Main Image Credit A view of the damaged Port of Beirut after the massive explosion of 4 August 2020. Courtesy of dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo
One of Lebanon’s key political figures argues that the international community has a vital role to play in improving the country’s domestic situation; asset freezes and travel bans should be top of its list of tools.
Earlier this month, French and US diplomats travelled to Riyadh to persuade Saudi Arabia to play a more proactive role in helping Lebanon. Their message fell upon deaf ears – not because the Saudis do not wish to see a stable Lebanon, but because they understand what the West does not: Lebanon is lost. Its politicians cannot be trusted to oversee any form of aid, fiscal or otherwise, without lining their own pockets or funnelling it to Hizbullah. Until the West grasps this reality, there is no hope of a better future for Lebanon.
4 August marks the first anniversary of the Port of Beirut blast – the product of decades of systematic corruption and mismanagement in which officials were aware of the presence of ammonium nitrate but remained idle. Their corruption resulted in the deaths of 200 men, women and children. Yet, one year on, lessons have still not been learnt.
Lebanon remains without a government and is currently governed by a caretaker administration so lacking in credibility that self-serving politicians are already squabbling over the sectarian makeup of the next cabinet. The severe economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have only been compounded by this ineptitude: Lebanon’s currency has lost almost 95% of its value, savings have been eliminated and fuel shortages have caused chaos on the streets.
The situation is now so dire that the World Bank recently stated Lebanon was likely to ‘rank in the top 10, possibly top three, most severe crises’ globally. It estimates that Lebanon’s GDP contracted by as much as 20.3% in 2020, on top of a contraction of 6.7% in 2019.
Sawa Li Lubnan (‘Together for Lebanon’) is a new cross-sectarian party campaigning for meaningful reform in Lebanon which I support. Sawa Li Lubnan proposes to do away with the entire sectarian system and replace it with a ‘chamber of deputies’ similar to the UK parliament or US congress. This would be non-sectarian and elected by the people to serve the people.
The Lebanese people have lost trust in politicians and lost faith in their own ability to affect change. Putting the people at the heart of a genuine democracy will enable real accountability and is the only way Lebanon can rebuild trust in politicians. Furthermore, without accountable politicians and without removing the sectarian self-interest of the current political class, bringing an end to the corruption that blights every facet of Lebanese life will be impossible. Corruption and cronyism must be eradicated for Lebanon to recover from decades of mismanagement.
Sawa Li Lubnan believes that engaging the Lebanese people and granting regulatory and oversight agencies the independence they need to successfully operate will empower civil society to hold officials to account. Decentralisation of power is key to this process. Such proposals are not the only way of turning Lebanon around, but Sawa Li Lubnan is the only group actively trying to advocate for meaningful solutions to Lebanon’s problems.
The Role of the International Community
The international community needs to go much further than it has done to date. It needs to completely stop dealing with the current corrupt political class. The French initiative following the Port of Beirut blast, which placed the responsibility for meaningful reform on the very people who not only caused this crisis, but also stand to lose the most from a clampdown on corruption, squandered a real opportunity to improve Lebanon.
Lebanese security chief Abbas Ibrahim recently met with diplomats and intelligence officials in London. Not only was he involved in the tragic blast at the Port of Beirut, but he also has direct links to Hizbullah – a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK. Rather than legitimising individuals who do not, and will never, have Lebanon’s best interests at heart, the UK should be taking firm and decisive action against them.
Had the international community united from the start, it could have forced the Lebanese establishment to act, including by linking any aid to specific, measurable and meaningful changes. This would not have been an immediate panacea, but more decisive action would have paved the way for a road map forwards for Lebanon, underpinned by incremental progress over several years.
While the situation in Lebanon represents an urgent humanitarian crisis, continued destabilisation constitutes a huge security threat that will have to be reckoned with in the years ahead. The UK has an opportunity, in cooperation with Germany, the Netherlands and other countries, to ensure that the EU as a whole finally proscribes all of Hizbullah, not just its military wing. It should be championing this as an achievable objective.
The international community also needs to impose strict economic sanctions on corrupt Lebanese officials that supersede the toothless sanctions currently in place, such as France’s travel ban. Policies need to directly target those responsible for the current political deadlock. Potential policies include asset freezes on key figures, travel bans to European capitals, blocking their children from attending Ivy League universities and forcing them to pay for Beirut’s devastation.
The West needs to act decisively and at pace. Only by getting tough on Lebanon’s leaders will the country have a shot at prosperity.
Bahaa Hariri, the eldest son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, is an international businessman and key backer of the new Sawa Li Lubnan movement.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
For further analysis of the current political situation in Lebanon, see the following article: