With Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s new cabinet having won a parliamentary confidence vote, many Lebanese are tentatively hopeful the years-long crisis that has engulfed their country may finally have reached a turning point.
At the same time, there are concerns this new cabinet – filled with many familiar faces – represents just another continuation of a status quo that increasing numbers of Lebanese wish to see ending.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, people expressed their feelings on Mikati’s new government and his plans to address their country’s numerous woes after 13 months of political deadlock.
“We hope it will be good for the country because the people are tired,” said Jihad Jaber, owner of a clothing shop in Hamra, Beirut.
“We’re seeing it seems like they’re willing to work, unlike the last cabinet. We’ll have to wait and see. As citizens, we ask for them to solve these crises, from the fuel shortage to the poor quality of life, and for the dollar rate to come down. We want to live well.”
Spiralling financial meltdown
According to recent figures published by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), almost 75 per cent of the Lebanese population are currently living in poverty. Even basic amenities such as electricity and water are in short supply, while residents queue for hours at a time outside petrol stations hoping to buy fuel for their cars and generators.
This difficult situation has been precipitated by a spiralling financial meltdown where most Lebanese have had their dollar bank accounts frozen to preserve stocks of US dollars.
Prices of food and services have gone up dramatically across the board and – while the formation of a new government has triggered something of a recovery for the severely depreciated Lebanese pound – those who have already left the country, hoping for better prospects abroad, seem reluctant to return.
“I will be the first one to come back to the country if I feel the new government is going to work for the citizens’ benefit,” said Nada El Daouk, an educational entrepreneur currently living between Turkey and Qatar. “[They] should work towards releasing our money and deposits in the banks.
“The people of Lebanon need to feel that they are living in a country that provides them with their basic needs and human rights,” she added. “The new cabinet lineup does not appear to be very professional. I do not see that [they have] the credentials to overcome the current political and economic situation.”
The “brain drain” caused by the mass exodus of Lebanese professionals and specialists is being acutely felt across all sectors, but most noticeably in the medical field.
Hundreds of doctors and other medical experts have already left the country, compounding a rapidly expanding healthcare crisis brought on by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the ballooning cost of imported goods such as medicine and equipment.
‘Facilitate personal gains’
Lebanese students who previously saw their future in Lebanon are increasingly finding themselves being encouraged to leave by their families because of the deteriorating situation. Increases in tuition fees and a collapsing job market have left the Lebanese youth with little to look forward to if they stay, fomenting resentment of the ageing and seemingly stagnant ruling class.
“In this government, we have the governor of Banque du Liban and so many people that have held positions in the past that are not on the people’s side,” said Amar Sleiman, a medical student attending the University of Balamand. “[They] are just going to facilitate the personal gains of the big depositors, the politicians and the wealthy, at the expense of everyone else.
“As for the youth, I honestly think that nobody cares about them right now,” she continued. “The only plan people have for youth is if they can make them travel to get dollars for their family. I personally think that this government, if it’s going to make any difference at all, it’s going to be a negative one on our lives from its shape and the people that are in it.”
Mikati, a telecommunications billionaire and one of Lebanon’s richest businessmen, has served as prime minister twice before and was also previously investigated for corruption. This has led some to see him as an embodiment of the apparent cronyism that plagues Lebanese politics.
Despite demands from the international community for Lebanon to form a technocratic government of experts, the new cabinet is still balanced along sectarian lines, with 12 Christians and 12 Muslims, and features several new ministers with little in their backgrounds to suggest they will be successful in their new positions, such as George Qordahi, a famous television personality appointed as information minister, and Abbas al-Hajj Hassan, a former journalist who will now serve as agriculture minister.
The appointment of only one female cabinet member – Administrative Development Minister Najla Riachi – has also been widely condemned.
Despite this, some of the new appointments have met with praise. Health Minister Firas Abiad, for example, is a gastrointestinal surgeon and chairman of the board of directors of the state-run Rafik Hariri University Hospital who rose to prominence as he became the public face of Lebanon’s COVID-19 response.
Meanwhile, Environment Minister Nasser Yassin is the current director of the American University of Beirut’s Crisis Observatory.
It remains to be seen if the new cabinet will live up to its promise to rescue Lebanon. Mikati has previously stated he would seek to restart negotiations with the IMF following the formation of his government, hoping to ease Lebanon’s financial problems. He also promised to hold next year’s elections on time.
“I have positive [feelings],” said sports teacher Chadi Mattar, from Naameh. “It will be good for the country if they can be responsible. Maybe this can be a change. I’m not 100 per cent [convinced], but maybe 60 per cent. It’s better than not having anything.”