North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Authoritarian, corrupt, and more of the same. Lebanon has a new government

The challenge facing the country's new ministers is formidable – but at first look, it seems unlikely that they’ll bring any real solutions

Walid el Houri
16 September 2021, 12.00am
Relatives of people killed in the Beirut Blast stand in front of a now iconic grain silo destroyed in the explosion
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Elizabeth Fitt / Alamy Stock Photo

The words of Lebanon's new minister of information, George Kordahi, a TV presenter and admirer of both Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad and Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, do not bode well for Lebanon's journalists.

In his first public statement since his appointment to the head of the ministry that oversees the country’s media, he said he “wished that the media in Lebanon would refrain from hosting guests who portray the country as heading to collapse”.

The new minister has plans for the Lebanese media sector. And judging by his previous sexist and racist statements, these will not be about tackling harassment or discrimination. His plan is to have a committee to supervise what is broadcast and published in the media.

He will not be censoring the media, he explained, but he expects the media to censor itself.

The words of the man best known as the host of the Arabic version of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ don’t come as a surprise, though they do come as a warning. Lebanon has not only been in financial free fall, but has witnessed a severe decline in freedom of expression in the past two years.

Journalists and activists have suffered from judicial and extrajudicial repression, while protesters have been routinely subjected to violence from state agents, and militias connected to ruling parties.

But Kordahi is only one of a questionable set of new faces in Lebanon’s new government. The challenge facing them is formidable – but at first look, it seems doubtful that they will bring any real solutions.

A new prime minister

Lebanon's new government has been formed more than a year after the resignation of prime minister Hassan Diab. In the intervening period, the state has spent $10.4bn without any clear plan. Diab’s resignation came shortly after the huge explosion in Beirut on 4 August 2020, which destroyed large parts of the capital and took the lives of at least 218 people, wounding 7,000, with at least 150 acquiring a physical disability. The explosion “caused untold psychological harm” and damaged 77,000 apartments, displacing more than 300,000 people, according to Human Rights Watch.

Since then, the political establishment responsible for the failure, neglect, and corruption that caused the detonation of tonnes of ammonium nitrate, stored in a decrepit port warehouse next to fireworks in the middle of a residential area, has been actively blocking an investigation into the crime. Recently, an Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project investigation found that a chemical-trading network controlled by Ukrainians – hidden behind a veil of proxies and shell firms, some of which are in the UK – was allegedly behind the shipment.

In Lebanon, families of those killed during the explosion were repeatedly attacked by security forces when demanding the truth and justice for their loved ones.

Related story

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A year after protests swept the country, two and a half months after the Beirut port explosion, the Lebanese elite is cracking down on dissent.

After months of stalling and billions of dollars squandered with no plan nor oversight, as the country ran out of fuel, electricity, medicine and hope, the country’s key political players have agreed on naming billionaire Najib Mikati as the new prime minister, tasked with curtailing the economic collapse.

Mikati is no stranger to Lebanon's political system. He has served twice as PM, and is accused of various corrupt dealings. In 2019, Lebanon's state prosecutor pressed charges against him after Lebanese media reported that Mikati and his family members were accused of wrongly receiving millions of dollars in subsidised housing loans. Mikati denied the charges, and the case was later dropped.

Most recently, in July, the new PM's company, M1 Group, bought the Myanmar arm of the Norwegian telecoms company, Telenor, after its owner decided to leave the country rather than provide user data to Myanmar’s military junta, which wanted to deploy intercept technology to allow authorities to spy on users.

Many in Myanmar fear that M1 will be willing to cooperate with the junta, especially since Mikati's telecommunication business has flourished under dictatorships in Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

New faces

Mikati is just the tip of the iceberg. Lebanon is sinking deeper into a financial crisis, caused by what some have described as a ‘state-regulated Ponzi scheme’, in a country plagued by mismanagement and corruption at the top echelons of its financial authorities and banking system.

The new minister of finance, Youssef Khalil, is the former director of financial operations at Lebanon’s central bank, which means he was in a decision-making position when it comes to the financial policies that led to the current crisis. Lebanon’s central bank has been under much scrutiny since the local currency started its freefall in late 2019. The bank’s governor, Riad Salameh, is under investigation in Switzerland, France, and Lebanon for money laundering and embezzlement.

Most recently, the governor was detained at a Paris airport carrying €90,000 in cash in a suitcase that he failed to declare. He told investigators that he “forgot it was there”.

Another interesting figure is Walid Fayad, the new minister of energy. Fayad, who will be tasked with solving Lebanon’s ever-lasting electricity shortage, was fired and sued by his former employer, consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, for “illicit activities and misconduct”. Fayad denied all allegations and the matter was later settled out of court.

The new government does not signal a break with the establishment that brought Lebanon to its knees

As for the new minister of social affairs, Hector Hajjar, he faces a catastrophic social and economic situation in a country where poverty has jumped to 82%, according to the United Nations, and shortages of food, water, medicine, fuel and other necessities have reduced life for most to a matter of survival.

Yet Hajjar seems to come with unconventional plans. In a recent interview, the minister suggested that parents struggling to find nappies for their children simply use and reuse napkins. Hajjar said he had “just come back from China”, where “To this day, the Chinese people do not use diapers”.

The minister clearly failed to notice the 1.45 million tonnes of nappies China uses every year. But he also failed to explain to parents in Lebanon how exactly they will be able to wash said napkins when there is no electricity and no water, and the price of soap is soaring.

Nothing good

Lebanon’s new government clearly does not signal a break with the political establishment that brought the country to its knees. The government has yet to declare any concrete plan to address the multilayered crisis. But seeing as it represents almost all of the same major parties who have been ruling for decades, it is unlikely that it will enact any real reform or change to the corruption and mismanagement that has been characteristic of the country’s governance.

However, the sheer fact of its formation after more than a year of deadlock indicates some sort of agreement among the political elites. And with different local parties affiliated to various external powers, be it Iran, Saudi Arabia, US or France, any internal agreement is certain to reflect an international one.

Before the formation of the government, Lebanon signed an agreement to receive Egyptian gas via a pipeline that passes through Jordan and Syria. Such an agreement risked US sanctions under the Caesar Act, which prohibits dealings with the Syrian regime, but there are indications that an exception will be made.

A few months before that, a deal was reached between Iraq and Lebanon, where the former would send one million tonnes of heavy fuel oil to the latter, in exchange for goods and services.

This deal comes at a time when Iraq, one of the world’s largest exporters of fuel, is itself also suffering from a severe shortage. This raised questions about the details of the deal, especially because the heavy fuel oil provided by Iraq cannot be used in Lebanon, but must be exchanged with a third party for fuel that can serve the country’s power plants. According to the independent news website Daraj, an Iraqi source said that one possible service to be provided in exchange for the fuel oil is that of Lebanese bankers. Sadly for Iraq, Lebanese banking skills are likely what led the small country into its severe financial collapse and will do little to promote Iraq’s financial health.

A new power-sharing agreement among the political elite responsible for the country's collapse is unlikely to bode well for those living in Lebanon, but it might be a sign that the country has hit rock bottom and it is time to start preparing for the upcoming general election in May 2022.

Meanwhile, as deals are being made and Lebanese politicians celebrate empty achievements on the ruins of a country, people are still queuing up for petrol, medicine and food, and judging from the long daily queues of people applying for passports, it seems hope is nowhere to be found.

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