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Untangling Lebanese Politics

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We're going to turn our attention to the political change taking place in Lebanon. This week, the country's cabinet resigned in the midst of fury with government corruption and negligence after a deadly explosion at the Port of Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HASSAN DIAB: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: That's Prime Minister Hassan Diab earlier this week announcing his government's resignation. He said, quote, "today, we follow the will of the people and their desire for real change from the corrupt, destructive state." The announcement came after massive protests that stemmed from not only that explosion but a terrible economic crisis as well - one that has left many struggling to satisfy basic needs - food, medical care. Still, despite the resignations, it's unclear what a new government will look like or what it will take to untangle Lebanon's deeply entrenched sectarian system.

For more perspective on this, we're joined by Maha Yahya. She's the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, where she researches political reform in the Middle East. And she's with us now from Beirut.

Welcome back to the program. Nice to have you with us.

MAHA YAHYA: It's good to be with you, Leila. Thank you for having me.

FADEL: So, before we dive in, can you tell us what the mood is like in Beirut right now, what you've been seeing in the days since the announcement that the government's resigning?

YAHYA: I think people are still in shock mode. It's - what's happening is just completely surreal. I think people feel crushed. This is coming on the heels of an economic collapse which the country's still going through whilst the political elites having a business-as-usual attitude. In the aftermath of the explosion, what we saw is a state that was largely absent and a people that was very present. And this, I think, maybe is the one glimmer of hope for this country - the amazing spirit, the sense of social solidarity to help each other out.

FADEL: Yeah.

YAHYA: Quite honestly, the entire aftermath of the explosion has been pretty much handled by ordinary people, by NGOs, by civil society organizations while the state was just completely absent. It's simply not there.

FADEL: When you say the political elite, it's business as usual, what do you mean?

YAHYA: What I mean is that even though the country is not staring into the abyss, it's falling into an economic and political abyss.

FADEL: Yeah.

YAHYA: The political elites have really been very resistant to any kind of change because this would meant that they had to give up on their little terrains, the stakes that they have in state institutions that they've been suckling off funding from state institutions to fill their own pockets but also to fund their own political activities, to spread their client list networks, hire people, give out favors, et cetera. So any kind of reform means that they would have to give up on some of this.

FADEL: It sounds like this government was a symptom of that bigger problem you described - the entrenched sectarian divisions and a ruling class that works on a patronage system. Is it possible to untangle this and people's allegiances with particular groups and parties?

YAHYA: This has already happened. The October 2019 demonstrations were very much about the disentanglement of ordinary people from their sectarian/political leadership. What I worry about is that this leadership may begin deploying, you know, low-level kinds of violence - a clash here. And they've already done that a little bit in order to scare people back into their sectarian, if you want, embrace because that's what they...

FADEL: Right.

YAHYA: ...Excel at. The protection racket is what they really excel at. The only way it's possible to bring about change is, A, to have government today which wins the trust and the confidence of the Lebanese people, a government that also has the trust and confidence of the international community that is desperately needed today to support Lebanon, to provide the economic and humanitarian push that is needed to get this country out of the mess it's in.

But also, this government needs to organize early elections - early as within a year - so that a now-delegitimized political system can - people will have a chance to choose their leadership again. If they end up choosing the same people, so be it. Then the Lebanese have chosen.

FADEL: Now, the Cabinet has resigned, but we know the parliament declared a state of emergency extending power to the military to control protests.

YAHYA: Yes.

FADEL: What was your reaction to that?

YAHYA: I'm extremely worried because the military now enjoys sweeping powers to clamp down on dissent, to enter people's homes at will, to oversee the media - both social media and the printed media - to ban demonstrations. It's - you know, it has to - it actually has even the prerogative to override civilian courts and turn civilian cases to the military courts.

FADEL: The next few weeks will likely be crucial for how the country moves forward politically. What are you going to be paying attention to?

YAHYA: What I'm paying close attention to, obviously, is, A, the process of government formation to see who will be selected as prime minister and whether that person will be allowed to choose a government or ministers who are - have the practical capacities but also are not - don't have their agencies with one political party or another. Or are we going towards something else? That will give us a good sense of which direction the country will be moving in and whether there will be international support coming to Lebanon.

And, of course, the other thing is to keep our eye - I would be keeping a close eye on the regional context to see developments in Iran and Israel and Syria because all of this has an impact on what happens in Lebanon.

FADEL: Maha Yahya is the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. She joined us from Beirut.

Maha Yahya, thank you so much for being on the program.

YAHYA: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MF DOOM'S "LICORICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.