Lebanon’s destruction by its political leadership continues as the country’s cabinet-formation process, already eight months old, has reached a dead end. At the heart of the deadlock is a paradox involving two major protagonists—Gebran Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement and son in law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, and Saad al-Hariri, the prime minister-designate.
Last week France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, visited Beirut and informed Lebanese politicians that, henceforth, they were on their own. Because the French initiative proposed in September by President Emmanuel Macron to revive Lebanon’s economy had failed (a word Le Drian pointedly avoided using), the country’s political leadership had to face the consequences. There was something almost quaint in such a warning, since one thing that Lebanese leaders have never done is face the consequences of their worst actions.
What we are witnessing today is the rivalry of two individuals who are frightened that they may soon face political elimination. Hariri and Bassil are the ones with existential fears, while Aoun, an aging and inanimate president who has betrayed his constitutional role as the embodiment of national unity, has allowed their ruinous battle to continue. But what is paradoxical is that Bassil and Hariri, by pursuing their feud and making the formation of a cabinet all but impossible, are only helping to guarantee their own political demise.
Hariri’s main problem is that Saudi Arabia does not seem to support his return as prime minister, forcing him to harden his approach to a new cabinet and prove that he truly merits Riyadh’s backing. Recently, the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper—rarely objective, but often accurate on things involving Hariri—quoted an Arab official who visited Saudi Arabia as saying that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had told him, “We have no confidence in Saad Hariri as prime minister; the person who would reassure us and the Americans is Nawaf Salam,” Lebanon’s former ambassador to the United Nations and now a judge in the International Court of Justice.
There have also been reports in Beirut that the Saudis made their sour view of the prime minister-designate clear to the Iranians in their ongoing dialogue in Iraq. Nothing in recent weeks indicates that Saudi attitudes have been misrepresented, quite the contrary. Even the marked change in France’s attitude toward Hariri lately suggests that it has abandoned the prime minister-designate. It could be that Macron, sensing that Lebanon may soon be defined by Saudi-Iranian understandings over the country and realizing that the Saudis won’t back Hariri, has opted to drop him in favor of someone else.
Knowing all this, Hariri has stuck to his demands on the government—no blocking power for any of the parties in it, since whoever controls more than a third of ministers can effectively impose the cabinet agenda; and no handing of the Interior and Justice Ministries to Bassil and Aoun, as they have demanded. Hariri realizes that unless he gets his conditions, he will be unable to manage his government. Such an outcome would only increase Saudi dissatisfaction with him, confirming that they were right in not wanting him as prime minister.
However, Hariri’s stubbornness also makes a cabinet more unlikely, only exacerbating his situation. If he fails to become prime minister, he will have unintentionally satisfied Saudi wishes and shown himself to be incapable of outmaneuvering Bassil and Aoun. That would accelerate his descent into political irrelevance and prevent him from being the savior he suggested he could be when he first announced his candidacy for the prime minister’s position last October.
Bassil would gloat if Hariri failed to form a government, but he is actually in no better a position than the prime minister-designate. For him, the minimal conditions he would accept on the cabinet is for the ministers he names to enjoy blocking power, allowing him to define the agenda and thwart whatever decisions threaten his interests. Bassil, perhaps rightly, senses that without such power, Hariri and his cabinet allies would try to sideline both him and Aoun.
Bassil’s absolute priority is to succeed Aoun as president. That is why being in control of the Interior Ministry would allow his prospective appointee to fiddle with the voting results if required and ensure that Bassil’s candidates win in parliamentary elections scheduled for next year. Unless he enjoys credible representation in parliament, Bassil’s chances of becoming president would be greatly damaged. As for the Justice Ministry, Bassil hopes to open corruption cases against other politicians, which would allow him to portray himself as an anti-corruption crusader. This would be supremely ironical in that many Lebanese believe that he personifies graft and sleaze.
But there too Bassil has to face reality. If he continues to hold tightly to his conditions, no government will be formed and what happens then? Bassil will be unable to shape events in the coming year before Aoun’s departure in October 2022. How, then, would he be able to pave the way for his presidency? Worse, Bassil has been sanctioned by the United States, is opposed by much of the political class, and as things stand today has a limited chance of being elected. So, as with Hariri, his obstinacy may undermine the very goals he seeks to attain.
Bassil’s only way out of this dilemma is to try to force Hariri to abandon the task of forming a cabinet. He seems to think that he can bring in a more pliable replacement, one amenable to his and Aoun’s conditions. The only problem is that such an expectation is ridiculous. Hariri may not enjoy the blessings of Mohammed bin Salman, but Lebanese Sunnis are solidly behind him in rejecting Bassil’s and Aoun’s brinkmanship. Indeed, if Hariri were to withdraw, Sunni parliamentarians could refuse to engage in consultations with Aoun to designate a new prime minister. The absence of communal legitimacy could deter credible Sunnis from taking Hariri’s place.
There are also reports that the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, will oppose Aoun’s and Bassil’s efforts to bring in a cabinet they favor. Berri may have leaked a story of how he had informed Hezbollah that he would join Hariri, the Druze leader Walid Joumblatt, and the Maronite politician Suleiman Franjieh in boycotting parliament to block this. Such a step would prevent a legislative quorum necessary for a confidence vote in any new government.
It has been a year and a half that the Lebanese currency collapsed, provoking widespread poverty in a country with only a rudimentary social safety net. In that time the political leadership has done nothing to improve the situation, while squabbling incessantly. To force the Lebanese to pay a heavy price for the political ambitions and insecurities of Hariri and Bassil is inadmissible. The good news is that both may be committing political suicide by holding everything up. The bad news is that suicides should never take so long.