How does the international community perceive the new Lebanese Parliament?

All eyes are focused on the crucial milestones ahead, including cabinet formation and the presidential election

How does the international community perceive the new Lebanese Parliament?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receiving French President Emmanuel Macron on December 4, 2021, in Jeddah. (Credit: AFP archive photo)

So far, the major Western and Arab capitals have expressed reserved positions following the parliamentary elections. This restraint could be explained by caution toward the mosaic-like Parliament, with its many new additions.

In Paris as well as in the United States, they are waiting to see how the political landscape will take shape before making any moves.

For these capitals, as well as for Riyadh and Tehran, eyes are focused on the crucial milestones to come, such as the formation of cabinet and the election of a new president.

These two milestones are proving more difficult than ever to achieve in a context fraught with hurdles.

With the exception of Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid Bukhari — who is steadily pursuing his efforts to build an anti-Hezbollah front similar to what was once the March 14 camp, and who welcomed in a tweet the “ineluctable victory” of the logic of a state over that of Hezbollah’s mini-state — the expressed positions have so far been limited to the simple wishes of seeing the country embark on an imminent reform process.

Riyadh is certainly pleased, behind the scenes, and credits itself with partially reversing the effects of Future Movement head Saad Hariri’s decision to boycott the parliamentary elections, and with putting the brakes on what could have led to a landslide victory for Hezbollah.

Yet, it has avoided officially displaying its enthusiasm so as to demonstrate that it is not interfering in the Lebanese game. In the kingdom, the tone is therefore balanced.

During a phone call between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday, the two officials stressed “the need to implement the structural reforms necessary for the country’s recovery, as expected by the Lebanese population and the international community.”

“What is important for us is that Lebanon can move forward and that the necessary measures are taken without delay,” said a French diplomat.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan conveyed the same message yesterday, saying that his country would be ready to help Lebanon if it implements reforms.

Cautious optimism

Behind the scenes of French diplomacy, there are different echoes. While some diplomats are pleased with the unexpected breakthrough of new politicians that are likely to inject new blood into Parliament, others take a realistic, or cynical, some might say, position, and point to the inability of the new MPs stemming from the protest movement to put an end to sclerosis and to revolutionize the rules of the game.

The most pragmatic voices within the Quai d’Orsay, according to a source who declined to be named, include those who consider the new elites “quite sympathetic,” which remains insufficient to confront a political establishment that is still firmly entrenched, even if it is weakened.

France must carefully deal with its Gulf allies, with whom it has good relations, as it seeks to preserve its economic interests in Iran. This balancing act will position it to serve as a potential mediator in the event of an escalation of the Lebanese crisis.

“Paris will be able to facilitate the emergence of a modus vivendi on Lebanese issues as well as the formation of a majority,” Karim Bitar, a political analyst, said.

There is already talk of coordination between Paris and its two partners, Riyadh and Washington, with the aim of concerting efforts to lower the tension, and above all, to reverse the bellicose attitude of the Saudi ambassador who recently spoke of a “genuine uprising against Iran” when commenting on the election results.

For Paris, the confrontation between two more-or-less inflexible camps (pro and anti-Hezbollah) can only paralyze a pluralistic country that has never been able to function properly without settlements.

“It is clear that the French prefer the status quo to any new dynamic that would alter the established modus vivendi. France prefers not to step out of its comfort zone,” said a Lebanese politician on condition of anonymity.

The politician justified this position by the Quai d’Orsay’s desire to preserve stability at all cost.

This would be one of the main reasons why France would prefer to see Najib Mikati leading the cabinet. Firstly is to avoid taking uncalculated risks with a newcomer, and mainly because the incumbent prime minister, according to a European diplomat, has succeeded in “satisfying” his Western interlocutors.

US reserve

On the American side, reactions are rather timid. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Lebanese-American lobbyist explained this restraint by the fact that Lebanon is unfortunately no longer on the radar of the United States, which is much more preoccupied with the war in Ukraine.

“The US administration certainly has other things on its mind at the moment. But that doesn’t mean they are giving up Lebanon,” said an analyst in Washington.

Mindful that its capacity to maneuver is somewhat limited by the fact that a significant portion of the Lebanese public, including some of the protest movement’s figures, oppose US interference in Lebanon, the US administration prefers to remain low key for the time being.

However, this did not prevent Washington from imposing, four days after the election, new sanctions on a businessman it considers close to Hezbollah, Ahmad Abdallah.

It was political timing par excellence, according to some analysts, and means that Washington remains on the lookout.

The US State Department was satisfied with a statement that merely reiterated the general principles.

“We urge those elected and the country’s political leaders to heed the Lebanese people’s call for change and to work seriously, and with urgency, to take the necessary actions to rescue the economy,” State Department Spokesman Ned Price said.

This clear decline in interest could change, however, after the Senate confirmed Barbara Leaf to lead the State Department’s Middle East bureau on Wednesday, after her nomination was stalled in the chamber due to opposition from Republican lawmakers.

“She is a veteran diplomat with extensive knowledge of the region,” said a diplomat in Washington.

Iran lies in wait

The major unknown that needs to be elucidated is the Iranian position on the relative defeat of the March 8 camp.

As usual, the Islamic Republic made a sibylline statement, reiterating through itsForeign Affairs Ministry that Iran has always been by the side of the Lebanese people but has never meddled in the country’s internal affairs.

This waffle does not hide Tehran’s ambitions — although it has delegated its influence to its “right arm”, Hezbollah — in the land of the cedars as in the region.

At a time when there are fears of a descent into an Iraqi-style scenario in Lebanon in case there were an institutional paralysis, Iran will be called upon to assume a facilitating role or, on the contrary, to up the ante.

“Iran’s position will become clearer compared to that of France and the United States, especially in terms of the formation of the cabinet and its orientation. It will depend above all on the progress of the Vienna nuclear talks, as well as the bilateral negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” said Talal Atrissi, a professor at Al Mareef University and an expert in regional affairs.

One needs to understand that a thaw in relations at the regional level will inevitably translate into a positive attitude from Tehran toward Lebanon.

“We could even see Iran invested with a preeminent role in Lebanon, in coordination with the French,” said Kassem Kassir, an expert on Hezbollah issues.

This article was originally published in French by L'Orient-Le Jour. 

So far, the major Western and Arab capitals have expressed reserved positions following the parliamentary elections. This restraint could be explained by caution toward the mosaic-like Parliament, with its many new additions.In Paris as well as in the United States, they are waiting to see how the political landscape will take shape before making any moves.For these capitals, as well as for...