Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati announced on Friday that he has agreed with President Michel Aoun on the formation of a new government consisting of mostly insiders of Lebanon’s political factions leaderships, despite calls from both Lebanese civil society and international donors to form a technocratic cabinet.
The new cabinet, seen as a breakthrough after a 13-month deadlock following caretaker PM Hassan Diab’s resignation in the wake of the August 4 Beirut Port explosion, is the third attempt by a designated PM to reach a consensus with the country’s political factions. Before Mikati, who was appointed in July, Mustapha Adib and former PM Saad Hariri both failed to form governments.
Mikati cried on live television after sealing the deal with President Aoun on Friday.
“My tears came from the heart; let’s leave politics aside, and we want to work to secure the minimum required for people,” Mikati said after leaving his meeting with Aoun and Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri. “I hope that we will rise with this government, stop the current collapse, and restore Lebanon to its glory and prosperity.”
But despite some politicians celebrating the end of Lebanon’s political crisis, analysts point out that the composition of the new government looks to stabilize a crisis-ridden Lebanon, rather than seek any actual changes to put in place a functional reformed government. Mikati just bought time until the 2022 elections, they say.
“At this point and at this stage of the economic crisis, the most important thing is to have at least a kind of steering wheel to take things somewhere,” Mohanad Hage Ali, director of communication at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told NOW.
“I think when it comes to reforms, we have to understand the reality that this political class could not be reformed but it will negotiate a sort of middle ground between what is required from the international community.”
For the last 3o years, Lebanon’s governments have consisted of politically connected insiders who either got their positions in the government based on their political affiliations, or in exchange for their loyalty.
In Mikati’s new government, little has changed despite the presence of technocrats like Firas Abiad, the manager of Rafik Hariri University Hospital. Due to the lack of real change in the government, Makram Rabah, lecturer in history at the American University of Beirut, says he has low expectations.
“The presence of some names who are competent and have a good record in their personal and professional lives does not give this cabinet any chance of being able to pass any reforms,” Rabah told NOW.
“This cabinet is incapable of doing any serious reforms. And many of the names embedded in this government are actually the reason why this collapse is happening, starting with the head of the cabinet Najib Mikati who is accused of corruption.”
In addition to this, Aoun was able to get his blocking third in the cabinet, something that Hariri refused to give any party or bloc ultimately leading to his downfall as PM-designate. This means Mikati’s tenure as prime minister is at the mercy of the President’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement and its political allies.
“The blocking one-third veto is in the hands of President Aoun and Hezbollah, thus any chances of any real change and any negotiations with the international community have to go through Hezbollah which means that there are no real chances of success,” Rabah stated.
He was not alone in his critique of the new government. Many civil society activists and analysts have taken it to social media to show criticism for the fact that out of the 24 seats only one went to a woman. Najla Riachi, who took the portfolio of Administrative Development, is the former Permanent Representative of Lebanon to the United Nations Office at Geneva, and is known to be close to PM Mikati.
Firas Maksad, director of strategic outreach at the Middle East Institute, was also quick to point out that the government was nowhere close to being a reformist one but would still receive the approval of the international community, which has become desperate to see a stable Lebanon.
“But make no mistake about it, this is no reformist government, but a defeat for those calling for genuine political and economic reform in Lebanon. It is the victory of the old entrenched system over the new attempting to be born. It is Lebanon’s version of ‘either us or we burn the country.'”
Firas Maksad, Middle East Institute
“Fearing large scale instability and total state failure, many in the West will welcome today’s announcement as the lesser evil and work with it out of necessity – particularly on an IMF rescue package & international aid,” he tweeted. “But make no mistake about it, this is no reformist government, but a defeat for those calling for genuine political and economic reform in Lebanon. It is the victory of the old entrenched system over the new attempting to be born. It is Lebanon’s version of ‘either us or we burn the country.'”
Maksad also urged the international community not to allow what is taking place to turn into support for a corrupt government just to preserve stability in the country.
“It is understandable for the US, France & others to take necessary steps to prevent total state failure in Lebanon, but this must not morph into supporting a cabinet fronting for a deeply corrupt political establishment, co-opted by Hezbollah and rejected by most Lebanese and Arab allies,” he wrote.
He also said that the West must insist on free and timely voting next year, vocalize support for genuine reform and threaten sanctions on those in power with the purpose to enrich themselves. “Otherwise, aid or rescue packages are but a temporary bandaid. Iran and instability will continue to carry the day, as they did in Beirut today,” he pointed out.
According to Haj Ali, there are limits to what this new government can and cannot do.
Due to Lebanon’s various crises, the political game in Lebanon has changed, and Haj Ali believes that the political elite will have to find a new way to continue with the system they created, as the old one can no longer function in the current climate.
“The Ponzi scheme is over,” he argued. “I think that they are searching for new ways and I think that they will partially figure out a replacement.”
“The presence of some names who are competent and have a good record in their personal and professional lives does not give this cabinet any chance of being able to pass any reforms.”
Makram Rabah, History lecturer, AUB
Haj Ali says that they are going to need to try to create a new system in which they can continue thriving as they have been for the last three decades, but they also need to appease the international community in order to prevent them from applying too much pressure on them to reform the country. Along with this, politicians now have new “red lines” that they need to pay attention to if they want to receive any international aid.
“Now it’s all about mitigating for them what losses that they’ve suffered as the old system goes away and how they can make up for it,” Haj Ali said. “And, at the same time, trying to reach a middle ground with the international community and I think that there are some red lines that they cannot cross which makes any negotiations with the IMF difficult.”
According to Haj Ali, the first red line appears at the audit of the country’s finances, as any serious audit would expose the corruption that has thrived among Lebanon’s political class.
The second one is when it comes to redundancies in the public sector.
“They prefer to keep the current system with low pay and let it drag out,” Haj Ali explained. “The security services and the military have already lost 10,000 people to desertion. And I think that they will let it drag out and do the redundancies on its own due to the low pay and difficult conditions.”
“There will be no painful measures of cutting off public jobs, organizing procurement, fighting corruption, etc.”
Mohanad Hage Ali, Carnegie Middle East Center
If they let people leave due to the conditions and pay, then, while there might be some political repercussions, it will allow them to thin out the public sector all while receiving some level of acceptance by the international community.
“There will be no painful measures of cutting off public jobs, organizing procurement, fighting corruption, etc,” he added.
While there is little enthusiasm from the public about the new government, after over a year without one and with the situation worsening, the prospect of any government at all has been welcomed.
After the announcement of the new government, the black market rate for the dollar in Lebanon dropped from around 17,000 to 15,500.
With Lebanon’s national debt reaching around $97.3 billion as of March 2021 according to Bank Audi, the possibility of there being some economic relief is appealing.
“We have a government that can make relief possible,” Haj Ali stated. “For instance, the distribution of the IMF support that we have already in place which I think is $900 million. Also, paving the way for reconstruction of the port and maybe some support from Arab states.”
After announcing the new government, Mikati promised to take action to help the country that was facing an “exceptional situation today” and said that “we must hold each other’s hands, and we confirm that we will be a one-hand team that will work with hope and determination.”
He added that he would work with the international community to help Lebanon.
The new government is set to hold its first meeting on Monday, September 13.
Nicholas Frakes is a multimedia journalist with @NOW_leb. He tweets @nicfrakesjourno.