Lebanon takes a step forward but risks remain

Over the past two years, the headlines about Lebanon have been negative. Almost 80% of the Lebanese population lives below the poverty line. The World Bank has called Lebanon’s economic crisis the worst to hit the country since the mid-19and century. Much attention has been focused on the problem of corruption, one of the root causes of suffering in Lebanon.

Over the years, the Lebanese have lost faith in the state. A recent survey from Zogby Research Services showed that people have much more trust in civil society (85%) and the October 17 Revolution (65%) than in parliament (29%) or traditional political parties (19%). For these reasons, US policy has rightly focused on fighting corruption and directly helping the Lebanese people.

Lebanese Americans call for crisis resolution

Fortunately, over the past few weeks, three encouraging developments in Lebanon have dominated the news. The first was an announcement that the country had reached a personnel level deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The second was that opposition groups have drawn up their lists of candidates for the next legislative elections. The third stressed that Lebanon had taken a courageous step in damn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The United States has made resolving the crisis in Lebanon a priority. The Lebanese-American community has strongly supported these efforts to help the Lebanese people and implement the necessary reforms. On the eve of the last IMF negotiations in March, a delegation of Lebanese-American business leaders and citizens undertook a travel in Lebanon, where they met with government and political opposition members, as well as religious leaders from all major sects and NGO leaders. The delegation carried a message for the main leaders: Lebanon is on the verge of collapse. They urged the authorities to organize the next legislative elections in a timely, fair and transparent manner. They also found that the prime minister and his economics team were eager to reach a quick deal with the IMF.

The delegation also met the Minister of the Interior who indicated that he was ready to hold the elections on time. He also said that the parliament had allocated the necessary resources to organize fair and free elections. Separately, the UN pledged aid to support internal security forces in more than 6,000 polling stations across the country.

IMF staff agreement shows promise

It is now encouraging to see that the agreement at the IMF staff level has been concluded quickly. In a Lebanon of diverse religions, an agreement can be difficult to reach. This time, the Maronite Catholic president, the Sunni Muslim prime minister and the Shia Muslim speaker of parliament quickly agreed. Hopefully, this could start the process of implementing much-needed reforms to meet the economic and social needs of the people.

The personnel agreement is a good start, but the next hurdle for the Lebanese government will be to follow through on necessary legislative measures to implement this agreement. Therefore, the upcoming elections that choose a new parliament on May 15 are crucial. The new parliament will have to rebuild the economy, restore financial sustainability, strengthen governance and take anti-corruption measures, remove obstacles to job-creating growth and increase social and reconstruction spending, initially in the electricity sector. Without such actions by the new parliament, no IMF relief will be granted.

The legislative elections of May 15 are delicate

The upcoming elections offer Lebanese citizens the opportunity to vote for reformist candidates who advocate change and good governance. First, a new parliament will have to enact reform legislation to meet IMF demands and provide much-needed economic relief. But how good the new parliament will be after the elections is in question. Will it be dominated by Hezbollah and its allies who resist change and reform or by new leaders who will push forward a reform agenda?

The delegation of Lebanese-American leaders met with a diverse group of reformist candidates. While it is clear that the Lebanese people have more political options, the visiting delegation found an opposition movement divided on how best to engage politically. Evidence of this division emerged recently when the political party lists were finalized on April 5. Instead of banding together, most opposition groups announced competing lists.

The lack of coordination within the opposition diminishes the chances of the reformists. The good news is that if the opposition manages to win 10 of the 128 seats in the current Hezbollah-Christian coalition, the balance of power in parliament change resolutely apart from the old guard. It’s not a big number, but even that can be difficult to achieve.

A new opening in the US-Lebanese relationship

The elections and the IMF deal came at a time when the United States turned its attention to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war caused shortages of wheat and fuel. Inflation soared. Yet Lebanon took the courageous decision to damn Russian atrocities and voted with the United States at the UN. No other country in the Middle East has been so clear and forceful in its condemnation of Russia.

The IMF staff-level agreement and Lebanon’s condemnation of Russia create a new opening in US-Lebanese relations at a time when the two countries can help each other. Thanks to the United States, Lebanon could eventually reach a historic agreement on its maritime border with Israel. It could import electricity and natural gas from Jordan and Egypt to overcome its power and energy shortages. However, all of this hinges on voters electing a reformist parliament.

The IMF deal could mark a turning point in Lebanon’s history, or it could turn out to be another disappointing tactical move by the Lebanese ruling elite. The future is now in the hands of Lebanese voters to elect a government that is willing to take the risks necessary to save the country. To be sure, Lebanon’s actions so far have caught the attention of the Biden administration and Congress. They would be more than willing to help a government and a people bravely stand up to Russia and enact reforms.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.