Protesters’ rejection amid challenges awaiting Lebanon’s new cabinet

Police were accused of excessive violence to quell the disturbance, firing scores of tear-gas canisters and shooting rubber bullets that hit some protesters in the eyes.
Sunday 26/01/2020
Bumpy start. Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab (R) arrives to attend the first cabinet meeting of the newly formed  government at Baabda Palace, January 22.  (DPA)
Bumpy start. Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab (R) arrives to attend the first cabinet meeting of the newly formed government at Baabda Palace, January 22. (DPA)

BEIRUT - Following month-long arduous negotiations, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab formed a 20-member government, although it was quickly rejected by protesters as a rubber-stamp cabinet for the same political parties they blame for widespread corruption and the economic crisis gripping the country.

Diab, an academic and former education minister who was little known in Lebanon until recently, insisted in his first comments as prime minister that the cabinet was a non-partisan technocratic one that would work to meet the aspirations and demands of protesters who have been calling for an independent government of technocrats.

Technically, the new government is made up of specialists but the ministers were all named by Hezbollah and its allies, including the Shia Amal movement and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, in a process involving horse-trading and bickering. It includes six women — a record number for Lebanon — in key ministries, including Defence, Justice and Labour.

“The government is nowhere near the ambitions of the revolution in Lebanon,” said activist Marc Daou. “It is nearly a continuation of the political class and the policies that got us into the current crisis while people are revolting for a complete transformation of the way this country is being run.”

While admitting that several ministers “have excellent track records” and are “highly qualified,” Daou said: “For us they are a window dressing and acting as a facade for a regime that is trying to veil its true colours through using such ministers as pawns. We advise them to resign.”

The government’s January 21 announcement inflamed those participating in demonstrations, which have turned violent in recent weeks. Protesters rampaged through the streets near parliament and the Beirut Souks shopping mall in the capital’s commercial district, engaging in some of the most violent confrontations yet with security forces.

Police were accused of excessive violence to quell the disturbance, firing scores of tear-gas canisters and shooting rubber bullets that hit some protesters in the eyes.

“We will continue the protests and mobilisation against the government and push for early parliamentary elections,” Daou said, adding that “attacks on media and on protesters clearly show that repressing the revolution has become an official strategy of the Lebanese authorities.”

Protesters took to the streets in mid-October in a mass uprising against Lebanon’s ruling elite, whom they blame for decades of corruption and mismanagement that left Lebanon near economic collapse. The Lebanese pound, long pegged to the US dollar, has lost as much as 60% of its value against the dollar and banks imposed unprecedented controls to preserve liquidity.

Diab’s government takes on the most challenging mission of winning the Lebanese people’s confidence and the trust of the international community in the state’s institutions.

The United States and the European Union called on Lebanon’s new government to respond to the demands of the people to implement reforms and fight corruption.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was adamant. “Only a government that is capable of and committed to undertaking real and tangible reforms will restore investor confidence and unlock international assistance for Lebanon,” he said.

Political analyst Kassem Kassir pinpointed “positive aspects” in the new government’s configuration, which, he said, “may be able to restore Lebanon’s relations with the Arab world and the international community and ease its (diplomatic) isolation.”

“First, it is mainly a government of specialists rather than politicians or partisans and that in itself is a significant development. Second, Hezbollah did not choose partisans but chose non-partisan specialists. The government comprises a diversity of people, including the minister of justice who was very active in the protest movement,” Kassir said.

He said Diab’s cabinet appears to be determined to introduce serious reforms to curb corruption and improve governance. “I believe the decision has been taken and there is a strong political will to push in that direction,” Kassir said.

Kassir noted that several ministers, including Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti, Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm and Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, among others, were selected for positions relevant to their specialties.

“We can say that half the ministers have relevant portfolios and this is something that can be built on,” he said. “That is why I think there is hope this government might achieve something positive and should be given a chance to deliver. So far, the international reaction has not been negative. Nobody closed the door, which means they are willing to give it a chance.”

However, the new government, being politically aligned with Iran-backed Hezbollah, would likely have difficulty drumming up international and regional support needed to avoid economic collapse.

Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organisation by the United States and oil-rich gulf countries whose support is badly needed for debt-ridden Lebanon. The European Union considers the military wing of Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.

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