While the Pope is on a historic visit to the UAE, a different white smoke emerged from Lebanon’s body politic at the start of February with the announcement of a new government.
After eight months of deadlock and uncertainty the agreement of the 30-member national unity comes at a huge relief to those concerned with instability in Lebanon becoming a institutionally chronic issue. It also meant that some $11 billion in soft loans and grants from international donors is back in play.
Fireworks lit the sky over Beirut, the nation’s capital, in celebration and newspaper editorials urged the country’s politicians to put internal feuding aside to address the challenges the country faces. The new government has four women in senior portfolios and whilst Hezbollah secured the Health Ministry, the appointment of a Jamil Jabak, a non-party member, means there has been global relief at the agreement.
The economy is one of those challenges awaiting this new government with slow growth and a public debt that stands at over $84bn. Economic reform is a thorny issue but one that the new government can hardly avoid. The chief EU diplomat, Federica Mogerini, spoke of their ‘high expectations’ of what the new government will deliver, no pressure indeed. Addressing a large public debt whilst reforming the public sector, tackling corruption and keeping the country stable in a volatile region is not easy task.
To the south the country’s continued conflict with Israel has warmed up over recent months with increasing talk of Hezbollah’s arsenal of weapons and a more aggressive and assertive Israeli response to incidents along the border.
To the east the conflict in Syria may be burning less brightly than before but it continues to send shockwaves into Lebanon. Large numbers of refugees don’t feel that it is safe to return meaning the Lebanese state remains their host, despite the struggles that entails. Indeed the new government was formed just as an appeal was made for Lebanon to receive an extra $2.6 billion to fund the humanitarian response and the infrastructure impact that it has, this is in addition to the $6.7 billion it has already received since 2013.
It took 252 days for the new government to be formed, somewhat short of the record of 315 back in 2013-2014. Yet this delay highlighted the divisions between Lebanon’s political parties. These divisions, which cut across identity politics, ideology, geography, class and beyond, have not suddenly disappeared and the key test of the new administration is how resilient it will be in processing disagreement and preventing the government from collapsing.
Progressive Socialist Party Leader and longstanding Lebanese political titan, Walid Joumblatt, offered the new government his congratulations but also warned against ‘any imbalance affecting public funds and national wealth’. Indeed, whilst the macro economic and foreign policy priorities of the country are clear, looking closer at some of the domestic reform that’s needed shows the scale of the challenge for Prime Minister Hariri and his new team.
The collection of rubbish, a staple responsibility for any effective state, remains an outstanding challenge with protests and violence surrounding this issue over the last few years, whist the country’s electricity infrastructure is poor and telecommunications in need of serious overhaul.
However the delay in forming a government was often focused on the appointment of a single minister to a single ministry, highlighting how small issues had the ability to create complete inertia. On the larger issues of public reform it is hard to predict how the new government can move forward in unison, indeed staying together may be its single biggest achievement separate from any individual policy success.
Joumblatt’s warm words for the new Government were followed several days later by a more outspoken critique of Prime Minister Hariri, in particular for not preserving the balance of the Taif Accords which set the framework for the country’s politics following the end of the Civil War.
This huge complexity of a weak and hugely diverse system of government, sitting on top of a country that is still recovering for a bloody civil war yet that faces huge problems requiring radical reform, is the challenge that Lebanon’s new political leaders are being asked to address, and it is huge.
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