Macron’s Beirut Return Was Much To-Do About Nothing

Macron’s Beirut Return Was Much To-Do About Nothing

Well, that was a nothingbaguette. For French President Emmanuel Macron, his second visit to Beirut since the devastating blasts of Aug. 4 yielded one memorable photo-op, some posturing before the international media, a few airy bromides about the need for political reform and an unspecified threat of sanctions against those who oppose it.

For the Lebanese, it produced a loose, caveat-laden promise: An international conference of donors in Paris in October will provide the financial assistance needed to rebuild their collapsing economy — and their collapsed capital — but (and this is a big “but”) only if (and this is a big “if”) their political elite agrees to demolish the system that has brought the country to the depths of dysfunction.

Yet what if the political elite ignores Macron’s call, just as it has all previous appeals for reform? Cue the Gallic shrug. “I will tell the international community that we can’t help Lebanon,” said Macron, “but also explain to the Lebanese people that your leaders decided it would be so.”

To which they would undoubtedly reply: Tell us something we don’t already know. The Lebanese have heard it all before. Western leaders have for several years importuned the political leadership on the need for political reforms. It has been the first proviso invoked by every international lender.

The Lebanese aren’t likely to hold out much hope from an aid conference in Paris. There have been several of those over the decades, most recently in 2018, when delegates from 41 countries gathered in the French capital to pledge $11 billion in loans and grants, providing that government in Beirut enacted reforms. The conference “only has a purpose if it’s accompanied by a profound transformation,” said the host, one Emmanuel Macron.

There was no transformation, and very little of the pledged money made its way to Lebanon.

The Lebanese had hoped for rather more from Macron this time, especially after the promise of his high-profile visit in the immediate aftermath of the Beirut blasts. Then, too, he had admonished their leaders to undertake “a new political initiative,” and promised to host an aid conference in Paris. There was an online conference, co-hosted with the United Nations, and it yielded $300 million in disaster relief — slim pickings, considering the damage from the blast has been estimated at $4.6 billion.

Many donors are channeling their contributions to nongovernmental organizations and charities, keeping it out of the reach of the discredited political class. Ahead of Macron’s second visit, many Lebanese half-joked on social media that they might be better off if he revived French colonial rule. Instead, he chose to place his faith on the very class that the Lebanese people have long stopped trusting.

His explanation — “I’m a realistic idealist… that is, a real pragmatist” — rings hollow. There is nothing pragmatic about expecting the turkeys to vote for Thanksgiving. And there’s little realistic in his threat of sanctions: It would be nigh on impossible to single out individuals from a corrupt collective.

Macron imagines that the new prime minister, Mustafa Adib, who takes over from Hassan Diab, will be able to muster a credible cabinet in two weeks and present a cogent reform program to donors in six. But the Lebanese know there’s not much new about Adib. Just as his surname is a rearrangement of the letters in that of his predecessor, his appointment represents the shuffling of a marked deck by the political elite.

Adib is close to Najib Mikati, a billionaire ex-prime minister who is widely reviled. The new prime minister was heckled when he tried to mimic Macron’s original tour of Beirut’s devastated neighborhoods. He has promised a cabinet of “a homogeneous team of specialists,” but it is hard to imagine it will amount to anything more than window-dressing, or that hard-nosed international lenders will be taken in.

Adib’s appointment was announced the day before Macron’s arrival, and local newspapers reported that the new man had the blessings of the French president. Macron denied this, but having bet on the Lebanese political elite to clean up its own act, he will not be able to shrug off responsibility for their inevitable failure.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

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