Prospects of real change in Lebanon in doubt after election of Aoun
BEIRUT - The euphoria that accompanied the election of a Hezbollah ally, Christian veteran leader Michel Aoun, as Lebanon’s president after a nearly 30-month political vacuum and the return of Sunni leader Saad Hariri to the post of prime minister, will soon dissipate.
Restoring Lebanese faith in the state, consolidating government institutions that were close to collapse due to the prolonged political dysfunction and divisions, reviving the ailing economy and confronting various security dangers are no easy tasks.
Aoun, the octogenarian former army commander who achieved his long-time ambition of becoming president after 26 years of what he described “a long path of struggle”, will have to prove he is capable of keeping his promises: Preserving the state, introducing the aspired reforms and fighting corruption. Hariri, who is yet to succeed in forming the desired “national accord” government, is to shoulder the hard responsibility of shoring up the economy.
Both have made enough concessions to secure their new posts but, along with the country’s other political leaders, they must adopt a totally different mentality in approaching state affairs if they are to succeed in stabilising the multi-confessional country.
Hezbollah’s powerful arsenal and military involvement in the Syria war was apparently shelved at least for the time being, with anti-Hezbollah Muslim Sunni and Christian political leaders realistically admitting that this is a too-shaky issue to tackle.
The focus would be more on solving the country’s most urgent internal problems and whether Aoun’s reign will make a difference and change the country.
“I hope he (Aoun) will not forget his reform programme and stay true to it,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “I also hope that he will not deal with it as if he is in a military battle. It rather needs dialogue, good thinking (about how to introduce the needed reforms).”
Sayigh argued that Lebanon’s vital problem lies in the fact that it is a “failed state” with its political class not carrying out its duties.
The mostly “decomposed” state institutions are almost absent and unable to provide basic and essential services, such as uninterrupted power supplies, clean drinking water and removing the rubbish from the streets to the proper functioning of the judicial and security services.
“A state of vacuum was created with the politicians’ failure in running the country, putting the whole burden on three institutions — the army, internal security forces and general security — to preserve civil peace and security on the borders as well as implement policies that should have been essentially adopted by the government,” Sayigh said.
Holding the Syrian refugees responsible for Lebanon’s ailments is simply unrealistic.
“Such a (Lebanese) mess started long before the coming of the Syrian refugees,” Sayigh said, warning against pressuring the 1.2 million registered refugees to leave the country by adopting “suppressive and coercive measures”.
Although hosting such a huge number of refugees constitutes a real burden on Lebanon and, despite the consequent social and cultural effects, their presence carries numerous benefits in being an active and indispensable force in the Lebanese economy and bringing in a considerable amount of international aid. That they are scattered throughout the country and not placed in isolated camps was a plus for Lebanon, which, Sayigh said, presented “a successful model” of embracing refugees.
The fear, mostly voiced by the Christians, of refugees’ prolonged presence and possible security threat is understandable but not totally justified. For five years now, there have been no signs of radicalisation among young Syrian refugees and no serious clashes reported with their Lebanese hosts.
Sayigh warned against any exaggeration in that regard and of Aoun and his party officials maintaining “a speech that exceeds fear to become a hostile one”.
“Would the new president become aware that the fear mentality does not produce wise policies?” he asked.
Nassif Hitti, a Lebanese former diplomat with the Arab League, said Aoun’s presidency will be at “a crossroads” between his promises while in the opposition and “the reality of sharing power along sectarian basis”.
“It will be difficult for Aoun to play the reformer if he does not start with his own people, trying to put a new, different team to the government… and to distance himself gradually from Hezbollah,” Hitti said.
Hezbollah, Sayigh said, is stuck in a paradox over its role in the Syria war and the need to get out of there without “real solutions in (its) hand”. The Iran-backed party is also facing the vexing issue of being part of the Lebanese state, with deputies in parliament and ministers in the government, but “effectively does not find solutions to the citizens’ daily problems”.
Under a win-win formula, Aoun and Hariri are now in power and most political forces are to be included in the new government. Would they be able to put their many disputes aside, rejuvenate the deteriorating economy, stop the widespread corruption, which they are behind, end the Hezbollah-provoked rift with the Gulf states and lure back the tourists?
The expectations are huge but Aoun’s election is unlikely to change much.