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Lebanon’s New Government Is Set Up to Fail

Hussein Ibish

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After more than three months of political wrangling amid the backdrop of massive street protests, Lebanon finally has a new government. But the cabinet assembled by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, almost entirely composed of Hezbollah’s allies, is unlikely to succeed.

Indeed, it may have been set up to fail by its own backers.

Hezbollah cannot be comfortable with an arrangement that puts it—along with its Maronite allies in the Free Patriotic Movement—front and center of the new government. The Iran-backed group has historically preferred a time-tested arrangement of power without responsibility: its rivals nominally ran the government, but allowed Hezbollah to maintain its independent militia and to exercise its will on all issues it deemed crucial.

In the new setup, Hezbollah finds itself in the unfamiliar position of responsibility. This means it risks being directly blamed for the state’s dysfunction, which it can do very little to fix.

Even most credible and competent government, with full public support, would be hard-pressed to deal with Lebanon’s multiple crises, especially with a looming default on bond payments. The lira has collapsed in value and banks have been forced to restrict the ability of ordinary account holders to withdraw their money, particularly in U.S. dollars. Basic services are moribund. The supply of electricity has become intermittent, and a telecommunications crisis, including Internet outages, seems probable.

Diab’s government was born under a bad sign—several bad signs, in fact. His nomination was met with intense opposition from the protesters, and this has grown even more intense since the 20-member cabinet was announced. It is also politically lop-sided: instead of the traditional blend of pro- and anti-Hezbollah factions, Diab is banking on only one side of the Lebanese equation.

Worse, the formation of the cabinet was midwifed by discredited political figures closely associated with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, including Jamil Al-Sayyed, who was driven out of the political centerstage after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. If the growing Iranian influence in Beirut wasn’t bad enough, many Lebanese will be even more alarmed and dismayed by the return of Syrian leverage in their country’s politics.

It is certain to inflame the protesters, who for months have been demanding radical reforms and denouncing the entire social and political elite of the country. One of their few clear demands has been for a technocratic government of experts rather than political cronies. Diab claims to have assembled exactly such a “rescue squad,” but in fact his cabinet is almost composed mainly of political operatives or their proxies. Not even the large number of women in prominent roles will buy him much credibility on the street.

Nor can Diab expect much foreign help in bailing Lebanon out of its financial problems. The U.S. and Europe will be very cautious in providing aid to a pro-Hezbollah government. Diab says he’s headed to the Gulf Arab states soon, but they too will be uncomfortable with a pro-Iranian militia calling the shots in Beirut.

None of this can have escaped the attention of Hezbollah and its allies: They must know that this government cannot last very long. But they did not have a better option.

All political elites have been discomfited by the protests but Hezbollah stood to lose more than most from real reform. Setting Diab up for failure is the first step in a process that, it hopes, will restore the status quo. This has been Hezbollah’s goal since the protests began last fall. Its ideal outcome was for former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned in October, to return to the job.

Now, Hezbollah is likely calculating that once Diab fails, it can step forward and propose, in the name of national unity, the reinstatement of Hariri, or the elevation of another politician acceptable to the international community—who would allow things to go back to the way they used to be.

The main obstacle to this will probably be the protesters, who may well hold out for a more thorough-going reform of Lebanon’s political structures and traditions. If so, Hezbollah will have to offer something more substantial than Diab’s government as a sacrificial lamb.

To contact the author of this story: Hussein Ibish at hussein.ibish@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bobby Ghosh at aghosh73@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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