Reactions to an international donor conference that took place in Paris last week show that either the Lebanese are in denial or disconnected from reality around them in their small, multicultural country in the heart of the ever more sectarian and ethnically divided Middle East.
The CEDRE conference last Friday, for the perennially optimistic Lebanese, has been viewed as the miracle that will rid their country of all its ills more than four decades after the civil war started and many other skirmishes that followed.
International donors again gathered to try to “save Lebanon from itself,” a Western diplomat told Arab News. The conference raised $11 billion in loans and grants to help debt-ridden Lebanon, but the difficult part is to ensure that the money is well spent in a country hard hit by the Syrian war next door and endemically corrupt since its inception in 1943.
“At a time when the Levant probably (is going through) one of the worst moments in its history … it’s more important than ever to preserve the most precious asset: a peaceful, diverse and harmonious Lebanon,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in his statement to the representatives from 50 countries.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri outlined his country’s grim situation, saying his nation’s stability is at stake.
“It is not the stability of Lebanon alone. This is the stability of the region and, therefore, of our world,” he said, warning that a collapse in Lebanon could ricochet throughout the Middle East and Europe.
Big words from an embattled prime minister of a country that has been ruled for nearly three decades by the shadowy pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia.
Fears of economic collapse in Lebanon are mounting ahead of next month’s parliamentary election the first in nine years. Well-wishers aside — and positive notes to encourage donors to dig deep into their pockets is one thing — the international community must hold the Lebanese political class to account if the CEDRE pledges are to go further than Paris I, Paris II and Paris III conferences.
The international community must bind its donations and pledges with tangible deliverables, and the government in Beirut must commit to finding a permanent solution to Lebanon’s daily refuse processing. Since June 2015, Lebanon has been packaging and storing its trash around Beirut, owing to a failure of the country’s political forces to arrive at a sound split of proceeds and indirect benefits of any future investment in an incinerator or rubbish processing plant.
The second pressing issue for a country’s regeneration is a stable energy supply. For more than 40 years, Lebanon’s national grid has been starved of investment. The Lebanese people rely on mafia-like certified energy suppliers in each locality. Household bills for national grid supply, as well as the local generator line costs, mean the profits of such services end up in the pockets of warlords and politicians alike.
The same goes for Lebanon’s national health service, the state pension system, and the saturation of employment in the state sector — in a bid to meet quotas that please this leader or the inhabitants of that region, not through a genuine need.
The list of Lebanon’s inherent ills is long. The Syrian war has added to the challenges facing Lebanon’s economy and social peace. Before that, the Palestinian question and its ramifications weighed heavily on the Lebanese communal peace, and today Iran, which is sowing ethnic and religious divisions in several Arab countries, is using Lebanon as its base. But worst of all is the continued belief among the Lebanese that their country could pull through against all odds with the new $11 billion pledged.
Lebanon has never been an ungrateful country, especially to all those who help or wish to help this small eastern Mediterranean nation. But $11 billion added to many billions donated or pledged in the past 20 years could maybe delay Lebanon’s demise.
The government now needs to show foreign donors a certain fiscal control, and a raised income tax, to see any donations reach its empty coffers.
The poor Lebanese watching the news of the conference on TV have had to switch to different power supply sources while trying to understand if any pennies will reach their pockets or whether they should expect further tariffs and taxation slammed on their payslips.