WASHINGTON - The formation of a new government in a deal between Hezbollah and its allies is not expected to persuade Lebanese protesters to end their rallies against the ruling elite, experts say, warning that the direction in which the country is heading could spark more instability.
Wide protests hit Lebanon in October 2019 after the government announced an increase in taxes and gasoline prices. The protesters later increased their demands to uproot corruption and mismanagement by the ruling class, forcing Saad Hariri to resign as prime minister.
A new Cabinet, announced last week with the backing of the U.S.-designated terror group Hezbollah, has fallen short of calming nationwide marches despite the ruling class promoting it as a government of technocrats capable of fulfilling people’s demands.
Protesters lifted slogans such as “No trust” and “We will not pay the toll anymore” to express their rejection of the government that they see as a mere tactic by Hezbollah and its allies to halt popular reform demands.
“Hezbollah and its allies formed this government; the protesters don’t have any trust in it. They are saying they have formed a government of technocrats, but they brought in their own people with new faces. Nothing changed,” Tarek Itani, a lawyer and a human rights activist based in Beirut, told VOA.
Itani said the protesters were planning to organize new rallies on the streets of Beirut and other cities in the upcoming weeks. Their main demand, he said, was to hold new parliamentary elections and form an entirely new government that is capable of introducing tangible reforms.
“We have no trust in the current political system. The Lebanese people don’t want to pay the price anymore for the corruption of the political parties and their mismanagement of the financial resources of the country,” Itani said.
Lebanon’s new government consists of 20 ministers and is led by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, 60, an engineering professor at the American University of Beirut and a former education minister. Many Lebanese politicians opposing the new Cabinet said it was made up of Hezbollah and its allies, excluding the mainstream Sunni bloc led by former Prime Minister Hariri’s Future Party.
Lebanon’s political system is based on the unwritten National Pact agreed on by various factions of the country after its independence from France in 1943, laying the foundation for power sharing among the Sunnis, Shiites and Maronite Christians. As such, the country’s president has been a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni and the parliament speaker a Shiite.
Some Lebanon observers say the county’s political system over the years has transformed to make Hezbollah the kingmaker and allow a political elite class to dominate the economy.
According to Sam Bazzi, the founder of Hezbollah Watch Project, the demands of the Lebanese protesters to bring a radical change to the system are “overly ambitious,” especially now that Hezbollah is tightening its grip on power.
Bazzi added that the Iran-backed group is unlikely to give in to demands for a more transparent government, given that it depends on illicit activities inside Lebanon and around the world to survive.
“Hezbollah is expecting the worst yet to come, especially after the liquidating of former IRGC leader Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike earlier this month, and [it] cannot afford not being in full control over the politics in the country,” Bazzi said, referring to the top Iranian commander and major supporter of Hezbollah.
The U.S. designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization in 1997. The U.S. Treasury last July imposed a series of sanctions on the group’s leaders, including two lawmakers in the Lebanese parliament.
“Hezbollah threatens the economic stability and security of Lebanon and the wider region, all at a cost to the Lebanese people. The United States will continue to support efforts of the Lebanese government to protect its institutions from exploitation by Iran and its terrorist proxies,” said Sigal Mandelker, the Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, during the announcement of the sanctions.
Since 2006, the U.S. has provided Lebanon with $2 billion in assistance and $1.8 billion more in humanitarian funds since the start of the Syrian refugee crisis. The U.S. State Department says the assistance aims, among other goals, at strengthening the Lebanese government and military institutions and countering Hezbollah.
The U.S. government last October decided to withhold $105 million in military assistance to Lebanon but released it in December.
Asked if Washington was willing to cut off aid to Lebanon’s new government because of concerns about Hezbollah’s influence, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week told Bloomberg News, “I don’t know the answer to that yet.”
In a tweet last Wednesday, Pompeo said the Lebanese people demand a new direction, adding, “Only a government capable of undertaking tangible reforms will restore investor confidence and unlock international assistance for Lebanon.”
According to former Lebanese Minister of Economy Nasser Saidi, Lebanon needs a $20 billion to $25 billion bailout for economic and social stabilization. The country is facing its worst financial crisis in decades, with $80 billion in debt.
The new government earlier this week passed its 2020 budget, unleashing outrage among protesters who said the approved budget failed to tackle issues related to the plummeting economy and deteriorating living standards. In a meeting Wednesday with his Cabinet members and the country’s major banks, Diab said his country still had “ways out” of the crisis and asked for an urgent plan to restore confidence.
Hanin Ghaddar, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, told VOA that the international community is likely to give the new government a chance to introduce reforms that address the increasing financial crises and answer the demands of Lebanon’s protesters.
“By the end of the day, the decision is with the International Monetary Fund, and the issue of stability in Lebanon might outweigh other considerations,” Ghaddar said.
Despite U.S. pressure, Hezbollah will likely maintain its influence in the new government because in the past few months it has shown it can maintain Lebanon’s relative stability in a difficult region, she added.
“Hezbollah was able to send the message that if Europe doesn’t want another wave of refugees and if the U.S. doesn’t want any more instability in the region, then it can guarantee that if they kept the status quo,” she told VOA.