What's happening in Lebanon matters to Europe. Here's why
Lebanon is on the edge of falling into an uncertain and terrifying freefall.
Why should anyone give two hoots about Lebanon?
Yes, it has offshore oil, grows top quality marijuana, is a potential gold mine in pharmaceuticals and boasts one of Hollywood's favourite fashion designers, Ellie Saab.
But doesn't Hezbollah run a spider's web of worldwide terror networks from there? And what about the Mafia-style corrupted political system that puts Al Capone to shame? Not to mention the murder or maiming of presidents, prime ministers, politicians, activists, and journalists, often regarded as little more than a temporary inconvenience.
At least France does, it seems.
Since President Emmanuel Macron waded into the quagmire of Lebanon after one of the world's largest non-nuclear explosions tore through Beirut last year, his much-vaunted rescue plan to save the country's financial meltdown has hit a brick wall.
And an investigation into what caused the blast at the port of Beirut where negligently stored chemicals detonated, killing 200 people and causing €13 billion in damage, has gone nowhere.
There's only one thing all can agree on - the country is on the edge of falling into an uncertain and terrifying freefall.
Lebanon is already a failed state in many ways. The value of money has flat-lined, losing around 90 per cent of its value. Everyone's money has disappeared down the drain from empty vaults of collapsed banks. Half the country is trapped in poverty, and food riots may be around the corner. Yet, as it is left to drown in an ocean of debt of its own making, the influential Gulf States and the international community appear to have done virtually nothing practical to stop it.
What else can go wrong? It depends on who you ask for such predictions in fractured Lebanon. A renewed civil war? Yet another war with Israel? A return of Syrian troops to police the volatile nation? The rise of a new Iranian-style Islamic State? Or a breakdown into mini-states where rival sects, Christians and Druze, Moslem Sunnis, and Shiites might live in harmony. Three decades ago, the former federation of Yugoslavia, which included Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia, was raised as a promising model for multi-religious harmony in Lebanon. We know how badly that turned out - a bloody war-torn disaster on the doorstep of Europe.
The only scenario that's not being discussed is the expectation of a magical return to normality as Lebanese pack their bags and run away. If you asked what they needed most of all right now, it would be a fully functioning government to stop their accelerating chaos. Since their president and a prime minister in waiting are entangled in a political battle of wills, it is beyond their reach.
So, who's at fault? Well, again, that depends on whose side you're on. Suppose you're in the camp of the octogenarian Maronite Christian President Michel Aoun. In that case, it includes the armed Shiite militants of Hezbollah whose fighters helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cling onto power during a decade of civil war, allied with Iran and Russia.
The opposite side is led by a Prime Minister-designate, 50-year-old Saad Hariri, who is seen favourably in the West. Like his father, the five-time Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated 16 years ago, he is battling a Lebanese president against uneven odds in a climate of intimidation and fear. Once, it was Syria that could issue threats against Hariri the elder and his allies. Now Hezbollah, with a whip hand over Lebanese politics and Iran and Syria, all side with the embattled president.
To make matters more complicated, the ageing president's key advisor is his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil. A former Foreign Minister and leader of the largest Christian political bloc in parliament, suspected by opponents of being the real power behind his close relative's throne. The United States slapped sanctions on him last year over "systemic corruption" and the political ties he and his father-in-law, the president, have with Hezbollah. Bassil brushed off the US punishment as meaningless, but the French government has since been considering similar action on suspect Lebanese politicians, so he could find himself in deeper international trouble.
Saad Hariri's picks for a new cabinet are intended to follow the French-led economic rescue plan. It insists on a technocrat-only government to enact reforms and drag the country from its reliance on state institutions that act as fiefdoms for the interests of sectarian political groups. President Aoun has rejected them eighteen times. And his opponents claim he intends to contain a Hariri premiership through insistence on having veto power on government decisions in any new cabinet
Hariri is not without his own setbacks. A two-time prime minister, he was the only leader to quit office last year in the face of failed street protests to topple the country's entire ruling political elite. And seen over time, his father's legacy and that of his own efforts to re-position the once war-torn country as a success story are regarded by opponents as an abject failure.
Saudi Arabia's controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, has overseen a waning of Hariri's star in Riyadh, frustrated that Hezbollah's direct influence over the country as a non-state actor has intensified.
It was apparently on the orders of MBS that Saad Hariri was detained in Riyadh and forced to resign from the prime ministry more than three years ago, citing Iran's and Hezbollah's dominant sway in the Middle East and fears of his own assassination. With the help of France, Hariri returned to Lebanon as prime minister after his resignation was rejected, ironically by President Aoun and his ally, Hezbollah. Since then, the Saudis, once the main power-broker, seem to have let the ball drop in Lebanon.
But now France is picking up the pace to find a solution, while the Saudis warn that unless Lebanese leaders enact "true reforms", the country risks facing "ever more dangerous circumstances". The warning bells are loud and clear. Hezbollah has thousands of rockets that point towards Israel. The thought of an exodus of refugees, Syrian and Lebanese, who could flee violent instability, their eyes set on Europe, is another nightmare scenario.
Internal and external political pressures are building, the economic asphyxiation won't stop unless a transparent, reform-capable government is put in place. Hezbollah officials may sound upbeat as the French shift gear. Still, the Iranians seem in no rush to break the deadlock any time soon. It may give them leverage in combating Washington's policy in the region at a time when a resumption of indirect talks over a possible US return to the Iran nuclear deal is underway.
Something has to give to make any progress. Political alliances can shift with the wind in Lebanon, but the risks of doing so are historically high as its leaders know only too well. When Rafik Hariri changed the political course dramatically, it was the beginning of his end. His son Saad is walking in similar footsteps. Little wonder he rarely leaves his heavily fortified home in central Beirut.