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Lebanon’s political deadlock: Multi-Layered Challenges to Government Formation

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Photo: Marten Bjork/Unsplash

As the pandemic continues to constrain economic activity across the World, it has a multiplier effect on the free-fall of the Lebanese economy. In fact, Lebanon’s economic conditions continue to worsen, as the country’s economic, fiscal and financial crises remain unchecked, while consumer and investor confidence is at its lowest.

Lebanon’s multiple crises are due to structural deficiencies within its economic, institutional, and governance systems. The authorities did not present nor work on a concrete economic vision for the Lebanese economy over the past thirty years, leaving the economy without clear objectives and policies. The economy ended up relying on remittance inflows that were financing the government deficit, the peg of the Lebanese pound against the US dollar, and imports. With a weak infrastructure, the industrial and agricultural sectors could not grow nor present opportunities, making the services sector, along with real estate and tourism, the main drivers of growth.

However, despite a strategic location on the Mediterranean, Lebanon’s position north of its enemy country, and bordered by Syria to the north and the east, which has unstable relations with Lebanon, raises the country’s geopolitical risks and continuously disrupts its stability; not to mention the spillover of the Syrian war on Lebanon. Political and geopolitical stability is a key requirement for the tertiary sector, Lebanon’s main economic sector, to function properly. As such, Lebanon’s location hindered its stability to achieve sustained growth in the form that was agreed upon by its ruling class. Lacking concrete growth for some years, along with the erosion of confidence in the political and financial systems, and the default of the government, the remaining lifeline for the population is but a diminishing amount of foreign currency reserves at Banque du Liban, used to subsidize the imports of the people’s basic needs.

Most experts, along with the international community, continue to call for the implementation of reforms across the public sector, including in the power sector, the port, as well as on the fiscal and monetary levels, and in the banking sector. However, the main impediment for reforms is a lack of political will, reflecting a dysfunctional political system that continues to yield in renewed political deadlocks. Lebanon’s political system had remained slightly unchanged since the end of the civil war, as the country continued to muddle through from one crisis to another.

The lack of political will for reforms is currently at its highest levels, as the authorities remain unable to form a government since August 2020, when the last government resigned following the explosion at the Port of Beirut. The political deadlock coincides with a depreciation of the Lebanese Pound from about LBP7,000 against the US dollar in August 2020 to about LBP13,000 per US dollar in March 2021, and relative to LBP1,507.5 per US dollar before the protests in October 2019.

The complexity of this political deadlock can be analyzed in three different layers.

On the domestic front: the ruling-Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the Future Movement are facing an uncertain outlook in the 2022 elections, as their base voters are narrowing. Knowing that the next government should be the one to put the country on a reform path, and to stop the current deterioration across all sectors in the country, both parties seem interested in being part of the new government, in order to build on quick wins, while saving the remaining portions of their supporters in the upcoming elections. As such, the names and allegiance in this government are critical, it is a vital issue for both parties, which makes concessions harder to make. Each movement is testing the other’s endurance and capacity to maintain its current position and requirements for the upcoming government, at the expense of the nation and its population.

On the National level: some analysts and journalists have described the current free fall of the Lebanese economy, institutions, political system, and the political deadlock as an operation of “thermal dissociation” of the State. Under this perspective, the current deadlock intends to highlight the dysfunctional political system. The deadlock, in this case, is not only a result of the system but a catalyst that fastens the process towards a new founding conference that would change the shape and the foundation of the current system. Speculations are skewed towards a tripartite – where the governance system would be divided largely into three factions, Christian, Shia, and Sunni, rather than Christians and Muslims under the current system. Such a system would benefit mostly Shiite parties, as they could increase mainly their executive power, while reducing the power and representation of Christian factions. In that case, Shiite parties would probably exchange their paramilitary structure for a better representation and protection under a new constitution. In parallel, the calls for an alternative system have also increased, it is a non-confessional system. Such a proposition is tricky, as, without an understanding of the underlying values of this system and its proper mindset, some factions would override the new system by pushing their supporters and affiliates to vote based on a confessional mindset, given that most parties represent specific confessional communities. So without the proper awareness about the actual goal of the system, and given the skyrocketing poverty and unemployment rate, a high level of clientelism, and no rule of law, voters will be easily manipulated, while other less conservative and organized parties, with less direct authority on their base voters, would be at a disadvantage in the elections, paving the way for large and better-organized conservatives and hardliners to seize control. This system can be a tool to hijack the constitution and change the fundamental pillars on which this state was built.

On the International level: As the United States and Iran get closer to sit at the negotiation table, Iran has been gathering more cards to add to the table. Iran continued to increase its uranium enrichment levels and limited in February the International Atomic Energy Agency’s access to some nuclear sites. These actions seemed like an attempt to bring Washington sooner to the negotiations. In addition, Iran has by now several cards to play that are beyond its national borders, and are not directly related to the nuclear deal. Tehran has a strong and direct say in the formation of governments, as well as in national and strategic decisions both in Lebanon and in Iraq. Among the dishes that Iran could serve at the negotiations table from Lebanon’s kitchen are facilitating the formation of a government in Lebanon, lowering the constraints for talks with the International Monetary Fund, and easing the issues related to the demarcation of Lebanon’s borders. These represent easy concessions that Iran could offer before tackling the main issues of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

A breakthrough agreement that produces a government in the short term would probably be an unbalancing force to the current status quo over the three dimensions, resulting in potential winners and losers.

Iran tightened its grip on Lebanon through Hezbollah. In turn, Hezbollah has an asymmetric advantage on other parties given its paramilitary wing, which cripples any attempt towards a strong State as it strikes directly Thomas Hobbes’ “monopoly on violence”, maintaining an ongoing fear of a “war of all against all”. In addition, Hezbollah has been able to expand politically through its alliance with the Christian ruling-FPM. Their alliance was implicitly accepted, despite the large difference between both movements’ political and economic visions, mainly due to the narrative of Lebanon being the “shelter for minorities” in the Middle East, where minorities mainly refer Christian, Shiite, and Druze communities. This tool is the theoretical foundation that used to bring the ruling Christian and Shiite factions closer, building on fear from the large Sunni majority in the Middle East and from Pan-Arabism.

However, the signs of a vacuum of power on the Christian and Sunni level, as well as the trajectory towards more openness in the Arab world, especially in the main Sunni countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council show a strong potential for breaking the “shelter for minorities” narrative.

Lebanon’s confessionalism defied Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand in the heart of a “free market” economy, as every faction (religion) would seek its own benefits, without creating any indirect economic and social benefit to the country. Mainly it’s the elite class of every confessional community that continuously benefits from the system, even at the expense of people from the same faction. It is a system built on zero-sum games. Leaders continue to manipulate public opinion, mainly their followers, through geopolitics of religion, the art of keeping one scared of the other.

Elie El Khoury is an economic analyst, covering the Middle East and North Africa region. He also monitors political developments in the MENA region, and analyzes the evolution of the global oil market.

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Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Middle East

Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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