Lebanon's New Government Faces Challenges to Govern Country

Abby Sewell

BEIRUT -- When mass anti-government protests erupted in Lebanon more than three months ago, demonstrators demanded that all the government leaders step down, saying that a corrupt and sectarian entrenched political class has failed to provide basic services for the country.

They called for the appointment of a transitional "technocratic government" of experts not affiliated with the existing political parties to steer the country through the economic crisis it was sinking into, which has since deepened.

Two weeks into the protests, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned, taking the Cabinet with him. But other top officials -- including President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri -- have remained in place. Since then, protests have continued and, in recent weeks, have become violent, with hundreds injured in clashes between demonstrators and security forces.

On Jan. 21, government leaders announced the formation of a new Cabinet. The move was seen as critical to getting the country on track to climb out of an economic crisis driven by a shortage of dollars that led to de facto currency devaluation, inflation and difficulty in importing essential goods like medical supplies.

But analysts say the new Cabinet will face an uphill battle in gaining domestic and international support needed to restore political and economic stability.

The new prime minister, Hassan Diab, a former education minister and university professor who was not a household name before he was named by Aoun to the prime minister post in December, asserted that the new government "represents the aspirations of the protesters" and promised that it "will strive to meet their demands for an independent judiciary, for the recovery of embezzled funds, for the fight against illegal gains."

But the new Cabinet was immediately beset by accusations from protesters that it was simply another set of politically connected figures beholden to the parties and institutions that protesters have been trying to oust.

Even before the names were officially announced, demonstrators had descended to the streets, blocking roads with burning tires and debris and clashing with security forces in front of the entrance to Parliament. Many shared the slogans "no trust" and "we will bring it down" on social media.

"The crisis in Lebanon is first and foremost a crisis of confidence," says Karim Emile Bitar, director of the Institute of Political Science at the Saint Joseph University of Beirut. "The Lebanese have lost confidence in the entire political class, the international markets have lost confidence in Lebanon, and the Lebanese also lost confidence in their own banking system."

Bitar says that while the new Cabinet includes "some relatively independent figures, a few of them very respectable," the majority are seen as beholden to the existing political elites.

"The entire political and economic system needs an overhaul, and at this stage we do not see how this government will be capable of launching these radical, comprehensive reforms," he says.

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Nadim el Kak, a researcher with the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies and an activist with the group Li Haqqi ("For My Right") that has been active in the protests, says the Cabinet failed to meet protesters' demands both because most of the members are politically aligned and because a number of them have no experience in the areas they were selected to oversee.

"Although they may have competent backgrounds, the portfolios they were handed do not actually match their expertise," he says.

Meanwhile, some ministries were merged together in unorthodox groupings. For instance, the social affairs ministry, responsible for overseeing various welfare programs, was merged with tourism. Culture and agricultural ministries were joined in a single ministry, a move that became fodder for jokes online.

"I definitely expect popular mobilization to continue and to eventually put enough pressure on this government to ultimately resign," Kak says. "I don't see this government lasting more than a couple of months."

The new government may also face challenges from outside. Amid heightened geopolitical tensions between the pro- and anti- Iran axes in the wake of the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the new Lebanese Cabinet was appointed by Hezbollah and its allies. Meanwhile, the more West-aligned political coalition led by Hariri's Future Movement party chose to remove itself from the process and is now sitting on the sidelines as the opposition.

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The challenge for the new government is to show it is not too closely aligned with Iran, a supporter of Hezbollah, to gain regional and international acceptance, says Beirut-based political analyst Halim Shebaya. "It's not about getting support just by lip service, saying, 'We support the government, we're for Lebanon's stability.' At this point Lebanon needs action and real support, material support, financial support, so that's the question."

Firas Maksad, an adjunct professor at George Washington University's Elliott School for International Affairs and political consultant on the Middle East, says the new Lebanese government might find some financial support in the Gulf, particularly from Qatar, or from some European countries that have taken a softer line on Iran than the United States.

As for the U.S. reaction, Maksad says the increased Hezbollah role in the government could throw some aid into question.

"Assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces has been a controversial policy in Washington from the get-go," he says. "It's going to be very difficult for the administration, politically, to justify continued assistance to the Lebanese army politically under such a government."

At the same time, he says there are those in Washington who believe "that the U.S. needs to preserve whatever levers of influence it currently has in Lebanon, including in the military and Central Bank."

Maksad says he believes Hezbollah made a strategic mistake by thrusting itself into a leading role in the government formation process.

"I think it's a mistake because any government, under the current conditions would have a hard time surviving, let alone restoring social order," he says, adding that this government will not have support from key groups within Lebanon. "It's very hard to comprehend how this government might survive past its first birthday."

Abby Sewell is a journalist based in Lebanon. You can follow her on Twitter here.