GOVERNMENT

Despite Diab’s Assurances, the Boat Is Still Sinking

While the government has handled the coronavirus crisis well, civil society representatives strongly criticize its 100-day performance.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab during his press conference. Photo Dalati and Nohra

In his lyrical speech in defense of his government’s performance during its first 100 days in power, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said this week that Lebanon was a fast-sinking boat when his team took the reins to save the country. He even boasted about fulfilling 97 percent of the commitments he made in the ministerial statement. But these assertions are far from being unanimous. While the government was credited, even by its opponents, for the good management of the coronavirus crisis, its achievements in other areas remains limited.

It is true that the government was formed at a time when the country was struggling with the most serious economic and financial crisis in its history and that several ministers are diligent and competent. But in terms of political decisions, public appointments, the fight against corruption or the restoration of the international community’s confidence, Diab’s cabinet has not yet proven itself, according to many observers.

Many point out that the prime minister, having no political base, wanted to present himself as a determined, neutral and independent head of government. But they add that he remains dependent on the goodwill of the political forces that formed his government. He thus engaged on several occasions in battles from which he emerged as loser and had to retreat, such as his latest tussle with the central bank’s governor, Riad Salameh, who he tried to hold responsible for the financial crisis, fueling speculation about his possible replacement.

After starting disorganized negotiations last week with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with government delegates and central bank representatives presenting different positions, and even figures, according to a political source, Diab had to backtrack and received Salameh at the Grand Serail to find a modus vivendi.

As for public appointments, choosing a new governor for Beirut to replace Ziad Chbib, whose term in office expired, led to a clash between the prime minister and the generally conciliatory Eastern Orthodox community before Diab retracted and withdrew the candidacy of one of his advisers. The government proved to be powerless regarding the judicial nominations as well as the appointment of the four Bank of Lebanon (BOL) deputy governors and Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) members.

Moreover, the cabinet is weakened by divergent views within the same political alliance that formed it. This was illustrated by the refusal of former minister Sleiman Frangieh to allow that some of his supporters, who are accused of corruption in the case of adulterated fuel, be prosecuted.

Finally, in terms of international relations, Diab’s government enjoys little support, with the United States in particular making strong statements about the cabinet, which it considers to be subservient to Hezbollah. While Diab hinted, when he was first appointed, that he was preparing for a tour of the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia is showing many signs that it will not endorse his government. The kingdom’s ambassador in Beirut was notably absent from meetings of the "Friends of Lebanon" at the Grand Serail.

“No Power”

“This government has no power, no independence, no freedom,” Pierre Issa, secretary general of the National Bloc Party, told L’Orient-Le Jour. “They cannot make any decisions,” he added, citing, for example, the capital controls draft law that the government leaked, before withdrawing it in the face of the outcry it raised.

For Issa, the most serious is that this government presents itself as a cabinet of independents, “siding with the revolution, when they do exactly the opposite and cover the actions of the political class, the mafia and even the criminals who have been in power for 30 years.”

He cites the government’s multiple failures, including public appointments, the fight against corruption and the distribution of humanitarian aid to the poorest families. The latter, he said, was “a huge mess,” as the authorities tasked it to “the municipalities and the mukhtars who are overwhelmingly dependent on confessional parties” and are accused of promoting clientelism.

“They say they want to control the borders, which have never been so porous. They have done nothing concerning the electricity crisis that has cost us billions of dollars and continue to give the Free Patriotic Movement a free hand on it,” Issa said, noting that reforming this sector is one of the conditions for donors to help Lebanon.

“While the government claims to want to reduce the budget deficit, it revived this nonsense Bisri dam project,” despite strong opposition by the protest movement, he added.

Sybille Rizk, director of public policy at Kulluna Irada, a civil society organization, argued that “the government has, to its credit, made the right diagnosis of the country’s financial situation, but its actions are far below what is needed to emerge from the crisis.”

“So far, apart from managing the coronavirus crisis, the government has taken very few measures, while the country is in shock at all economic and social levels,” Rizk said.“The government has not been able to pass a capital controls law to date, although this is the first essential step, like a tourniquet that a doctor would put on a patient before starting to treat him. Equally symptomatic is the government’s inertia and even impotence on the issue of public appointments, which continues to be addressed from confessional perspectives, in violation of Article 95 of the Constitution.”

Rizk believes that, in reality, “this government does not have a free hand. It acts as the intermediary of the power system that has been in place since the end of the Lebanese war. The system has been shaken, but is still in control.” She said "the development of an exit plan is certainly a first step, but the most important is the confidence in the ability to implement structural reforms without which nothing will be possible, starting with the restructuring of the financial sector to the overhaul of taxation and public and sectoral policies.”

“Even in terms of convincing international donors to grant credit to Lebanon, the battle is far from won. The management of the electricity sector, for example, shows how there is no real change in modus operandi,” she added.

Both Issa and Rizk believe that, contrary to Diab’s statement, the government has not regained people's trust. Issa said he believed that with the end of the coronavirus pandemic, “the revolutionary movement will be back even stronger than before.”


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 22nd of May)


In his lyrical speech in defense of his government’s performance during its first 100 days in power, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said this week that Lebanon was a fast-sinking boat when his team took the reins to save the country. He even boasted about fulfilling 97 percent of the commitments he made in the ministerial statement. But these assertions are far from being unanimous. While the...

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