Home | About LCPS | Contact | Careers

Featured Analysis

Sami Atallah, LCPS executive director

January 2020
Diab Government: Constrained Between Intra-Elite Conflict and Popular Protests

Just as his efforts to form a government seemed to falter amidst political parties’ competing demands, Hassan Diab managed to pull it off with the help of some friends. The Free Patriotic Movement-led bloc, which has the lion’s share of seven ministers, kept its veto power. Marada and the Lebanese Democratic Party snatched an extra seat each, forcing Diab to increase the size of his cabinet from 18 to 20. The prime minister has five cabinet seats, a quarter of the government, while two have been reserved for Hezbollah and two for Amal. The Future Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), and the Lebanese Forces stayed away, forcing it to be a one “color” government. The cabinet has an impressive record of six women and many ministers hold high educational degrees, though in some cases, not very relevant to their assigned portfolio.
Not quite a Hezbollah government
Many international pundits were quick to label Diab’s government either to be a Hezbollah-led government or insinuated that Hezbollah pushed away other parties so it could assume control of the cabinet. Looking closely at how events unfolded shows otherwise. For one, Hezbollah did not want Saad Hariri to resign in the first place. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah went out of his way to support Hariri’s government and his economic reform plan after the protests broke. During the period when the president was bargaining with Hariri to come back and lead a new government, Hezbollah was supportive and was even willing to compromise on the composition of the new government. After all, Hezbollah was seeking Hariri’s political cover and financial networks to salvage the country. Ironically, it was the Lebanese Forces, Hezbollah’s fierce opponent, which threw Hariri under the bus the night before he was to be nominated as prime minister.
Beside Gebran Bassil’s camp, this government has a more pro-Syrian than pro-Iranian flavor. Jamil Al Sayyed, the former chief intelligence close to the Assad regime, seems to be the one who proposed Diab as prime minister. He has also played a role in nominating few cabinet members such as Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmi, and has personal and business connections with other ministers. Also, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party seemed to be rewarded with cabinet positions, through the nomination of Zeina Akar as Defense Minister. Minister of Economy and Trade Raoul Nehme’s ticket to the government seems to be his strong links to the influential businessman Alaa al-Khawaja, who among other things owns Bankmed and Oger International. Local politics are also at play where Hezbollah has nominated Hamad Hassan, Baalbek’s former mayor, possibly to appease this hard won constituency in the last parliamentary election.
Political parties managed to keep most of the portfolios they had in the previous government: FPM held on to the foreign affairs, national defense, justice, displaced, energy and water, and economy and trade ministries; Amal maintained its control over the ministries of finance, culture, and agriculture; Hezbollah is still in control of the public health ministry but replaced its youth and sports with industry; and Marada is holding its grip over the public works ministry. In fact, 11 out of the 14 portfolios are in the hand of the same parties that held them in the previous cabinet.
Priorities and Challenges Ahead
This government has a monumental task ahead of it. There are three key issues that it must work toward: Call for early parliamentary elections since the past few months’ protests have cast doubt over the popular legitimacy of the governing political parties; make the judiciary independent so that anti-corruption programs can be carried out; and most urgently address the financial crisis including restructuring the debt, undertaking social and fiscal reforms, and reorganizing the banking sector so that negative impacts on citizens are reduced to the minimum.
There will be many challenges facing the government. For one, it will be difficult to raise the much-needed capital to inject liquidity into the financial sector, unless a credible economic plan is put in place immediately. Even if it manages to get funds, the Lebanese government’s track record to undertake reform is dismal, judging by the Paris aid conferences.
Lingering underneath the financial crisis, there are at least three intra-elite conflicts that might hijack the working of this government: The first is the Nabih Berri-Jamil Al Sayyed rivalry, where the latter poses a threat to the former over the speakership of the house’s future. The attack by Berri’s thugs in broad daylight on protesters last week in Jnah may have been a message to Sayyed on how inept the government he just helped to form will be in running the country
The second is the Bassil-Frangieh-Geagea competition over the presidency, which is scheduled in October 2022. While Bassil sees himself to be the natural successor of his father-in-law Michel Aoun, many beg to differ. Bassil will work toward undermining any potential competitor and for that, he will probably make sure that the government does not last very long. This would ensure his position in the driver’s seat, as time gets closer to the election.
The third rivalry is the Hariri-Bassil tension, which erupted in light of the protests. While both leaders are technically outside the government, Hariri, supported by the PSP, will be planning his comeback. This will surely add pressure on the government’s decisions in the cabinet and parliament.
All these rivalries may reduce Diab’s ability to maneuver.
In sum, Lebanon will soon have a new and smaller government with many new faces, many of whom are specialists and highly educated. The protesters have not bought into this government, as they perceive them to be advisors or representatives of the same governing political parties that got the country into the mess it is in. At the end of the day, successive governments did not fail because of the size or composition of its coalitions or the (lack of) expertise of its cabinet. They failed because there were no institutions that could hold them accountable for their bad decisions and outright theft and extraction of public resources.
The challenge awaiting protesters is how to politically organize so that they can exert pressure on the government, win elections, and take advantage of intra-elite conflicts. While the rotten political and economic realities will not change any time soon, it is the change in the political and social norms that we have witnessed since 17 October that, if sustained, will lay the groundwork to build a better, accountable, and more just country.

Copyright © 2021 by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Inc. All rights reserved. Design and developed by Polypod.