Lebanon. April 2022

by Yves Durieux

By mid-April 2022, Lebanon is getting ready for its legislative elections scheduled for 15 May. 

The campaign has officially begun on 5 April and forty lists have been registered. Almost a hundred members of parliament are competing. Nevertheless, all these preparations have been overshadowed by the deep economic crisis which is striking heavily on Lebanese population after almost two years of inflation and a heavy COVID 19 quarantine which has left thousands of people unemployed since the winter 2020.

In spite of this environment, these elections are being carefully monitored by the different parties. As a matter of fact, they are considered as a kind of rehearsal for the Presidential elections due to take place on 31 October at the end of President Michel Aoun’s mandate. For them, after the troubles of October 2019 “Thawra” (= revolution) and the current instability, it is a kind of test of their popularity among Lebanese and vis-a-vis each other. Substantive results at these elections would allow a better stance in the negotiations for the presidential position even if he will still have to be a Christian Maronite. Although most of the Lebanese are deeply disappointed by their political system and do not believe that any major change will come from the elections, the “Thawra” troubles as well as the explosion in Beirut harbor in August 2020 which has killed over 200 people have encouraged the candidacy of independent personalities. Whether they will succeed remains an open question.

Politically, the alliance of Michel Aoun’s son in law Gebran Bassil political party Courant Patriotique Libre (CPL) with Hezbollah and Amal which dates back to 2016 is getting more and more criticism from the population. It is currently opposed by a coalition made of Samir Geagea’s Christian Forces Libanaises and Druze leader Taymar Jumblatt’s Parti Socialiste Progressiste (PSP)[1] while Sunni Saad Hariri’s Courant du Futur is trying to regain some strength on the political stage. 

At this stage, Michel Aoun looks to be among the most unpopular presidents of the Second Republic since its installment in 1989. Moreover, his current attempts to try and support his son-in-law Gebran Bassil as a candidate for the presidency, has drawn wide contempt from the majority of the population. His visit on 21 March to Pope François in Rome has been received in Lebanon with some irony, renewed criticism and worry in some circles close to Maronite Patriarch Bechara Raï that he might try to extend his time as a President. At this stage, in spite of Gebran Bassil’s raw ambition, no major personality has emerged from the maronite camp even if Soleiman Frangieh, grand-son of a former President, has been mentioned and if General Joseph Aoun’s current chief of Staff of the Armed Forces[2] demeanor is being monitored by a few actors of the political scene. 

In spite of the current gloom, ten years after Benoit XVI’s visit and twenty-five years after Jean Paul II’s one, a visit of Pope François in Lebanon would clearly be very welcome. However, Vatican has clearly signaled it was not to interfere in Lebanon’s internal affairs while hinting that it could happen before the end of the year.

Internally, the country is following up on the situation concerning the indictment of Riad Salamé and the arrest on 17 March of his brother Raja. Riad Salamé current governor of the Banque du Liban (BDL) has been accused of illicit enrichment and is already been prosecuted in France and Switzerland and his bank accounts frozen. In spite of several summons by Ms Ghada Aoun, Mont-Liban Head of Court of Appeal, in charge of the investigation, he has not showed up yet in court. Due to the political proximity of Ms Ghada Aoun to the CPL, her efforts have been strongly criticized by the current Prime Minister Nagib Mikati and even by the Maronite Patriarch which equate this strong move to a pro-CPL political maneuver, although it is clear that Riad Salamé’s undue enrichment is obviously an unlawful result of at least systematic insider trading[3].

The second issue is about the negotiations taking place between Lebanon and Israël on the drawing of borders to delimitate respective maritime zones across “Ligne 23”. The contest remains a major issue because it is about significant if potential reserves of gas and fuel with a 20% discrepancy of possible resources between the two countries. 

At the same time, there has been reports of negotiations resuming between the IMF and the government since its return to Beirut on 31 March although not much headway was made because of Hezbollah’s systematic opposition. 

Apart from having over 70% people living under the poverty line, the economic crisis has also had the consequences of increasing immigration out of the country. Recent reports have pointed out that there were over 10 000 departures of young Lebanese between 2020 and 2021 among which 40% of the total number of doctors in the country and that 800 additional might leave in 2022. In addition, as Lebanon is importing 85% of its corn from Russia and Ukraine and 74% from Ukraine — a total of 560 000 tons — and despite the government assurances, this conflict bears a strong impact on the food situation in the country. At the same time, the cost of a week household basket has now gone from 50 000 livres libanaises (LL) in May 2021 to 560 000 in January 2022 following a strong inflation and the necessity for the country to import most of its food. Due this depreciation of the livre libanaise they were significant shortages of fuel as well of electricity in March and April even if central Beirut, a marked worsening of the situation between 2021 and 2022. 

One slight ray of hope has been represented by April meetings between Prime Minister Nagib Mikati and representatives of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, signaling a willingness of the latter to resume diplomatic contacts in spite of its strong opposition to the prominence of Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanese politics.

Finally, the recent 28 March meeting at Charm el Cheikh between Abu Dhabi Prince Mohamed ben Zayed, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sissi and Prime minister Naftali Bennet has also been much commented with interrogations about a “post-American Middle East”[4].

Yves Durieux

[1] Son of prominent politician and head of Druze community and PSP Walid Jumblatt and grand-son of Kamal Jumblatt leader of pro-palestinian (MLN) coalition, assassinated during the war of Lebanon. 

[2] No family relations with President Michel Aoun.

[3] Délit d’initié

[4] L’Orient Le jour. 29 March.