Some 30 years after the end of its dirty civil war, Lebanon has cultivated a well-developed preference for discretion. One can only imagine the collective gasp of its political class last week when a spark in a ramshackle warehouse set off 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port since 2014. Scores were killed and thousands injured in Lebanon’s capital city. The sound of the blast was heard across the Mediterranean as far away as Cyprus, where some thought they had suffered an earthquake. The figurative shock waves, laying bare the ineptitude and indifference of a malignant state, will reach much further. After the chemical explosion showered Beirut in broken glass, it wasn’t long before public demonstrations flared up, in a reprise of last autumn’s protests against Lebanon’s endemic dysfunction. So overpowering was the popular revulsion against the political culture of criminality and neglect of the country’s needs in 2019 that it required both semi-official violence and a cosmetic change in the government to quell. The same ingredients of another prolonged protest movement are once again in evidence.
The devastation loosed by a vast reserve of neglected industrial explosives forced Prime Minister Diab to announce the resignation of the government on Monday, although President Aoun has requested that it stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet can be formed. This is not much cause for relief. No elections have been scheduled, and this reshuffle will likely yield the appointment of a new prime minister by the existing parliament. The status quo maintains an elaborate patronage network that has allowed the well-connected to grow fabulously rich even while the people have become mired in immeasurable hardship. Without structural reform, state institutions will therefore remain in the hands of a thoroughly polluted political class beholden to the whims of the part-mafia, part-militia known as Hezbollah.
Once upon a time, it was assumed that the people of Lebanon had no choice but to turn to a rotten elite. The Levantine state is manacled to a power-sharing system that dates back to—and was the precondition for—the end of its fratricidal 15-year civil war in 1990. The diverse governing coalition that upholds this multi-confessional order is accustomed to looting the state so long as its constituent parts appear to deliver for their respective clan. The venal demagogues and ancient warlords that make up the ruling order have lived by their wits, weathering successive storms and reminding their flocks of the dangers of moving beyond tribalism. But the mounting popular discontent, verging on despair, presents grave problems for the ruling order. In a time of mass privation, tribalism has lost its allure. Wholesale economic collapse is not a remote possibility. For many Lebanese, economic distress is already a reality exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployment has scaled new heights, with more than half the country—pushing upwards to three-quarters—now living in poverty.
Meanwhile, a government run on cheating the people careens toward insolvency. The country’s foreign currency reserves have been depleted by years of debt mismanagement, which caused depreciation of the Lebanese pound—long pegged to the dollar—by more than 80 percent since October. For an economy that relies heavily on imports, a cycle of hyperinflation seems inevitable. In March, it failed to make a $1.2 billion payment for foreign bonds, the first such default in Lebanon’s history. The Lebanese state, in other words, is an unadulterated mess that fails to provide a bare minimum of public services. It leaves heaps of garbage to fester while the night-time streets of Beirut are plunged into darkness by electricity cuts that last as long as 20 hours a day. This level of waste and squalor brought about by sclerotic political and financial institutions are made no more tolerable by the nation’s lack of genuine sovereignty.
Lebanon remains a nation with two armies, the official armed forces and Hezbollah. The Party of God, acting in the name of the long-relegated Shiite minority and backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, is the nation’s dominant political force. If forced to defend the established order that has enriched it and its political allies, it would almost certainly prevail against the state. There is a widespread belief among government ministers and sectarian fiefs that, while the West cannot be openly scorned, Iran has to be accommodated. And Iran, through its proxy Sayyed Nasrallah, dictates that the current arrangement must remain firmly in place. But a considerable and growing number of Lebanese are no longer wedded to the obsession with balance among religions and sects as a means of keeping the peace. This reigning assumption has worked for so long because Lebanese seemed to recognize their desperate plight as a cramped country with no room for genuine liberal and meritocratic institutions. No other option but this flawed and fraudulent but equal power-sharing system seemed conducive to the nation’s survival.
And yet, for all the peace and quiet wrought by this old pact, this dispensation looks to be on its way out. Its harvest has been a “state within a state” that corrupts the rest of the state, and keeps any hope of real prosperity at bay. Meanwhile, the Party of God holds the power to decide the timing of the next confrontation with Israel to be launched from Lebanese territory. (On the heels of the explosion, Nasrallah feigned ignorance, declaring that his knowledge of the Beirut port paled in comparison to his knowledge of the Haifa port.) The younger generation—less religious than its parents, less scarred by memories of civil war—appears to have little use for this system, and is more interested in scrubbing the current sectarian stain from public life.
The magnitude of the explosion at the port summoned memories of the car-bomb that killed the prime minister, Rafic Hariri, in February 2005. Hariri’s murder was the culmination of a series of assassinations of Lebanese politicians and journalists who opposed the Syrian presence in their country. (A long-stalled international tribunal blessed by the UN is due to deliver a verdict later this month in the case of four Hezbollah members, in service of their masters in Damascus, accused of his assassination.) For a time, Syrian forces departed and a portion of Lebanese sovereignty was restored. Before long, however, there was a palpable loss of interest in Lebanon on the part of the United States, and its local prestige waned while Iran’s prestige waxed.
In recent months, the Syrian Baathists have almost entirely subdued the democratic rebellion that broke out in their own land. And without greater interference from the West, it is now for Syria’s holy Hezbollah proxy, and in turn that proxy’s primary patron in Tehran, to decide how pitilessly to repress the next Lebanese revolution.
Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer primarily focused on US foreign and defense policy. You can follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.
Feature image: Damage from the huge blast that devastated Beirut on the detonation of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the city’s port / Alamy Stock Photo.