Prospects of real change in Lebanon in doubt after election of Aoun

Sunday 06/11/2016
Most political forces are to be in­cluded in new government

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.