The seeders of a new Lebanon

Foreign leaders are working with trusted activists to revive an inclusive identity for a country in turmoil since an Aug. 4 blast.

French President Emmanuel Macron hugs blast victim Tamara Tayah after planting a cedar with members of the NGO Jouzour Loubnan near Beirut Sept. 1.

Over the past month, ever since a blast devastated Beirut’s port killing more than 180 people, a number of foreign officials have visited Lebanon. They are in search of individuals who can be trusted to lift the country out of a deep crisis born of a corrupt elite. Lebanon, says French President Emmanuel Macron – who has visited twice since the blast – needs a “new political contract.”

On Wednesday, the country’s elected leaders were even snubbed during a visit by a top U.S. official, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker. He held talks with civil society activists, many of whom are now seen as leaders in shaping an inclusive identity in Lebanon’s highly diverse population.

Meanwhile, the World Bank plans to work mainly with nongovernmental organizations to help Beirut recover from the Aug. 4 blast. It calls this a “whole of Lebanon” approach that will bypass corrupt institutions and ensure the “needs and priorities of the Lebanese people.”

During his visit this week, the French president did meet with a few elected leaders but spent much of his time reminding the Lebanese of what binds them as a people.

He planted a cedar tree – the country’s emblem – at a special preserve. He met with famed singer Fayrouz. She is beloved in the Arab-speaking world and someone who unites Lebanon across its religious and ethnic divides. She remains a consoling voice in a fractured nation.

Before his arrival, Mr. Macron mediated the selection of a new prime minister for Lebanon, according to reports. The last government resigned after the blast, taking blame for a neglected store of explosive ammonium nitrate in the port.

He has also confronted Mohammed Raad, head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, asking him to prove his loyalty to Lebanon rather than to Iran, which backs the militant Islamic group. “Everyone knows that you have an Iranian agenda,” Mr. Macron said, according to Le Figaro newspaper. “You want to help the Lebanese, yes or no?”

He also has laid out specific reforms for Lebanon’s leaders to implement before they receive financial aid from international donors. These include a “full audit” of the central bank, a new law to ensure the independence of the courts, and adequate support for the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

Street protests that began last October against the ruling parties have continued despite mass poverty and the pandemic. “The people are one – Shia, Sunni, Christian, they’re all one here,” one protester said. Now with a little help from leaders abroad, the Lebanese might start to enjoy that oneness as a nation.

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