The political elite in Beirut is accustomed to traditional allies in the Gulf, Europe or the United States coming to their rescue and bailing them out when the going gets tough.
This has been the case since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-’90 Civil War. The Taif Accord, which paved the way for a new system of governance, also led to over a decade of Syrian hegemony over the country. But, the initial will to end the 15 years of bloodshed ultimately came from the Lebanese leaders and warlords.
Today, barring a few names, a majority of those former warlords are still in power. And today, Lebanon is facing unprecedented crises on all fronts: social, financial, economic and healthcare.
Over the years, Lebanon’s politicians have been embroiled in corruption scandals and accused of wasting billions of dollars of government funds.
Still, the Lebanese people – for the most part – enjoyed the necessities of life.
Since the nationwide anti-government protests in October 2019, those essential commodities have grown increasingly scarce for almost half of the population.
The difference is that today the political elite has decided to “hang on and go over the cliff rather than do what they know they need to do to get some help,” a senior Western diplomat told Al Arabiya English.
France, with the help of the Gulf and Washington, has hosted more than one conference to garner aid for Lebanon. That assistance has not materialized because, for the first time, the international community conditioned the support on badly needed reforms to combat corruption.
No change in the ruling elite’s behavior has been noticed by those inside or outside Lebanon.
The president, his son-in-law – who heads the largest Christian bloc in Parliament – and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri have been mudslinging for 10 months over the formation of a new government.
The latter has gone on several trips abroad looking to muster up support, but there has been a common message, according to diplomats and officials.
“This time around, the solution must come from within Lebanon, and the Lebanese leaders have to make that decision [to change],” a second diplomatic source told Al Arabiya English.
“[The international community] is taking a step back,” the Washington-based source added.
Meanwhile, a US official said that there was a new approach to dealing with Lebanon: “We’re in crisis control mode.”
The official said that supporting the army would continue but asserted that the solution to form a competent government capable of reforms had to be done inside Lebanon and independently.
Washington has seemingly shifted away from dealing with politicians and has looked to ensure the Lebanese Army stays intact for fear of a further deterioration of the situation in Lebanon.
As the Lebanese army chief prepares for his annual visit to Washington to review bilateral ties, the army recently began offering joy rides over Lebanon as a way to gain some extra cash.
The largely US-trained military faces a cash crunch due to the freefall of the Lebanese pound.
Apart from the Lebanese army, the US has had another reliable partner over the years in Beirut: the Central Bank.
But that too has come under fire – literally and figuratively – since informal capital controls were imposed on depositors and life-long savings disappeared almost overnight.
Careful not to be seen as intervening in domestic affairs, the international community is now watching and keeping at arm’s length.
Using a carrot and stick approach has seen sanctions imposed on Iran-backed Hezbollah officials, organizations and allies. But the US went further in 2019 and slapped sanctions on Christian allies of the Shiite militant group for their alleged role in corruption.
The Parliament speaker – long seen as one of the more corrupt officials in Lebanon – saw his top political aide and former finance minister sanctioned as well.
Europe has threatened to follow suit, with France saying it sanctioned some Lebanese politicians in a move that would prevent them from crossing French borders or accessing potential funds in French banks. No list of sanctioned officials has been published.
However, the European Union has so far failed to agree on a unified sanctions regime that is meant to pressure Lebanese politicians to put political and personal interests aside to salvage what’s left of the Lebanon created in 1943.
“It’s really hard to watch. And I am stunned to see yet another group of leaders – having watched the Arab spring leaders get hauled out of ditches -” continue to push ahead and live as if it is business as usual, the Western diplomat said.