A year after resigning, Saad Hariri has again been named as Lebanon’s prime minister and tasked with forming a government that could win critically needed international support and help stem the country’s catastrophic collapse.
The appointment of Hariri on Thursday follows the most tumultuous 12 months in Lebanon’s post-civil war history, in which an ongoing economic disintegration and a financial crisis have impoverished much of the country and led to street violence and fears of widespread unrest.
The turmoil was capped by an enormous explosion at the port of Beirut in August, which devastated much of the city’s eastern suburbs and led to demands – so far unheeded – for an overhaul of the political class widely blamed for the chaos.
Instead, political groupings that have secured footholds since the end of the war have dug in, opposing calls for financial and political reforms, slowing an investigation into the port blast and resisting international bailout efforts that have been conditioned on an overhaul of governance and an end to state corruption.
The return of Hariri, the son of the slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri, had increasingly been seen as inevitable as the country withered under its former leader Hassan Diab, who made no headway in tackling the crises and resigned after the port blast. His replacement, Mustapha Adib, quit before naming a government after disputes over which sect were allocated key cabinet portfolios.
Hariri will face the same challenges that led him to quit his post in October 2019, in the days after popular protests swept the country’s towns and cities. The demonstrations were sparked by the introduction of state measures to recoup revenues – moves that were rejected by a restive Lebanese population.
Since then, economic conditions have worsened significantly, with Lebanon unable to pay its huge global debts and its fast dwindling central bank reserves leading to shortages of essential goods such as fuel, wheat and medicine. The currency has lost 80% of its value and hyperinflation has led to rising food insecurity and informal capital controls, imposed by banks fearing a run on dwindling deposits.
At the same time, the country has become a focal point of a potent standoff between the Trump administration and Iran, and it’ proxy, the powerful militia cum political bloc Hezbollah, which holds a whip hand in Lebanese affairs. Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran has cut deeply into Tehran’s finances and its sanctions regime has increasingly targeted Hezbollah figures and companies allegedly linked to the militia’s global fundraising efforts.
Ahead of the US election, Lebanon has increasingly become an arena in the tussle between the two powers, which has led to pressure from Washington for key portfolios, such as the finance ministry, to be given to technocrats. Hezbollah and its Shia Islamic ally Amal have resisted, on sovereignty grounds.
France has also demanded a technocratic government that would transition state institutions away from being fiefdoms for sectarian blocs that are apportioned ministries in return for their support in naming key leaders. Since the port blast, Emmanuel Macron has taken a global lead in trying to coerce Lebanese politicians to put the country on a more transparent footing. The French president’s efforts have so far led to failure, and he has told allies that French support for Hariri is a last attempt to stabilise Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch on Thursday demanded Lebanese officials allow an international investigation into the port blast. After nearly three months , a Lebanese investigation is yet to yield results and there are growing fears that officials are reluctant to ask questions of politicians who had an interest in events at the docks.
“Everyone in Beirut has had their life turned upside down by the catastrophic explosion that devastated half the city, and they deserve justice for the disaster inflicted on them,” said Aya Majzoub, the Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Only an independent, international investigation will uncover the truth about the blast. The International Support Group for Lebanon should not play along with the Lebanese authorities’ pretence that they are able to conduct their own credible investigation.”
The domestic investigation has so far centred on administrative officials, raising fears that political officials credibly implicated in the blast will escape accountability. Some of the ministries implicated in corruption at the port have been tasked with overseeing the investigation, a fact seen by international observers as undermining any outcome.