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Leaders punished
Published in Ahram Online on 13 - 07 - 2021

Foreign ministers of the European Union agreed late on Monday to establish a "sanctions regime" against Lebanese political leaders, who have been unable to create a coalition for almost a year. Yet the effectiveness of such a move in ending the country's political crisis is debatable.
The pan-European organisation gave no details on the new punitive process, which has been led diplomatically by Paris. All that is known about it is that it will include travel bans and asset freezes. Despite being a key piece of information, the names of the targeted politicians remain unknown.
"I can say the objective is to complete this by the end of the month. I am not talking about the implementation of the regime, just the building of the regime according to a sound legal basis," EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell said. The French Foreign Minister Jean-Yvez Le Drian believes that "Lebanon has been in self-destruct mode for several months"; he adds that "now there is a major emergency for a population in distress."
Last May France decided to impose sanctions on Lebanese officials, involving restrictions on their arrival to its soil. Names were not revealed, but the decision was related to the fact that many of the Lebanese leaders own properties and investments and have bank accounts in France and Europe in general.
Prime minister-designate, ex-premier and Sunni leader Saad Al-Hariri and President Michel Aoun, a key ally of the Iran-sponsored Shia Hizbullah group, have failed many times to reach a coalition deal. The problem is reportedly related to who will get the majority of ministerial seats in the new government. This is clearly an issue of trust. For example, Hariri – at some point in time – called on Aoun to ignore party affiliations, while the latter accused him of submitting a line-up different from the one they discussed.
Yet Tony Badran, a Lebanon expert at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, doubts if it would work. "When Macron came to Lebanon in August of last year, he met with Hizbullah MPs and as reported in Le Figaro at the time, told them he wanted to work with them. Similarly, the Biden administration is set to lift sanctions on Hizbullah's
patron in Tehran, which will trickle down eventually to Hizbullah, and through it, to Lebanon. In other words, the US posture towards Iran, and France's towards Hizbullah, makes the proposition of EU sanctions even more moot," said Badran, who previously testified in the US House of Representatives on US policy towards Lebanon, Syria and Iran.
It remains to be seen how sanctions would affect the lives of ordinary Lebanese people, especially amid endless post-explosion economic crises. In that sense, Badran argued that the "ruling oligarchy" in tandem with the Central Bank has been avoiding structural reforms that would erode their power.
"The Central Bank and the private banks meanwhile have been writing off liabilities and loading all losses on the depositors… The sectarian chiefs and the Central Bank governor are playing up the spectre of further economic deterioration in order to put the onus on the US and Europe, as well as international organisations, to intervene with more financial aid," he explained.
Hassan Diab's caretaker government last month decided to cut fuel subsidies, and then increase its prices by more than a third. The average price of 20 litres of 95-octane petrol increased by 35 per cent, reaching 61,000. Diesel prices rose by 38 per cent, which equals a 12800-pound increase.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly from Beirut, Sarah Al-Richani - an assistant professor of Mass Communications at the American University in Cairo - noted that fuel subsidies were not entirely removed. They were just reduced, although it is not "enough to stop the smuggling into Syria nor to instigate another round of protests."
"It remains to be seen if such sanctions will be enacted in the first place, whether they will be enacted on a select few or the entire political class and what they will entail. The French visa bans on a select few it appears have not rattled the largely inept, corrupt and contemptuous political class. Pressure in whichever form though is welcomed by the hapless and traumatised general public as they struggle to make ends meet," Al-Richani pointed out.
Nowadays, Lebanon is facing massive crises as regards shortages in electricity, medicine and petrol. Never-ending human stories about how the Lebanese people are suffering are told on a daily basis through social media platforms and local and international media outlets.
This is something to add to a tragic fact: the world doesn't want to give Lebanon money. The absence of an elected government to talk to and the strong influence of Hizbullah in both parliament and presidency have led to this end result.
Official estimates suggest that the country needs $10 to $15 billion to make up for the destruction caused by last year's devastating port explosion. So far, international donors offered only $298 million in humanitarian aid, and most of the money has not been transferred yet because of such political considerations.
As put by Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science at the American University, Lebanon "is doomed to further plunge into economic collapse amid political paralysis that undermines any prospect for solutions. Hence, the economy appears to drift the country towards pure laissez faire in light of shifts towards the black market. Two major aspects now dominate economic activities: humanitarian assistance and the black market."
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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