy and Trade Rawūl Na‘ma and Minister of Defense Zayna ‘Akar ‘Adrā announcement their resignations. That was already significant. The departure of Na‘ma meant that the economy is left without management. With both the economy and the finances left unattended that already meant that the government has to be fundamentally restructured. The resignation of Zayna ‘Akar, thought as the first-ever female Arab Minister of Defense might seem more symbolic, she was also the Deputy Prime Minister. They were also members of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM – at-Tayyār al-Waṭanī al-Ḥurr), the party of President Mīšāl ‘Awn and the backbone of the current government. This party gave 7 out of the 20 ministers, thus being by far the strongest force in the government. With their prominent members leaving it was clear that the biggest force behind the cabinet was falling apart.
The biggest blow, however, was the announced and controversial resignation of Minister of Justice Marie-Claude Nağm, another member of FPM. Allegedly took part in the government session of 10 August and also the emergency session held that day, though she announced her resignation before. By all accounts, she did not formally resign for days. This point is the most significant in the whole chain of events.
Thought during the day the determination of Ḥassān Diyāb to continue the struggle and fetch up some sort of relief mechanism was clear, by late afternoon he was visible without support. It started to circulate in the press that before nightfall Diyāb will announce his resignation. This indeed happened, but it is clear from both the speech and the circumstances that he had other intentions.
With this step the current government became a caretaker one until the results of the next elections. Which is will come anytime between 3 to 6 months, and controversially annulled most ministerial resignations. Because most ministers, who resigned that day, or the day before will hold office for months, yet with clear indications that they don’t wish to start major changes. Or will the be replaced? Who would take a caretaker positions for only few months with no real power? Was there any real point for their resignation?
Many claimed that Ḥassān Diyāb resigned in result of the massive protest and the scandal after the explosion. That, however, is less likely for a number of reasons. When Diyāb agreed to lead this emergency cabinet in January, being the only member to continue from the previous government – he was Minister of Education in al-Ḥarīrī’s government – he knew perfectly well that both the situation is bad and the pressure is big. And the protests continued for quite some time, until the Corona epidemic pressured emergency measures and the crowd started to dissipate from the streets. And in any case any government in Lebanon automatically has to count of protests, which many times happened before. Protests alone hardly ever topple government in Lebanon. The resignation of al-Ḥarīrī also had much more to do with political manipulations than with the popular uproar, and it is likely that this time the same happened once again.
The other anomaly is that the chain of resignations even started before the Beirut explosion. On 3 August, so only one day before the catastrophe Foreign Minister Nāṣif Ḥittī resigned. Though the exact reason is still unclear, but the most probable explanation is that the visit by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to Beirut was his personal initiative. And with its failure to reach the most important objective, a meeting between Le Drian and Ḥizb Allah Ḥittī wanted to put pressure on the government that the French support has to be taken. It is impossible to know whether his resignation only a day before the tragedy was a coincidence, or not, but it clearly hindered the government’s abilities to react, as many foreign governments trying to help barely even heard about the change and were still trying to reach Ḥittī. Who at that time was still officially the Minister, though Šarbil Wahba was already appointed.
The chain of resignations later on were all reasoned by the protest and the national anger, which is a strange reasoning, given the government knew perfectly well what they are up against in January. Though it is true that the tragedy made the life of the ordinary people much worse, it hardly effected the already catastrophic standing of the government. In practical terms the cabinet already had little to lose. But its duties and responsibilities have grown exponentially. And most of the resignations would have had little effect, as most of these portfolios were not significant. Even the ministers of finance and economy could have been coped with, as by now the cabinet much have had a financial plan pushed by the Prime Minister. One minister, however, sticks out very sharply.
Minister of Justice Nağm before the explosion had relatively little burden before the explosion, as the government was working on an economic restructuring and the salvation of the economy. Thought the anti-corruption struggle was a priority, it was not the main theme. Yet after the catastrophe, as the people wanted justice and the accounting of those responsible, her job became one the most important in the state. With any sense of responsibility she should have been the one to continue her duties, even if the government resigns. Yet by resigning she put the government into a very difficult, practically unbearable situation. After the tragedy President ‘Awn promised a swift investigation of only 5 days. Thought it is not surprising that this did not come true, but it gives a sense that rapid results were expected and demanded. In this situation resigning and making the PM to look for a substitute, who for legal procedures can’t even start to work for days, was a fatal blow.
This was the very step which killed Diyāb’s government. Either by irresponsibility, or by intention, but she created a situation, where the government can’t survive without her, nor can work with her. And it is very curious, why she took part in the government session on the morning, announced her resignation in the press, than took part in the emergency session later on. Only as she was intentionally blocking any desperate attempt to cope with the case. And again it might just be a coincidence, but her closest ally, practical mentor in the government was Nāṣif Ḥittī, the foreign minister who was the first to leave.
It is easy to spot that this government suddenly started to buckle under the weight of the economic deadlock pushed deeper by the Caesar Act and the Turkish-French rivalry, even before the tragedy. The explosion in the port only speeded up the process.
Whatever really happened behind the scene is hard to know, but possible scenarios could be put together from the details. Two things seem very certain at this point. Ḥassān Diyāb did not want to resign and at the end the decision to resign this government was made by Mīšāl ‘Awn. Was that latter otherwise, it wouldn’t have been allowed for several ministers from the FPM to resign. Otherwise they would have been punished, or at least severely criticized. But no such thing happened.
From the very beginning this government was heavily accused for two things. That it is the puppet of the elite, which caused the crisis, and that it is the instrument of Ḥizb Allah. The latter is a strange claim, given that the Shia party in only the fifth biggest one in the Parliament, and gave only two ministers out of the 20. It is also very revealing that the government was not attacked upon realities, more on conceptions, as one of these posts filled by Ḥizb Allah was the ministry of healt. Yet even after the Corona epidemic started to hit Lebanon bad criticism was almost not present against Ḥizb Allah for that. Thought it could have been a very strong argument. The real reason for the attacks was that the government wanted to avoid an international bailout, which can indeed be catastrophic. The most logical alternative to the Western aid packages was a major deal with Iran, and right after with China. But that had very influential foreign opponents all having strong partners in Lebanese politics. As for this party being the puppet of the elite is hard to grasp. After a very long time in Lebanese politics at least this was from the same political agenda, the so called ‘March 8’ alliance. Thus making it the most potent cabinet in a very long time.
After the blast the idea of Eastern orientation had to be dropped, as the both the French and the Turkish pressure grew on the government. Mīšāl ‘Awn wanted and still wants to stay in charge. His statements of a rapid inquiry and that the tragedy might have happened by some foreign power – a very popular theory with so far no evidence – surely made him somewhat strong, but put the government into an unbearable situation. It could simply not deliver these promises. It could not deliver an inquiry in just five days, still organizing rescue operations and dealing with protests, nor it could allow itself to make accusation against any state with no evidence. Either way the fall of this government was not inevitable, and the key of the solution was in the President’s hands. Only time will tell what could have been his motivation.
What did this government do?
Of course now very few are genuinely sad for the fall of Ḥassān Diyāb. Leaving now, he practically achieved nothing. It is very ironical that by the resignation it fulfilled the words of Ḥasan Naṣr Allah after the resignation of al-Ḥarīrī’s government, when he said that nor new elections, nor the long process of a new cabinet will solve the problem. Much rather the government should stay in office and make deep reforms to avoid a clash. And after the reforms elections could take place.
The realities are the same now, but with eight months lost, after a catastrophic incident and mounting foreign incursions into the state, which it cannot even resist.
Nonetheless it is very important what Diyāb’s government attempted to do. Its biggest achievement ironically that it could stay alive for moths. After his resignation al-Ḥarīrī was convinced that no government could exist without him and that Ḥizb Allah can be squeezed out of the government. With the rise of Diyāb his miscalculation became evident and all was tried to bring down the new cabinet. This struggle and the continuous accusations took up most of the time for this leadership.
But there was another battle fought very viciously, which caught little attention. While in the last decades government came and left, there was one position untouched by daily politics. The governor of Bank du Liban, Lebanon’s central bank is the same Riyāḍ Salāma since 1993. Though this position is filled by the suggestion of the government, Salāma always got re-elected. Last in 2017, by the very government al-Ḥarīrī government, which lead the country into bankruptcy. He is not only an artifact from the civil war era, but by far he is the longest serving governor ever since the Bank du Liban was established in 1963. Even more, Salāma is member of board of governors in the IMF, which would allow him to lend serious help to the country. In any case for a substantially different economic policy a new head of the central bank was needed, since that controls the exchange policy of the national currency. And since Lebanon is several tied to foreign currency reserves, any Western pressure can severely hit the state. This was one of the main obstacles for any reform government, even in the past. But Salāma is practically untouchable until his present term end in 2023.
It is hardly a coincidence that in July 2020 a group of lawyers charged Salāma with his personal companies alleged offshore operations. Amongst the charges it was stated that significant funds of the Bank du Liban was embezzled by Salāma and on 20 July most of his assets got frozen. Hearings were scheduled for October, and it has the potential to remove Salāma from his post. But that is very doubtful now. This was the most significant battle Diyāb and Minister Waznī could take, apart from a set of minor relieve projects. Was it to succeed the gradual monetary restructuring and the involvement of new investors could have started. But with its failure indeed Diyāb leaves with not result.
The biggest problem with the fall of the government is that it became incapacitated to manage aid operations, and to repel foreign intrusion following it. It will be unable to influence the international aid project officially coming to relieve the country for the Beirut blast, though this will set the course for possibly many future governments to come.
And there are clear intrusions now, mostly in a rival and confrontation manner. On 10 August, the very day the government resigned, massive army detachments arrived to Lebanon, officially to assist rescue operations. It not only included 700 French troops – a number was bigger than logical for rescue operations -, but also Greek detachments, which clearly suggest that it is about much more than just relief. More troops are on the way, but it is more significant that a big number of ships are also to station in the Beirut. Given that nor France, nor Greece is in good term with Turkey now, the implications are clear.
Turkey was also active. Beyond the promises of aid and technical support, Turkey announced to grant Turkish citizenship to any Lebanese Turks and Turkmens. Officially to ease their hardship. But the curious thing is that the statement clearly say Ankara is willing to give citizenship to anyone, who claims itself to be a Turk. So it practically creates a massive support base for itself, and from the very beginning agitates against the Lebanese state. That is bad enough on its own, but in the light of the mentioned military buildup it is even worse.
It is in fact shocking how fast Lebanon dissipated from the headline less than a week after a horrific tragedy. With that Lebanon is left alone. Clearly the responsibility of its political class overall did not improve, nor the foreign agendas suffocating it eased.
What comes now?
That is the question everyone is asking, but none has any optimistic idea about. New elections will be held few months from now. Until than the country will be drifting with an incapable and unwilling government. But elections will not likely to change anything, because the very system we discussed last week will guarantee that the same parties will form the new Parliament. Few percents give or take will hardly change anything. Which will lead to the same squabbling, and will result the same government.
Sadly, and this is clear from the frustration of Diyāb in this last speech, there was a very faint chance of partial reforms with a determined PM, which failed. Failed by the united efforts of a political class not willing to change, but also because Diyāb didn’t realize until the very last day that this exist within his own government as well. He might have been of a cleared nature, but as all started to look for the next elections, political logic triumphed.
With this a slow drifting will start. In which foreign rivalry might push Lebanon into worse than it lives in today.