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  • Writer's pictureGabriele Guzzi

Nagib Mikati, the IMF and the Latest Instalment of Political Deadlock in Lebanon

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

On Thursday the 23rd of June, Nagib Mikati was confirmed by the Lebanese parliament as Prime Minister of the Republic. 54 votes out of 127 were enough to confirm him as the head of government. While 24 votes went to his main competitor Nawaf Salam, one vote to Saad Hariri, one vote to Rawaa Hallab, there was a record high of 47 empty votes. The score of Nagib Mikati, who is a veteran of the Lebanese political establishment, is significantly lower compared to his last confirmation as Prime Minister in July 2021, where he was able to comfortably secure the post with the vote of 72 deputies. After his inaugural meeting on the same day with the President of the Republic Michel Aoun and the speaker of the parliament Nabih Berry, Mikati accepted the designation as Prime Minister and highlighted the need for cooperation in order to save the country and its people from the acute crises. Referencing a preliminary deal with the IMF that would unlock 3 billion dollars in direct investments, he urged the stakeholders to put aside the differences arguing that “we have lost enough time and chances of support from outside countries”. The options are either “a complete meltdown or a gradual way to salvation.”[1] Indeed, cooperation of all the stakeholders in parliament is duly needed in order to implement the required reforms that would open the gates to the IMF’s money.

Nagib Mikati has accepted the designation for the fourth time in his political career. His ascension to the post of Prime Minister stands symbolic for the political deadlock the country. A man who is difficult to place politically, but is systematically relied upon when the lack of political alternatives makes him a good option. He was named Prime Minister for the first time in 2005 after the murder of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, then for the second time in 2011 after a stand-off between a government lead by Saad Hariri and the pro-Syrian 8th March alliance. Most recently, he managed to emerge as the winner after a power struggle between Saad Hariri and the current president Michel Aoun. The billionaire of Tripolis, who had been operating multiple enterprises in Damascus until 2012, is a well-connected man in the international scene with close links to Syria, France and the United States. Domestically however, he performs the role of a firefighter of political deadlock essentially due to the popularity of Hariri’s future movement in his hometown. His reappointment as Prime Minister embodies the continuity and salvation of the same political system that has largely produced the current domestic crises and the conditions for its own meltdown in October 2019.

In response to the imposition of a tax on WhatsApp calls in autumn 2019, hundreds of thousands of people of all gender and sects and from all over Lebanon took to the street in protest. Dissatisfied with the current situation, the protestors decried the state of the economy, corruption, political deadlock, sectarianism and many other things. Scholars and pundits alike have presented many theories and speculations about the deeper causes of these protests. Considering the wave of protests that set the region on fire with the Arab spring as its spark, one of the most compelling arguments is presented by political scientist Adam Hanieh who attributed the conditions for social and political upheaval to a crisis of neoliberal authoritarianism. In a shift moving away from state-led capitalism, authoritarian regimes started implementing neoliberal policies to better access the global markets and the US led alliance system serving a political and economic power class that dispossessed the majority.[2] As a matter of fact, in the early days of the protests unemployed and working poor youth were at the front line of the political mobilisation. The spread of the protests from the centre of Beirut to its poorer southern neighbourhoods, Tripoli - the poorest city in Lebanon - and other economically deprived regions such as Baalback in the Bekaa and the south of Lebanon illustrates that the unemployed were indeed rising against depressing socio-economic conditions, denouncing an entire political class and blaming them for the economic situation.[3] As a matter of fact, Lebanon’s post-civil war economy is undermined by a hidden pact between the old (traditional) ruling families, militia leaders who turned to politics and a new rentier bourgeoisie who made their wealth abroad through finance, real estate and international trade. Over the years, the policies adopted turned out to first and foremost benefit the ruling elites and the people who are close to them. For example, individuals who are closely linked to the ruling elite control roughly 40% of Lebanon’s commercial banking sector assets, and 18 out of 20 banks have major shareholder linked to the political elite.[4] The class struggle against the Lebanese neo-liberal economic style and its sectarian elites who maintained the system failed on one hand due to differences over strategy, ideology and roots of the problem, but on the other hand also due to the government’s survival strategies to diffuse the tensions and distract from the problems.

In response to the protests, the then Prime Minister Saad Hariri and other ministers of his government stepped down and were replaced by politicians who were supposed to bring innovation into government yet continued to represent the dominant political classes. The salvation of the regime in Lebanon is not only a top priority on the domestic agenda but overlaps equally with activities, efforts and interests of international institutions and partners. In an influential article on the issue, International Relations professor Nick Bisley argued that counter-revolution, or efforts of outside actors to contain domestic social changes, are an integral part of revolutionary dynamics, whether it is due to challenges to the legitimacy of the international order or threatening a political alliance system. Besides the obvious options of influence like a military intervention, Bisley identified also the financial and logistic support of proximate actors as strategies of counter-revolution. Counterrevolutionary activity can furthermore also involve actions of deprivation, meaning for example barring revolutionary forces from accessing international institutions and diplomatic channels.[5] The downfall of the Lebanese system would have raised many question marks concerning the stability of the wider region and also of political leverage some actors enjoy in the region based in the Lebanese establishment. Symbolically for these international efforts to resist changes in the Lebanese political landscape stands the IMF deal mentioned above. Despite the fact that the funds are linked to conditions of reform, the reform condition seems to be of a superficial nature. The IMF refused completely to insist on political reforms in line with the demands of the protestors and limited itself to demand slight structural adaptions such as fiscal reforms, more transparency in the banking sector, strengthening anti-corruption measures etc. The suggested reforms only aim at restructuring and revitalizing the economy and the finance sector in a way that would place it right back in the same hands that produced its collapse earlier. This is not necessarily trivial. After the devastating explosion of the port of Beirut in August 2020, French President Emanuel Macron demanded serious political changes as a condition for Lebanon to access international aid. However, two years later those voices have faded out and there seems to be a tacit agreement for the maintenance of the status quo.

Nagib Mikati’s ascension to power, his insistence on cooperating with the IMF can therefore be seen as a strategy of regime survival where the domestic stakeholders and international moneylenders cooperate in order to prevent duly needed changes. It is a return from high demands and high aspirations to a service minimum with low accountability and clientelist distribution of funds, a return to the status quo. Mikati’s case also serves as an excellent example to illustrate the responsibility international bodies and external actors have on stalling or even preventing social change that, in the long run, would not only benefit the Lebanese people, but also greatly improve economic performance.

Yet despite such dire prospects, independent candidates affiliated with the revolutionary movement gained some respectable 10 percent of the seats in the latest parliament elections of May 2022. Only time will tell if they are able to keep the shimmer of hope alive and translate the ideals and goals of the protest movements into genuine policy change.

Gabriele Guzzi is Managing Partner of Ishtar MENA Analytics and our Senior Analyst for the Mashreq Region. He studied in Zurich, Beirut and London and his current research focuses on women and gender in the Beirut uprisings of 2019. Gabriele Guzzi is blogging from Beirut.

[1] For the statements read: L’Orient Le Jour (23. Juin 2022): [2] For more information read Adam Hanieh (2013): Lineages of revolt: Issues of contemporary capitalism in the Middle East [3] For more information read Bou Khater & Majed (2020): Lebanon’s 2019 October revolution: Who mobilized and why? [4] For more information read Chaaban (2016): I’ve got the power: Mapping connections between Lebanon’s banking sector and the ruling class. [5] For more infromation read Bisley (2004): Counter-revolution, order and international politics

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