When French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut on Thursday following the devastating explosion there that killed approximately 137 people, he was mobbed through the city. Residents implored him to help them as they denounced their own leaders. He was the first global leader to visit the city since the tragedy.
The Lebanese People Have Lost Faith in Their Political Leaders
The desperate pleas from Lebanese citizens toward the French President show that this is a country that has truly lost faith in its own political elite. Lebanese security forces fired teargas at demonstrators in Beirut as anger over the nation’s leadership grew following the explosion in the city that laid waste to large parts of the capital on Tuesday. Protesters had gathered outside the Lebanese Parliament, where a small fire was lit and stones were thrown at security forces, according to the Guardian.
The same thing happened last October, which led to Lebanon’s security forces being condemned in a recent report by Human Rights Watch for using excessive force against demonstrators on several occasions.
Aid and Reform Should Be Linked
Last year’s October demonstrations led to the resignation of Saad al-Hariri, who was prime minister of Lebanon at the time. Lebanese President Michael Aoun has recently launched a probe to investigate whether external interference might have caused the explosion, but his actions are likely to fall upon deaf ears as the explosion in Beirut has led to calls for wider political reform, particularly from Macron, who has said that any aid that comes from France must be tied to political change.
Macron has a unique opportunity to persuade the rest of the international community to pressure Lebanon’s political elite into reforming its system. Following the collapse of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in World War One, Lebanon became a French protectorate until 1943. Therefore, the French Government has a vested interest in ensuring that peace and stability is restored to the former French protectorate.
Macron Has Many advantages in Leading the Effort for Change in Lebanon
France is a leading member of NATO and the United Nations and Macron can use his influence over both institutions to persuade other world leaders that Lebanon is likely to become increasingly vulnerable to Iranian influence if they choose not to help. The Washington Institute discovered that the Iranian Government provides Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah with $100 million per year. As Iran is currently forging closer ties to Russia and Turkey in the Middle East, the French President has a chance to urge his counterparts to not let Lebanon become vulnerable to a power vacuum.
Macron is also one of the few Western leaders who has a somewhat decent relationship with US President Donald Trump. The US’s support will be vital in the future if Lebanon has any hope of reforming its political system. Trump should follow Macron’s lead if he is serious about preventing Moscow, Ankara and Tehran from taking advantage of Lebanon’s vulnerability.
As the Council on Foreign Relations’ Amir Asmar suggests, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) were instrumental in defeating ISIS and it is one of the few institutions that Lebanon’s citizens have a positive view of. They were able to beat IS because of US funding, which is why it would be in Trump’s best interest to fund the LAF so that they can prevent Hezbollah from strengthening its grip over Lebanon.
Macron Must Avoid Repeating the Mistakes He Made in Libya
Despite this, Macron’s interventions in Middle Eastern politics have had mixed results so far. Although the French President produced a four-point plan that could have persuaded Iran to end its nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of US sanctions, neither the US nor Iran are likely to agree upon a new deal before the US election in November.
The French President’s desire to end the Libyan war is genuine, but his actions have been rather clumsy. The 2018 Paris summit failed to consult a wide range of actors in the Libyan conflict, which is a mistake Macron should not make in Lebanon should he go down this route.
On the whole, Macron is the only world leader best placed to persuade the international community that they need to support political change in Lebanon, and he was right to suggest that aid needs to be tied to reform. He just needs to remember the lessons he should have learnt from his intervention in Libya to ensure that he is successful in helping the former French protectorate transform its government for the better.