Managing expectations is the only way to avoid disappointments, except in Lebanon where people have no high hopes from their rulers and they keep expecting them to find solutions and subsequently get surprised and disappointed at every turn.
Hope in the corruption ravaged country is like the electric power supplied by the state, it comes and goes several times a day, but the average Lebanese keeps hoping the situation will improve.
On daily basis, Lebanese follow the exchange rate of the crumbling Lebanese pound to the US dollar, gas prices and supply and signs of the possibility of having a new Cabinet. Despite the worsening living conditions and the imminent collapse, main political powers refuse to compromise and persist in their demands and powersharing privileges. So far, the rising anti-political establishment sentiments didn’t affect the main political parties’ hold on power. The usual suspects that led the country for decades continue to call the shots and determine the path of the nation, despite their track record. The current anti-political establishment is on the rise but how widespread remains debatable.
There are sporadic hopes that change is on the way, but hopes are traditionally dashed when the sectarian slogans are raised. One of the hopeful signs that Lebanese can no longer tolerate the traditional political groups was over the weekend when political parties lost in a landslide in the Union of Engineers in Beirut’s election. A loose coalition of independent and civil society candidates built on the rising anti-establishment sentiments dealt a blow to the political parties’ establishment, sending a message that the Oct. 17 protest movement is still alive.
Those in charge of running the country know how bad the situation is and feel the decline in their base support, but they believe this can be restored if they achieve political gains in the current political battle in forming a new Cabinet. They capitalize on the absence of credible and strong alternatives that can challenge their decades-old grip over the country.
Some Western and Arab capitals believe Lebanon needs to reset in order to change the current slowly - but surely - Hezbollah’s takeover of the country. To stop this trend, some believe, an economic collapse may blow up in the face of the pro-Iranian group and its allies. Others argue that Hezbollah is in a win-win situation. The economic collapse manifested by the collapse of the national currency and the failure of commercial banks to release people’s funds has hurt all Lebanese except Hezbollah, which is banned from all financial institutions and threatened by US sanctions. Countries are reluctant to help Lebanon financially before serious reforms are introduced and are assured that Hezbollah’s grip is eased, otherwise they fear they will be helping the pro-Iranian group prevail and keep its dominance of the country.
When the dust settles and it is time to reconfigure Lebanon following the total collapse, there are justified fears that Hezbollah may be the only side standing, since its financial support is secured by Tehran. There is an immediate need to re-establish some sort of a balance of power in the country to halt the scenario of a total collapse and the return to chaos. The only way to achieve that is by forming a new and credible Cabinet that can provide basic services and restore international trust in the Lebanese state. The only way to challenge Hezbollah’s authority and channel public anger against it is when Hezbollah’s activities are viewed by public opinion as an impediment to the recovery of the country.
For years we heard that the situation in Lebanon is not sustainable and the country is going to collapse and people got used to it. This time it is the real thing and the country cannot wait for the term of the current president to expire in a little over a year. Analysts and diplomats are busy trying to envision how the collapse would manifest itself. In a highly polarized and sectarian country it would be the first time that people take to the street, participate in a mob looting and fight in front of gas stations and bakeries. We saw a glimpse of it in the past two weeks. It is pure fragmentation and it will get ugly.
Mouafac Harb is a veteran American-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. He contributes a weekly column in The Daily Star.