20.06.2022 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Lebanon: Hard Choices after the Elections


Despite recent parliamentary elections in Lebanon, which are seen as a success, albeit a modest one, the small Mediterranean country is still frozen in suspense and chaos could return to the country. After the held elections, the Lebanese are now at a difficult crossroads: they must immediately appoint a prime minister, form a government and the parliament must elect its speaker. Who will be elected to these high offices, what agenda they will propose to the whole country – the future of Lebanon and its ability to get out of the chaos will depend on it.

The Lebanese have already achieved one of their goals, with Amal movement leader Nabih Berri being re-elected speaker of parliament in Beirut. The Shiite leader has been in office for the past 30 years and this time he got 65 votes in the 128-seat parliament. In the last election, he got 98 votes, and this may be due to popular and parliamentary dissatisfaction with the recent difficult economic and political situation in the country. It would seem that one of the difficult tasks has been completed, but it is not all that simple. The Lebanese went to the elections confident of electing people who could turn the tense situation around and set a new course. However, it is difficult to expect a man of 84 years to change course and advocate innovations that can change the lives of the people for the better. If the administrative official Nabih Berri is going to change things at all, he will do so only in favor of his Shiite Amal movement, which by no means represents all spectrums of Lebanese society. Again a vicious circle will be created, with each high-ranking official trying to take all the credit.

There are “clear signs” that interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati will be re-elected Prime Minister with more than 65 votes from multiple parliamentary blocs, political experts said. He can get 70 votes even without receiving a single vote from the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb Party and the so-called Forces of Change, Al-Ahbar noted. So far, Mikati appears to have the support of Hizbullah, the Amal movement, the Democratic Assembly, the Independent National Assembly, the Tashnag party and a significant number of independent or former pro-Mustaqbal MPs. The Al-Ahbar newspaper, citing informed sources, has meanwhile reported that President Michel Aoun will soon call on MPs for mandatory parliamentary consultations to appoint a new Prime Minister, and that consultations will take place with all the numerous parties existing in the country.

Experts believe that the recent elections, among other things, are the first real test for opposition groups and youth movements protesting in October 2019. Although the consolidation of power and the quota-based political system, as well as the control of sectarian elites over the country, have prevented the emergence of a new generation of independent movements and candidates, the results also show some victory for independent candidates. On the other hand, the change of leading figures such as Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Lebanese Progressive Socialist Party, and the transfer of leadership to his son, the boycott and absence of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and changes in the Sunni vote, the entry of October 17 Movement candidates into the race, are part of a generation change and mean new faces.

Some optimism is provided by the fact that President Michel Aoun has decided to leave the presidential palace on October 31 and has no further plans to run for office. In fact, given the background to Lebanon’s presidential election and the problems caused by the controversy over his appointment in the past, it must be said that after the parliamentary elections, the election of the president is one of the most important tasks. If, for whatever reason, groups and political parties fail to reach an agreement and elect a new president, the country will enter another political crisis.

Thus the Lebanese are preparing for a political haggling among MPs, which will simply take time. But the Lebanese are woefully short of it, given the many pressing issues of economic collapse, and the fact that a cabinet needs to be formed quickly to literally “beg” the IMF to provide desperately needed aid to lift the country out of its deep economic and financial malaise.

It must be said that since 2019, Lebanon has been in the grip of the worst financial crisis in its history, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and protracted political paralysis. For many Lebanese, the last straw was the Beirut port explosion, which killed at least 218 people and injured 7,000. This has caused 15 billion dollars in material damage and left some 300,000 people homeless. Almost two years later, the country is facing a worsening food crisis as the already high prices of staple foods have soared even higher. According to the World Bank, Lebanon’s nominal gross domestic product fell from $52 billion in 2019 to $21.8 billion in 2021, a decline of 58.1%. If reforms are not adopted soon, real GDP is predicted to fall by 6.5% this year. In May, the value of the Lebanese pound on the black market fell to a record low of 35,600 against the US dollar. According to the UN, the financial crisis has plunged 82% of the population below the poverty line since the end of 2019.

The worsening financial and economic situation and uncertainty about the future have sent thousands of young Lebanese, including many of the country’s leading medical professionals and teachers, abroad. According to a report published in February 2022 by Information International, the number of emigrants rose from 17,721 in 2020 to 79,134 in 2021, the highest figure in five years. The Beirut Research Center has identified the level of emigration as the highest in Lebanon in the last five years.

Historically, many Lebanese have chosen to move to Western Europe, the US, Australia and the Arab Gulf states. More recently, they have also gone to Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Serbia and even Iraq. According to Iraqi authorities, more than 20,000 people arrived from Lebanon between June 2021 and February 2022, not including pilgrims visiting the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. “The arrival of the Lebanese has increased recently,” Lebanese Ambassador to Iraq Ali Adib Al-Habhab told Agence France-Presse. He said the health sector in particular had suffered from an influx of “dozens of Lebanese doctors offering their services” to Iraqi hospitals for any salary just to stay in Iraq. The World Health Organization estimated in September 2021 that more than 40% of Lebanese doctors and nurses had left the country since October 2019.

“The exodus of the middle class in Lebanon is destroying the country. The nation was built on the middle class, and when all the engineers, bankers, lawyers and middle-class professionals leave Lebanon, we will see the whole foundation collapse. In the current situation, it will be very difficult to readjust,” the newspaper L’Orient Le Jour wrote bitterly.

So the question is whether the new government, which is about to emerge after the last elections, will be able to rebuild life in the beautiful country, the “Switzerland of the Mediterranean”, or whether it will cling to the old ways, making people poorer and forcing Lebanese to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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