On September 10, Lebanon produced a new government after 13 months of political stasis. This time was marked by incessant horse-trading among the entrenched warlords while the country continued its accelerated freefall toward the socio-economic abyss. “New” is a funny word in a Lebanese context: the anomalous permanent tends to reinvent itself in novel ways that ensure its self-perpetuation. Despite featuring two or three promising names in its ministerial lineup, Lebanon’s latest government remains firmly in the clutches of the mafia-militia cartel of criminal politicians. Hezbollah protects them, even though it is ruining the country and dragging it into Iran’s sphere of influence against the will of most Lebanese. Over the past year, France and other Western powers tried unsuccessfully to move collapsing Lebanon into a new political direction. But President Emmanuel Macron and his counterparts now appear resigned to the political status quo in the hapless East Mediterranean country. They should realize that any presumed experts in this latest cabinet will likely be unable to employ their expertise to further the common good.

The success of Prime Minister Najib Mikati in forming a government, where his predecessor-designate Saad Hariri had failed after trying for months to craft a political deal with Hezbollah, marks a clear tilt toward Damascus. Mikati, a billionaire Sunni politician from the northern coastal city of Tripoli, enjoys solid ties to the Syrian regime. Considering that the United Nations designated his hometown fiefdom of Tripoli as the poorest city on the Mediterranean, he is essentially a classic feudal lord who keeps his followers on a shoestring lifeline. This ensures their constant need for his stingy handouts while enhancing his prominence.

Reducing followers to bare subsistence has become the modus operandi for how the vicious political class treats the entire population of Lebanon. After defrauding the people out of their life savings, over the past year the crooks in charge have allowed the country’s deterioration to reach the point where daily-life necessities, taken for granted in normal times, are either in terminal short supply or missing altogether. These include essential medicines, vital medical and power supplies for hospitals, diesel fuel to run electric power plants and bakeries, gasoline for vehicles, and more. The consequences of this systematic country-wide deprivation have been the severe rationing of electricity and water supplies, erratic internet and mobile phone services, long lines at gas stations that block roads and cause traffic congestion, and the hoarding of dwindling basics by greedy suppliers seeking to make windfall profits once prices climb further. Meanwhile, callous politician-criminals can only think of how to divide the spoils accruing from any deals among them to fortify their pervasive cronyism. They have not a single thought about the deepening sufferings of the Lebanese at large.

This ruthless mafia has calculated that ensuring its diehard followers depend on its handouts will be the winning strategy for the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for early May 2022. Meanwhile, a variety of civil society groups and organizations born out of the bitterness of spontaneous popular protests in fall 2019—known collectively as the Thawra, or revolution—have started to assemble their forces. They are fielding opposition candidates in electoral districts to boldly defy the hitherto unshakeable ruling elites and dislodge them from power through the ballot box. This coalescing opposition is determined to make sure the new in Lebanon will not be the same as the old.

But the fiends have many tricks—from outright rigging of the election, such as by fashioning an electoral law tailored to their ends (or using the last one with all its built-in loopholes), to buying votes in large quantities (and cheaply, given the local currency’s open-ended devaluation). If they sense that all this will not yield the desired outcome, scuttling the elections altogether and manufacturing a security crisis to justify such a move will be their last-resort option. It remains indisputable, however, that if the elections indeed go ahead, serious international monitoring of the entire process—from the electoral law to ballot counting and everything in between—will need to be in place. Unmasking the fraud and nullifying the questionable election results, should matters come to this, will be the Lebanese people and international community’s only weapon against this unconscionable leech-like cartel. The current leaders have already crippled Lebanon into a pariah state; let that stigma become official and global if the elections are flagrantly fixed. Slapping harsh sanctions on specific individuals among the culprits will not hurt either.

Sadly, rigged elections or no elections, Hezbollah and its politicians will emerge as the big winners so long as Iran’s extended arm continues to reach the Eastern Mediterranean. If the upcoming elections in Lebanon do not produce a real opening for the true opposition, Plan B should entail a serious attempt at a creative federalism. This new formula would accommodate sectarian pluralism while safeguarding the rights of minority communities—and in Lebanon all 18 constitutionally recognized sects are numerical minorities within the country’s communal kaleidoscope, meaning there is no single majority sect.

This said, Christians have been declining demographically at an alarming rate since the October 2019 collapse; they constitute the bulk of families seeking to emigrate. Lebanon minus its Christians becomes indistinguishable from its other Arab surroundings, where freedoms are chronically in short supply.

In the wake of the Afghan debacle, perhaps there is a modest opening to salvage part of the principles that generations of Lebanese and Arab youth learned at the universities established in Beirut by American missionaries over a century-and-a-half ago. Back then, Americans who were true to their country’s deepest values made up the face that the United States showed to the region and the world. This is precisely the American face we all desperately crave to see once again. So, nation-building by armed outsiders is not required here; the Lebanese will do that themselves once the monkey of the cartel is lifted off their backs. The way to achieve this is to go after the mafia component of the cartel, specifically their chief bosses, by holding them accountable for the crimes they perpetrated against the people of Lebanon. A promising start for this could be ensuring the brave opposition competes on as much of a level playing field as possible in Lebanon’s approaching parliamentary elections.

The wide and nuanced spectrum of possibilities lying between outright nation-building (which is a fool’s errand) and total abandonment (which, to say the least, is shameful) beckons to those both perceptive and inventive enough to take up the challenge.