Perspectives - March 19, 2021

Lebanese Pound Continues Crash, Invigorating Protests

The Lebanese Pound continued its downward slide over the weekend, from 10,000 L.L. against the U.S. Dollar last week to 13,000 L.L. The Lebanese Pound continued to crash over the week, hitting a record low of almost 15,000 L.L. against the dollar by Tuesday. Lebanon’s currency has officially been pegged at 1,507 L.L. for every U.S. Dollar since 1997 but has lost nearly 90 percent of its value on the black market in the past 18 months, as the country experiences one of its worst economic crises.

The continued collapse of the national currency once again renewed street protests by Lebanese citizens increasingly unable to afford the most basic of necessities as their money becomes increasingly worthless. After several days of relative calm following the last deterioration in the Lira's value, angry protesters blocked several key streets in the capital and its suburbs and major roads in North Lebanon, the Bekaa and, South Lebanon.

United States Central Command Commander Visits Lebanon

General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Commander of the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM), visited Lebanon on March 15, 2021. According to a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, “General McKenzie met with senior representatives of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), including LAF Commander General Joseph Aoun, where he reaffirmed the importance of preserving Lebanon’s security, stability, and sovereignty, and underscored the importance of the strong partnership between the United States and the LAF, particularly as Lebanon endures significant economic challenges.”

Hezbollah Delegation Visits Russia

The head of Hezbollah’s Loyalty to Resistance bloc, MP Mohammed Raad, met Monday in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “The meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was a meeting between friends and the atmosphere of the discussions was frank,” Raad said after the talks. “We discussed the situations in the region and Lebanon, and means to consolidate stability and strengthen the achievements that were made through combating terrorism in Syria and Lebanon,” Raad added. Talks also explored "what Russia can do to support friendly peoples in the region, especially in Lebanon," the top Hezbollah lawmaker went on to say. He also discussed with Lavrov "the governmental situation in Lebanon and Hezbollah's keenness on the need to speed up the government's formation in a manner that reflects the Lebanese people's will." Raad added that "this is the key to stability and the start of solutions.”

Raad’s trip to Moscow was the latest signal of Russian involvement in Lebanese matters. While the trip was underway, Russian Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Rudakov met with Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil to discuss regional issues and a solution to the government formation impasse. Last week, prime Minister-Designate Saad Hariri met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss Lebanon’s domestic crises, government formation, and strengthening Russian-Lebanese ties.

Reports of Imminent Unprecedented Gulf, French Sanctions on Lebanon

MTV Lebanon reported on Wednesday that the Gulf States and Arab countries are planning to take an unprecedented move and impose sanctions on several Lebanese officials for the country’s deteriorating economic conditions. MTV’s report did not indicate which Lebanese officials would be sanctioned. Asharq Al-Awsat also reported that according to unnamed French diplomatic sources, Paris was also mulling applying pressure to Lebanon’s political class through multilateral sanctions, to be enforced along with France’s American and European partners

U.S. Intelligence Report Concludes Hezbollah Tried to Influence 2020 Elections

Hezbollah attempted to influence the 2020 U.S. election, according to a 15-page intelligence report released on Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The report listed the militant group as one of several actors that attempted to influence the elections in November, including Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran, and Cuba. The report’s Key Judgment 5  stated, “we assess that a range of foreign actors – including Lebanese Hizballah…took some steps to influence the election. In general, we assess that they were smaller in scale than the influence efforts conducted by other actors in this cycle.” However, the report stressed that these actors’ penetration of some local government systems had no impact on the results of the election.

Hariri, Aoun Calm Tensions Over Government Formation Delay

PM-designate Saad Hariri met Thursday afternoon in the Baabda Presidential Palace with President Michel Aoun, only hours after the two leaders verbally clashed to the point of each asking the other to step down. "I told President Aoun that I'm seeking an 18-seat government of specialists," Hariri said after the talks. "We agreed to meet again on Monday and there will be some essential answers on how to reach a cabinet line-up as soon as possible," he added. The process of forming a government has been delayed by endless haggling between the main ruling parties. Both Aoun and Hariri have accused each other of obstruction. Hariri and his allies have accused Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement of seeking a ministerial share in the cabinet to allow the Aounists to control the government's decisions. Aoun and his camp, meanwhile, accuse Hariri of infringing on the president's constitutional prerogatives in the cabinet formation process.