French President in Beirut

Can Macron save Lebanon?

In the aftermath of the devastating explosions in Beirut, French President Emmanuel Macron is styling himself as Lebanon's saviour. Ultimately, however, the success of his efforts will depend on the goodwill of the regional powers in the Middle East. An analysis by Karim El-Gawhary

With not one but two visits to Lebanon in a short space of time and his first official visit to Iraq, French President Emmanuel Macron is currently trying to find his place in the Arab world at a time when the cards there are being reshuffled. The US has gradually been withdrawing from the region since Trump became president, with Russia stepping into the breach, along with the regional powers Iran and Turkey.

Macron and his advisors have realised that only those who invest politically or militarily in Europe's immediate neighbourhood can influence events there. Russia, Iran and Turkey have led the way in Syria, and Turkey and Russia in Libya.

Macron's trip to Lebanon, a country that has found itself in political and economic freefall for months, and his visit to Iraq, which has been plunged into turmoil this past year by both militias and demonstrators, is above all a political investment. He said so openly on his second visit to Lebanon in the space of just a few weeks. "It's a risky bet I'm making, I am aware of it ... I am putting the only thing I have on the table: my political capital."

French President Emmanuel Macron visits the site of the August harbour explosion in Beirut (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/T. Camus)
French President Emmanuel Macron visiting the site of the August harbour explosion in Beirut. Ahead of his recent visit, he said that if Lebanon hopes to unlock desperately needed international assistance, political leaders must enact "real reforms" long demanded by donors. "If we do not do this, the Lebanese economy will collapse" and "the only victim will be the Lebanese people, who cannot go into exile"

Long-standing ties

It is no coincidence that Macron is placing his bets mainly on Lebanon. The ties between Paris and Beirut run deep, dating back to the colonial period. Lebanon is probably the only country in the region where a French President is able to negotiate not with the government but directly with the political powers that be. Something similar would be unthinkable in Iraq, Egypt or Syria. Nowhere else can Macron act as the saviour of the nation.

In Lebanon, this works above all because the state, its institutions, the political system and the sectarian parties have been totally discredited among broad sections of the population as a result of the country's economic collapse and now even more so after the explosion in Beirut, which can be traced back to gross government negligence.

But Macron has a problem: he can bask in the image of being a saviour, but at some point, he has to deliver concrete results that will bring about the political reform for which the Lebanese people have been taking to the streets in desperation this past year.

But this is like the snake biting its own tail, because how can a political system be reformed without the political system? If it is possible at all, it can only be accomplished by exerting pressure from below and by overcoming many obstacles, as demonstrated by the Arab Spring 2.0 that broke out last year in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon as well, where the people attempted to do away with the old systems through protests.

External interventions, especially those of the military variety, have seldom brought about anything good, as the US invasion of Iraq compellingly demonstrated. Macron is now trying to do the same thing in Lebanon by putting pressure on the political forces there to finally launch the long overdue reforms.

No blank cheques; tight supervision

At a press conference in Beirut, Macron called for a government of technocrats to be formed within two weeks to halt the country's economic collapse. And he is making financial aid contingent on reforms. There won't, he stressed, be any blank cheques. If the political class fails, financial aid will be cut off, he warned. He even threatened EU sanctions in the event of misuse of funds.

This is not an easy game for Macron. He is aware of the UN figures showing that more than half of Lebanon's population now depends on aid to afford even the bare necessities. This is the kind of pressure the political system is under. But he also knows that Lebanon's political class will do everything not to reform itself right out the door.

One example is the Shia Hezbollah, the strongest single military and political force in Lebanon, which is controlled by Iran. It may not be the most corrupt party in Lebanon, but it has the most influence to lose in the event of any sort of reform. And this is exactly where Macron's limitations become more than apparent. "Don't ask France to wage war against a Lebanese political force ... It would be absurd and crazy," he declared, without mentioning the Hezbollah by name.

In the end, it is still the regional powers – whether Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates – that hold the best hands in this card game. They are playing to maintain the status quo and waiting to see if Macron can actually put anything on the table. Until then, they will assume that the French President is merely bluffing. 

Karim El-Gawhary

© 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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