In Lebanon, a new chance … or another missed opportunity?

Following Lebanon’s parliamentary elections in May 2018, and almost nine months of negotiating, the various elected parties finally have formed a government. This comes just before the one-year anniversaries of three international conferences in which billions of dollars in aid were pledged to Lebanon for refugees and infrastructure and military support. Most of the aid was contingent upon the formation of a government passing significant reforms, which happened just as international donors were about to give up on their pledges of support.  

This could spell good news for the country if it is able to take the necessary steps to maintain the support of international donors, and separately, show that the government can operate independently despite the apparent growing role of Hezbollah.

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Last March, some 40 countries participated in a meeting, along with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to reaffirm their commitment of aid “in support of the stability, security, sovereignty and political independence of Lebanon.” 

At the Friends of Syria donor conference in Brussels in May, donor countries pledged $4.4 billion in refugee humanitarian support to Lebanon and other neighboring countries. Most importantly, Lebanon won aid pledges exceeding $11 billion in April 2018 at a Paris CEDRE conference aimed at rallying international support for an investment program to boost its economy.

Two important actions could take advantage of these international commitments and jump-start an otherwise deteriorating Lebanese economy and debilitating growth rate. The government must show that it can manage more than $11 billion in concessionary loans and grants in a transparent manner according to international standards, and properly administer major infrastructure projects, free of corruption. Lebanon also must privatize a number of government-run businesses, such as energy and electricity. Privatizing these government responsibilities will reduce the Lebanese budget deficit by $2 billion.  

Some analysts say, however, that the effort to reform government is fraught with major hurdles as the new government represents the same political factions guilty of exploiting public funds to strengthen their bases and maintain their electorates. As they say, old habits die hard.

In the newly formed government, Hezbollah has increased its responsibility by taking control of the minister of health position, a ministry with the fourth-largest public budget, which gives it the resources to bestow patronage jobs and subsidized health care benefits to constituents. The United States already has imposed sanctions on known terrorists associated with Hezbollah and could ratchet it up further, if it finds that resources or services of the ministry are supporting Hezbollah.

The U.S. Embassy in Beirut has made its position clear: “[Insisting on the Health Ministry] is yet another example of Hezbollah openly holding Lebanon’s security and prosperity hostage,” said Rachel Mikeska, a spokeswoman for the American Embassy in Lebanon. She added that the United States is “prepared to take whatever actions are necessary to protect the interests of the Lebanese people.”

Curbing the influence of Hezbollah requires deftness on the part of the Lebanese government and its supporters, such as the United States. It will require a scalpel, not a shotgun approach, since it’s in the interest of both the United States and Lebanon to control the increasing influence of Hezbollah in such a way that will not destabilize the country and will support other key U.S. interests in the region.  

At the same time, the United States understands it must be careful in its approach. By strengthening Lebanese civil society and educational institutions free of Hezbollah influence — such as the two American universities of higher education, the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University — and remaining the major supplier of military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces, it provides a counterbalance to Hezbollah. The United States also has tightened banking restrictions against specific Hezbollah members, but preferred not to target the organization as a whole. In doing so, it has helped to preserve the important banking sector while weeding out bad actors.

Lebanon already is in a tenuous situation, economically and politically. The U.S. tempered response thus far has avoided further destabilizing the country but achieved its anti-terrorism goals in the country.

America’s patience won’t last forever, however.  The Lebanese government must take steps to pull factions together in common cause for good governance, open reforms, security and rejection of terrorism. Hezbollah represents a minority of the Lebanese people. It is time for Lebanese citizens to refuse to tolerate the status quo. This is an opportunity, and Lebanese citizens should  expect their government to retake its historic role in the Middle East as an island of peace, tolerance and prosperity.

Edward M. Gabriel is president of the American Task Force for Lebanon and former U.S. ambassador to Morocco (1997-2001).