Lebanon's Maronite leader calls for "neutrality" to overcome national crisis

There are political movements that align themselves with the position of Bechara Boutros al-Rai
Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai

REUTERS/FAISAL AL-NASSER  -   Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai

Lebanon is going through a very serious political, institutional and economic crisis that requires rapid and forceful solutions. The country in the Middle East is suffering from an alarming financial deterioration and institutional chaos that demands answers now; demanded, above all, by a discontented population that is constantly demonstrating against the established power and installed corruption.

The Lebanese coffers are low and the nation is going through an already long journey through the desert in economic matters with more than terrifying indicators; such as an inflation forecast of 55% for this 2020, a poverty level of 45%, and an unemployment rate of 35%, the latter according to data from March of this year. The situation is such that even at the beginning of July several suicides were registered in different Lebanese cities due to the fact that a large part of the population is submerged in poverty.

The Lebanese pound is highly devalued and officially traded at 1,507 to the dollar, even reaching the value of more than 9,000 on the black market. Even hospitals lack the means to care for the sick and it is not uncommon for them to be without electricity for hours.

Lebanon is suffering a financial collapse that marks the greatest threat to stability since the civil war between 1975 and 1990. Faced with this situation, the Maronite patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai, the highest representative of Christians in Lebanon, stressed the urgent need to reach "neutrality" in the nation. A commentary that carries implicit reference to Hezbollah, a Shiite group that is very influential in the country and in the Lebanese Executive and intimately linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

The Maronite community has its importance in the heart of Lebanese society; in fact, the law details that currently the president of the Republic must be of this confession, in this case Michel Aoun. All this within a complex system of government, divided by quotas between the different religions present in the nation. Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy governed by a confessional framework, in which the main positions are distributed proportionally among the various religious communities in the country. 

El presidente de Líbano, Michel Aoun
PHOTO/REUTERS - Lebanon's President Michel Aoun

Recently, the Maronite patriarch, Bechara Boutros al-Rai, came closer to criticizing the Lebanese executive. In the midst of the serious national crisis, the country's main Christian leader has attacked political leaders in recent Sunday homilies. On 12 July, he stressed the refusal of the Lebanese to let "a majority play with the constitution, the national pact and the law, or with the country's model of civilization". He also denounced the fact that the same people "isolate him from brotherly and friendly nations and peoples and lead him from abundance to famine.

In addition, he called on President Michel Aoun to "break the blockade of free national decision," and called on the international community to help "restore Lebanon's independence and unity. His words have been interpreted as a criticism of the excessive influence in the country of the Shiite group Hezbollah, behind which lies Iran. 

The ayatollahs' regime is interfering in the internal affairs of several neighbouring states through the actions of like-minded Shiite groups. Such is the case of Lebanon itself, with Hezbollah; of Yemen, with the Hutu rebels; of Syria, with Liwa Fatemiyoun's militia of Afghan origin; of Iraq, with the Popular Mobilisation Forces; or of Palestine, with Hamas. 

The Maronite Church has bet on a more profound social change. On the 1st July it launched the National Global Educational Pact with the aim of getting closer to the spirit of the social protests of recent months and encouraging young people to free themselves from the political ties linked to the religious community to which they belong and to "strive to build a better country" with a "clear separation between the religious and civil spheres", as Bechara Boutros al-Rai made clear in his words, collected by the Alfa y Omega media. 

His last two sermons have marked a shift towards a more openly critical stance against the policies of both Hezbollah and Michel Aoun; precisely two poles that support the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab. Hezbollah's group is considered a terrorist by several Western countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, and exercises great influence over the Lebanese government. 

Una foto de la agencia fotográfica libanesa Dalati and Nohra del 12 de junio de 2020 muestra al primer ministro Hassan Diab presidiendo una sesión de emergencia del Gobierno
AFP PHOTO/HO/DALATI AND NOHRA - A photo by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra from 12 June 2020 shows Prime Minister Hassan Diab presiding over an emergency session of government

"The intervention was seen as a change in their policy of supporting the president and rather criticizing the country's political position, regionally and internationally," explained Mohanad Hage Ali, a member of the Carnegie Middle East Center, in statements echoed by the Noticias de Israel media.

For his part, Lebanese politician Ahmed Fatfat, former Minister of Youth and Sports, recently said that all militias in his country, especially Hezbollah, must be dismantled. The former minister believes that Hezbollah is not a legitimate political party and that it is encroaching on Lebanon and its political decision-making process, which is now geared more to the rule of the ayatollahs' regime's jurisprudence than to the Lebanese Constitution. For Fatfat, the top leader of this Shiite group, Hassan Nasrallah, is indeed the person who rules Lebanon.

El líder del movimiento chií Hizbulá de Líbano, Hassan Nasrallah
AFP/HO/IRAN PRESS - Lebanon's Hezbollah Shiite Movement Leader Hassan Nasrallah

Bechara Boutros al-Rai intensified criticism of the influence of Iran and its allies without naming them, saying that the Lebanese people refused to be isolated from their allies and led to decay.

Certain political movements are aligning themselves with the position of the Christian leader, who is in direct opposition to Hezbollah and who demands "neutrality". This trend was confirmed by the leader of the Marada movement, Suleiman Bey Frangieh, son of a former Lebanese president in the 1970s.

Suleiman Bey Frangieh met with the Maronite patriarch and said he is "ready for any national meeting that will save Lebanon and have a clear vision to get out of the current situation. The Marada leader emphasized that "the most important thing is to get the country out of where it is and to get to a place where people are satisfied. 

He stressed that the current situation in Lebanon requires a push towards a solution and a calming of the current state to fix the national problem, especially regarding the economy. I also call for "restoring confidence in order to attract investors", a task in which everyone must cooperate. 

El político cristiano libanés, diputado y líder del movimiento Marada Suleiman Frangieh
PHOTO/REUTERS - Lebanese Christian politician, MP and leader of the Marada Suleiman Frangieh movement

According to several analysts, the anti-Hezbollah political class has been disunited in recent times and this has made it impossible to work towards a way out of the current scenario, but now it finds an authority to follow in the figure of the Maronite patriarch in order to limit Hezbollah's influence and control over the Executive.

This new position that defends neutrality could be well seen by the international community, which could attract the much desired foreign economic aid, vital to be able to get out of the current crisis in Lebanon. 

In fact, the Lebanese government requested a $20 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but the discussions of the senior officials of this entity are dragging on because the United States is not only asking for strict economic reforms, as is usually the case, but also for the Lebanese to expel Hezbollah from the governmental sphere.