“The new ministers must be chosen according to their expertise and experience, not political loyalties,” Aoun said Thursday night. A member of the protest movement told me after Aoun’s speech that Hezbollah might try to vet the new cabinet members, but added that his call for a nonpolitical government is a step forward.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had urged formation of a new government Tuesday and called on the Lebanese army and Internal Security Forces to “ensure the rights and safety of the protesters” from Hezbollah militants who have assaulted protesters in recent days.
A senior State Department official told me during an interview Thursday afternoon that U.S. economic support might follow. “If Lebanon undertakes meaningful economic reform and fights corruption, we will work with international organizations to get international economic financing,” the official said, including unlocking the $11.7 billion package of aid that was pledged by international donors last year but remains frozen.
The protesters have ignored threats from Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader. Nasrallah said Oct. 19, when the protests had just begun, that he opposed the demand for a new government. And he warned last Friday that the street movement was creating “a vacuum [that] will lead to chaos, to collapse.” The protests continued, unabated.
“Hezbollah has been deeply wounded by what happened,” said Robert Fadel, a former member of Lebanon’s parliament who has been among the protesters in the streets. The message to the Iranian-backed militia was that “they can’t continue to govern in the same way,” he said.
Hezbollah had been nearly untouchable in Lebanon until this wave of demonstrations. But even the militia’s Shiite Muslim supporters have been in the streets, despite gangs of Hezbollah militants who tried to suppress the movement.
The senior State Department official described the protests as “a remarkable development, totally indigenous, nonsectarian, almost unprecedented for Lebanon.” He said the United States wanted to keep it that way and make sure that a new government actually begins reforms — such as privatizing the corrupt telecommunications and electricity sectors — rather than simply talking about such changes.
Some Trump administration officials have argued for simply letting Lebanon collapse, forcing Iran and its Hezbollah proxy to pick up the pieces. But this super-hawkish view seems to have lost ground to Pompeo’s arguments for backing the reformers. The senior official summed up Pompeo’s view this way: “He believes Lebanon is worth investing in. We will support them if they’re willing to make changes.”
The protesters seem happy for American support, so long as the United States keeps its distance. “We don’t want the U.S. to push Lebanon any harder,” said Fadel. “We don’t want another Venezuela here.”