Lebanon’s bet on ministerial statement to delay the inevitable

The ministerial statement will join thousands of other papers and decrees that serve as reminders of Lebanon’s many missed opportunities to achieve statehood.
Sunday 10/02/2019
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (C) heads a meeting to discuss the ministerial statement at the governmental palace in Beirut, February 6. (Reuters)
Same old debate. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (C) heads a meeting to discuss the ministerial statement at the governmental palace in Beirut, February 6. (Reuters)

The formation of the Lebanese government was an arduous process that took nine months to complete and culminated in a supposed settlement that pleased all sides.

While the 30-member cabinet has technically begun its ministerial duties, constitutionally, it needs to receive a vote of confidence, one that is theoretically cast by the 128-member parliament on the cabinet’s “Ministerial Statement,” which maps out its plan of action.

This statement, which involved parties said seems to be a mere technicality, will serve to circumvent the thorny issues that the country faces, particularly Hezbollah’s weapons and Lebanon’s relationship vis-a-vis regional conflicts and the country’s ties with the Assad regime in Syria.

Instead, the government platform will try to overcompensate by stressing socio-economic reforms urgently needed for Lebanon to receive the $11 billion in pledges made last April at the CEDRE conference and to promise to find solutions to crises of electricity and waste management.

Despite this somewhat optimistic outlook surrounding the cabinet formation and the projected ministerial statement, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, as well as the Lebanese state, cannot overcome the many challenges they face by hiding behind a half-baked statement that delays the inevitable.

Hariri’s cabinet is free to preach about reform as much as it desires but the reality remains that most of the parties in power are implicated in corruption in one form or another. Hariri’s “sacred alliance” with Gebran Bassil, Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law and political heir, suggests that the former cabinet’s method of loosely dispensing with public funds and allocating public contracts while bypassing proper procedures will continue, snubbing any real reform.

The essential problem with the Hariri government’s statement goes beyond its inability to fight corruption but rather that it avoids facing the challenges of Hezbollah’s weapons and boundless regional expansion and the Syrian refugee crisis.

Surely, there is nothing new about the debate over Hezbollah weapons nor is this pickle easy to resolve. However, Hariri has shown a very lax attitude in confronting Iran’s proxies and their Lebanese Christian allies, jeopardising Lebanon’s standing regionally.

With most Gulf countries fully convinced of Hezbollah hegemony over the Lebanese state, a rehashing of the previous ministerial statement and imparting on Hezbollah any form of political legitimacy can only bode ill for Lebanon and its fragile economy.

Hariri genuinely believes that a smart manipulation of the Arabic language and pure semantics can please Hezbollah and protect what remains of the state’s sovereignty.

While Hezbollah appears unconcerned with any calls to disarm it, it needs the state to hide behind and, more importantly, to allow its main Christian allies Aoun and Bassil to act as a political fig leaf.

Equally important is the clause related to the Syrian refugees, one that both Hezbollah and Bassil will fully use to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and help it normalise relations with both Lebanon and the Arab world.

The statement maintains that the Lebanese state would work towards the Syrian refugees’ “safe return” while refraining from stating that the refugees would have to voluntarily do so or that their return hinges on a political settlement to the Syrian conflict.

Hezbollah and Bassil have both repeatedly used xenophobic tactics to expedite the return of the Syrian refugees and claimed that the Assad regime has won the conflict and thus there is no impediment to the immediate return of all refugees in Lebanon to safe areas in Syria.

Consequently, the insistence to include the Russian refugee repatriation plan, one that is plagued with unrealistic goals and lacks the required funds to achieve it, serves as a vehicle to empower Assad and provide him with fresh conscripts to repopulate his decrepit army.

Whatever the cabinet’s statement and its empty promises turn out to be, what is certain is that Iran and Syria’s allies will stop at nothing to consolidate their hold over the state, ensuring that Lebanon and its economy descend into chaos.

Above all, this ministerial statement will join thousands of other papers and decrees that serve as reminders of Lebanon’s many missed opportunities to achieve statehood.

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