BEIRUT — During his visit this month, French President Emmanuel Macron gave Lebanon's politicians a road map for policy changes and reform, set deadlines for them to take action and told them he'd be back in December to check on progress.
It was a hands-on approach that angered some in Lebanon and was welcomed by others. And it revived a bitter question in the tiny Mediterranean country: Can Lebanese rule themselves?
Lebanon's ruling class, in power since the end of the civil war in 1990, has run the tiny country and its population into the ground. Heading a sectarian system that encourages corruption over governing, the elite have enriched themselves while investing little on infrastructure, failing to build a productive economy and pushing it to the verge of bankruptcy.
Anger over corruption and mismanagement has come to a peak after the giant Aug. 4 explosion at Beirut's port, caused by the detonation of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate that politicians allowed to sit there for years. Nearly 200 people were killed and tens of thousands of homes were damaged. Another large fire erupted at the port on Thursday, only further traumatizing and frustrating Beirutis.
Poet and journalist Akl Awit wrote in An-Nahar newspaper that he strongly opposes outside interference, but the political elite brought it on themselves.
"This is a class that does not care about law, constitution, judiciary, morals, conscience, earthquakes or even about bankrupting people," he wrote. "This class only wants to stay in power."
Some worry that even outside pressure cannot force reform on politicians, for whom reform means an end to power and perhaps eventual accountability.
"They are known to give empty promises whether to their people or the international community," said Elias Hankash, a legislator from the right-wing Kataeb party who resigned from parliament following the port explosion. "Regrettably maybe President Macron does not know whom he is dealing with."
Resistance to reform can be startling. In 2018, a France-led conference pledged some $11 billion in aid to Lebanon. But it came with conditions of reforms, including audits and accountability changes that could have hurt the factions' corrupt patronage engines. Politicians were unable to pass the reforms to unlock the desperately needed money.
Late last year, Lebanon's economic house of cards collapsed into its worst financial crisis in decades. The local currency has crashed, throwing more than half the country's 5 million people into poverty.
In his Sept. 1 visit, Macron came in with a strong push for change. He met with officials from the eight largest political groups. They were given a so-called "French Paper, which lay out what it called a "draft program for the new government" on everything from how to deal with the coronavirus, to investigating the port explosion, rebuilding the port, fixing the electricity sector and resuming talks with the International Monetary Fund.