The Lebanese crisis is in its second month right now and until about a week ago it was difficult to determine as to where the situation is headed. But now things may be starting to clear up. President Michael Aoun has announced next Monday, that is, December 9th as a date for binding parliamentary consultations for the appointment of next prime minister, who would replace outgoing PM Saad Hariri. Up until last week there were several names that had surfaced in the media as possible successors of Mr. Hariri, but recently Mr. Hariri announced that he would endorse Mr. Samir al-Khatib as the new prime minister of Lebanon.
Samir al Khatib is the general manager of the Khatib & Alami Company, and is reported to have family ties with Major General Abbas Ibrahim, Director of Lebanese Intelligence. He is known to have good relationships with leaders of Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and the Gulf States and he is not known to have involvement in any kind of corruption or scandals as of yet. This makes him a suitable candidate for premiership and currently he is reported to have the support of Mr. Hariri’s Future Movement (FM), the Free Patriotic Movement of caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, and the Shiite duo of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement.
Even if this is true, there are certain factors that leave room for doubt. One Lebanese paper cited a political source as saying the posting was a “wrong tactic,” and represent “an opportunity to back away from the assignment of Samir Al-Khatib, especially for those who have become known for their fluctuations, the first of whom being President Saad Hariri, as well as for the street that has expressed, and perhaps will express in the next two days, its rejection of this option.” There is also a possibility that protesters who oppose the name would block the streets and try to create pressure. Moreover, one influential blog issued a statement saying, “based on the manner in which parliamentary consultations were prepared on Monday, December 9, 2019, and based on the unconstitutionality of the steps that were taken, especially in terms of expressing authorship on commission, and based on striking the wall with all the people’s demands and wishes for a government of independent specialists who enjoy credibility, and transparency and away from the influence of the power group, and based on the country’s need for a government that can rid Lebanon of the financial, economic, living, and unprecedented demand, the powerful Republican bloc took a decision not to name anyone in the consultancy where deputies will participate as a powerful bloc of the Republic.”
In light of these events, which the author has been observing since the outset of crisis on October 17th, it is essential to have an understanding of the forces at work behind the scenes, and also some other aspects which might hinder the process of government formation. This is why the author requested an interview from Mr. Heiko Wimmen of International Crisis Group. Mr. Wimmen is the head of Crisis group’s Iraq/Syria/Lebanon project. He has lived in the region since 1994, mostly in Beirut where he currently resides. He is an expert on Lebanese domestic politics. He agreed to offer his insights and following is the interview which was conducted on 2nd December.
Among the names that have circulated, Sameer Khatib has emerged as that of the most likely successor of Mr. Saad Hariri. He is a bussinessman, reported to be neutral and non-political, plus has not been involved in any known scandals. Will this figure gain acceptance among Lebanese citizens?
There is no unified opinion among Lebanese citizens. Those who protested against the ruling elite will remain sceptical. The process that preceded Khatib’s designation (provided it will really happen, which is not clear at this point) raises questions to what extent he will be able to act independently from the ruling political class. His engineering company has been involved in major infrastructural projects (for instance, the Beirut Airport), hence even if Mr. Khatib is not personally tainted with allegations of any wrongdoing, he very much represents the close enmeshment of business and politics that has characterized the post-civil war era, and which arguably has brought Lebanon to the brink of bankruptcy. On the other hand, those Lebanese who still support the parties in power will highlight the qualities you mention, and argue that the man deserves a fair chance. Even if Mr. Khatib is in fact designated as PM, this does not necessarily mean that the governmental crisis is over: in the past, the parties were frequently able to quickly settle on a person to lead the government, only to then remain locked in stalemate over the exact distribution of cabinet posts (which is where the actual balance of executive power is decided) and key benchmarks of future policy. There is no constitutional time limit for how long government formation can take; four out of the last five governments (since 2008) took more than three months, and in one case, more than ten months to form.
There is also a talk about a female premiership. Names that have circulated in that regard are Interior Minister Riyal al Hassan and the Service Council of Civil Justice’s Fatima Sayegh. How much truth do you think is there to this news? And what do you think of these names?
It is plausible to imagine that the political parties would propose a female candidate, in the hopes that this could signal a positive change (to the protest movement, as well as to foreign governments/donor institutions). Ms. Raya Haffar-Hassan is certainly qualified (she previously served as MoF and MoI), and Ms. Sayeh’s track record likewise suggests that she could project integrity and competence. The question will remain, however, to what extent personnel that looks good on paper, such as these two, will indeed be able to work independently, or only act as placeholders for current political elites, who will continue to direct things from behind the stage.
There have been certain media reports suggesting that Mr. Hariri has been deliberately working to delay parliamentary consultations and somehow he aims to improve his chances to head a completely technocratic government by suggesting new names for premiership and then negating their chances, including that of Mr. Khatib, so that Mr. Hariri is the only option left and his political opponents would give into his demands. What do you think about this theory?
Lebanese politics is rife with elaborate conspiracy theories; I prefer to not give credit to any of them. Hezbollah and the FPM may have a majority in parliament, but they still need Mr. Hariri lest a new government would be seen as too obviously dominated by Hezbollah, causing a domestic and international backlash that would almost certainly expose it to failure. Mr. Hariri is aware of this equation and exploits it to improve his position, as any politician in this situation would. I think it is also fair for Mr. Hariri to demand that if he is supposed to handle an exceedingly difficult situation such as Lebanon is currently in, whether from behind the scenes or as front man, he needs to have a free hand in choosing his team and his policies.
Another important name in these events is that of Gebran Bassil, who is reportedly ambitious to succeed Mr. Michael Aoun as president in future. He is perhaps among the most hated politicians in Lebanon. Do you think he will have a position in the next government and if he does, how will the citizens react?
Mr. Bassil is certainly a divisive figure, and his ambition to succeed the president (who is also his father in law) is well known, and equally provocative. Turning him into an icon for all that is wrong with the political elite is almost certainly unfair to him – even with all his obvious flaws – and lets off others way too easily. That said, any new government would surely be hobbled by the negative image attached to Bassil, so his insistence on being included is unhelpful. The problem is that Hezbollah sees attacks on Bassil as in fact directed against its own presence in the government, and therefore holds on to the FM, despite strong misgivings in the party against him.
Interview conducted by Tanmay Kadam on December 2, 2019.
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