Veteran political leader Saad al-Hariri was designated as prime minister for the fourth time on Thursday and faces the daunting challenge of resolving Lebanon’s festering problems.

Hariri, who stepped down as prime minister in October 2019 due to anti-government protests over Lebanon’s mounting economic troubles and corruption, pledged to form a government of specialists to push through long-overdue economic and financial reforms.

Yet Hariri faces a difficult task in assembling a cabinet, let alone addressing Lebanon’s cascading political, economic, security, social, and COVID-19 health crises.

Hariri also must contend with Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Shiite Islamist extremist group that dominates Lebanon’s political system and rules a separate state within the state. 

Lebanon’s previous prime minister, Hassan Diab, resigned after the catastrophic Aug. 4 explosion that devastated the port of Beirut exposed the negligence and incompetence of government officials.

Like Diab, Hariri is likely to find that his official authority and reform plans are undermined by Hezbollah and its allies.

Hariri also knows well the risks of opposing Hezbollah, which assassinated his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in a 2005 terrorist bombing, according to a U.N. Special Tribunal.

Hezbollah on Its Heels 

Hezbollah long has ruthlessly used terrorist bombings as a tool of political intimidation against Lebanese rivals, as well as vengeance against foreign enemies, including Israel and the United States. But a recent string of explosions, including several at Hezbollah arms depots, has undermined Hezbollah’s political standing inside Lebanon.

The massive Aug. 4 Beirut explosion, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, was caused by approximately 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that was improperly stored in a poorly maintained warehouse.

The explosion killed at least 190 people and injured over 6,500. The resulting damage was estimated to be as high as $4.6 billion, with an additional $2.9 to $3.5 billion incurred in economic losses. 

Leaked municipal reports suggested that Lebanese security officials had warned the government prior to the explosion of the danger of the unsecured chemicals, but the government failed to take action.

The disaster and the ensuing lackluster response to the devastation further fueled popular anger with Lebanon’s dysfunctional and corrupt government, which many Lebanese blame for years of negligence.

Although Hezbollah sought to dodge blame for the explosion, many Lebanese suspect that the “fireworks” explosion that reportedly ignited the chemicals actually was caused by arms or munitions being smuggled through the port by Hezbollah.

Smuggling costs the government an estimated $1.2 billion per year in evaded tariffs and excise taxes at the port, according to a 2015 report.

Many Lebanese speculate that a Sept. 10 fire that broke out near the site of the Aug. 4 blast could be an attempt to destroy evidence. They pushed for an international probe that reduces the government’s opportunity to whitewash the results of its investigation and let those responsible off the hook. 

The lack of trust in Lebanese judicial investigations is understandable given the failure to hold accountable those who committed crimes during the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War as well as more recent atrocities, such as the 2005 Hariri assassination.

However, the Lebanese government has rejected offers for an impartial international investigation, claiming that it will be “a waste of time” and likely “politicized” in its conclusions.

Lebanese also have been troubled by mysterious explosions on Sept. 22, Oct. 9, and Oct. 10, some of which occurred at suspected Hezbollah facilities. The Sept. 22 blast occurred at an arms depot in a civilian area controlled by the “Peace Generation Organization for Demining,” a front group created by Hezbollah in 2008. 

In August, the leader of Lebanon’s Christian community, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi, joined local council members in requesting that the government investigate the safety threats posed by arsenals located in close proximity to civilians, without mentioning that these belong to Hezbollah. 

International Pressure Needed 

As prime minister, Hariri faces a herculean task: reforming a corrupt sectarian power-sharing system that has plundered Lebanon’s wealth and squandered its future. Moreover, many of the protesters demanding reforms see him as part of the problem, not the solution.

Reform is urgently needed. Lebanon’s severe financial crisis is compounded by hyperinflation, a soaring national debt, endemic corruption, and a population that is suffering from a 40% unemployment rate with over half living in poverty. Economic problems have been exacerbated by an influx of Syrian refugees and a surging COVID-19 health crisis. 

New elections are seen as a possible solution for Lebanon’s cascading problems, but elections alone will solve nothing. The current political system organizes constituencies along sectarian lines and benefits kleptocratic elites that have drained Lebanon’s treasury to enrich themselves and their patronage networks. 

Left alone, the government will not reform itself. Strong international pressure is needed.

The United States has ratcheted up sanctions on Hezbollah to blunt its terrorist threats and break its stranglehold on Lebanese politics. 

French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to Beirut after the Aug. 4 explosion and promised to provide humanitarian aid while pushing for the reform of Lebanon’s government.

Macron organized a donor’s conference on Aug. 9 that pledged nearly $300 million in humanitarian assistance “directly delivered to the Lebanese population.” He made it clear that future aid to the discredited government would depend on the formulation of credible reform plans, including a timeline for implementation. 

Macron criticized Hezbollah and other groups on Sept. 27 for preventing the formation of a new government and declared that “Hezbollah can’t be at the same time an army at war with Israel, an unrestrained militia against civilians in Syria, and a respectable party in Lebanon.”

A policy of tough love is required to save Lebanon. The United States should refuse to provide aid until the Lebanese form a government that will not waste that aid, or worse, permit it to be siphoned off by Hezbollah to advance Iran’s interests. 

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