A new prime minister for Lebanon: a change-agent from campus?

Beirut - Lebanon

On December 19, Lebanese President Michel Aoun named Hassan Diab, the vice president of the American University of Beirut (AUB), to form the next cabinet. Saad Hariri resigned on October 29, twelve days after nationwide street demonstrations erupted. Stability is eroding due to growing financial and political turmoil. Is Aoun’s original PM choice the first serious response to the demands of a popular uprising?

Diab is working hard to form a cabinet which could satisfy the uprising. He said that he expects to have the cabinet ready by the end of the year, but he may not find the task that easy.

In the confessional system of power-sharing the PM has to be of the Sunni faith. Diab has to gain support of the Sunni community, since he was not the favorite candidate for this post. He also has to win the trust of agencies of international donors, which have pledged significant loans and grants, once political steps of reform are take place.

How is the PM-designate viewed in wider society? The picture is mixed. Some criticize him for being an academician. Certainly, the Skills of academia are not easily transferable to political leadership, but Diab is not new to public service. In 2011, he was the minister of education for over two years. His record in the ministry of education was lackluster; the demonstrators expect proven change-agents in the new government. Diab’s Curriculum Vitae cites many accomplishments: he introduced computer technology at AUB (years back) and started a small university in Oman. Since when was a Ph.D. in computer engineering a limitation to high political office?

Internationally, Diab’s credibility was targeted for factors he has no control over. When he was nominated, Western media spontaneously described him as the front-man of Hezbollah, a party which Washington considers as a “terrorist organization.” Associating Diab with Hezbollah is unfair, simply for winning this party’s votes.

A comment on Hezbollah’s is relevant here. The presence of two million Syrian and Palestinian refugees, as well as rebel groups of Islamic Jihadists in border areas with Syria, makes Lebanon strategically vulnerable. Moreover, Hezbollah was born to respond to Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon: a 20-year occupation. This movement forced Israel to withdraw in 2000, but Israel’s armed forces continue to penetrate borders and annex territory. Given the chaotic situation on Lebanon’s borders, cabinet formation must not be tangled up with resolving the thorny Hezbollah issue. Only the Lebanese could solve this problem internally, and they do not seem to be ready for the moment.

Turning to the urgent cabinet formation, Diab needs full freedom of action: President Aoun and his manipulative political circle must give the premier-designate the chance to choose the team of ministers he is charged to lead. There is no need to fuss over the issue of how “technical” or “political” the new cabinet ought to be. The effectiveness of the cabinet is in its quality of leadership, the participatory process and the professional maturity of its members. Assigning strong political parties to “important ministries” does not make sense. Balancing the “power” of ministers on sectarian grounds would make it impossible to compose a cabinet with talent.

In planning the recovery of the state from financial default, the cabinet must be careful in dealing the international community of “capacity building”. Too much dependence on global instruments of funding stifles creativity. There is a tendency for external lending agencies to prescribe swift measures of privatization of state assets and harsh measures of austerity in public service to the most disadvantaged groups in society. Such policies are sometimes masked opportunities for billionaires to make quick deals and for the poor to pay taxes beyond its means.

Dependence on politically conditioned foreign aid may affect the integrity of planning. Lebanon’s economic policy should be Arab-centric. It is important for the new cabinet to have an “open” approach to Syria, regardless of how the Lebanese feel about the current regime in Damascus. Lebanon could cooperate with Syria, Jordan and Iraq as much as it does with the oil-rich Arab Gulf States. The Arab world is the economic and political lung of this east-Mediterranean country.

Lebanon’s crisis of leadership could be resolved. Political parties will reform as the state gains credibility and relevance to the aspirations of the people. When the state is trusted, the Lebanese living abroad will contribute generously to their old country’s recovery.

The president has to think of the uprising first, in the formation of the new cabinet. The country will probably give Diab a chance to show his leadership; he deserves this opportunity. We shall soon find out how much talent the new cabinet will have, how distant its new ministers are from political parties, and how free its leadership is from Washington or Tehran.