The catastrophic explosion in Beirut’s port is a manifestation of the Lebanese political elite’s predation and dysfunction. Among the country’s long-suffering citizens, shock is quickly yielding to fury. It may be the last chance for those in power to effect long-overdue structural reforms.
Massive explosion in capital Beirut fuelled violent anti-govt protests and prompted PM Diab’s govt to resign. In port of Beirut, large stockpile of highly explosive ammonium nitrate – stored, despite repeated warnings, near densely populated area without adequate safety measures – 4 Aug reportedly caught fire and triggered massive explosion that killed at least 190, injured some 7,000 and displaced up to 300,000. Catastrophe and govt negligence sparked popular anger against political elite: thousands 8-9 Aug took to streets of Beirut demanding justice; clashes broke out with security forces killing one police officer and reportedly injuring over 700 civilians and 70 security personnel. PM Diab 10 Aug announced resignation of his govt and blamed disaster in Beirut on corruption of political elite whom he accused of thwarting his reform efforts. Parliament 31 Aug voted diplomat Mustapha Adib as new PM and President Aoun tasked him with forming govt. French President Macron 6 Aug travelled to Beirut and vowed to provide Lebanese people with support but warned that “if reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink”. During emergency donor conference spearheaded by France, international donors 9 Aug pledged some $250mn in humanitarian relief; International Monetary Fund (IMF) director Kristalina Georgieva 9 Aug said IMF was ready to “redouble” efforts to help Lebanon. In north, unidentified gunmen night of 21-22 Aug killed three in Kaftoun village; security forces 23-24 Aug arrested several suspects and attempted to arrest another one who reportedly blew himself up. Shiite religious banners 27 Aug triggered clashes between Shiites and Sunnis killing two in Khaldeh. Special Tribunal for Lebanon 18 Aug convicted in absentia one Hizbollah member and acquitted three others for involvement in assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri in 2005, confirming that no evidence was found implicating Hizbollah’s leadership or the Syrian regime. In south, Hizbollah 22 Aug claimed downing Israeli drone near Aita al-Shaab village; alleged cross-border attack by Hizbollah on Israeli troops night of 25-26 Aug prompted retaliatory airstrikes on Hizbollah posts. Amid surge in COVID-19 cases, caretaker govt 21 Aug imposed two-week partial lockdown and night time curfew.
An uprising of unprecedented scope has rocked Lebanon as the country’s economy tumbles deeper into recession. Poverty and unemployment could lead to violent unrest. Donors should put together an emergency package but condition further aid upon reforms to tackle corruption, a major grievance driving protest.
Most Syrian refugees in Lebanon have thought many times about going home but in the end deemed the risks too great. Donors should increase aid allowing the Lebanese government to continue hosting the Syrians, so that any decision they make to leave is truly voluntary.
Four years after plunging into Syria’s civil war, Hizbollah has achieved its core aim of preserving the Assad regime. Yet with no clear exit strategy, the Lebanese “Party of God” faces ever greater costs unless it can lower the sectarian flames, open dialogue with non-jihadist rebel groups and help pave the way for a negotiated settlement.
The fate of the border town Arsal mirrors Lebanon’s many policy failures. The government applies heavy-handed security at the expense of basic services and fair economic opportunities. It should change its policies to become more flexible, accountable and supportive of Syrian refugees – and receive more international help in return.
Lebanon is surviving internal and regional strains remarkably well, but this resilience has become an excuse for tolerating political dysfunction. If the Lebanese political class does not take immediate steps like holding long-overdue elections, fighting corruption and promoting the rule of law, its complacency will only make an eventual fall harder and costlier.
Hizbollah’s intervention in Syria strengthens the Assad regime but transforms the Shiite movement as it redefines the enemy and itself within the confines of an increasingly sectarian struggle.
Turkey is also one of the candidates to rebuild Beirut harbour. There is also a section within Lebanese society – amongst Sunni Muslims – who have some sympathy for Turkey’s neo-Ottoman project.
The Lebanese state has been hollowed out by decades of corruption and patronage, and this has undermined due process and any sense of accountability.
[The Trump administration] is content allowing Israel to take the lead in pushing back against Iranian and Hezbollah influence in Syria.
The real risk [for Israel and Lebanon] is that of a miscommunication or accident being a trigger of a conflict across their border.
[The return of Assad’s forces to the border] has the potential of creating a more united front of resistance between Lebanon and Syria against Israel.
Hezbollah thrives on its position of being a state within a state, an alternative provider for all kinds of things [when Lebanon's political institutions are weakened].
The accumulation of crises is driving ever greater numbers of Lebanese into absolute poverty. While the COVID-19 lockdown is gradually easing, the loss of jobs and purchasing power triggered new protests that are turning violent and may prefigure the disintegration of state capacity and institutions.
A new wave of popular protests has jolted an already deeply unsettled Arab world. Nine years ago, uprisings across the region signalled a rejection of corrupt autocratic rule that failed to deliver jobs, basic services and reliable infrastructure. Yet regime repression and the protests’ lack of organisation, leadership and unified vision thwarted hopes of a new order. As suddenly as the uprisings erupted, as quickly they descended into violence. What followed was either brutal civil war or regime retrenchment. Tunisia stands as the sole, still fragile, exception.
Originally published in Valdai Club
Austerity measures have triggered countrywide unrest in Lebanon. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Heiko Wimmen says the prime minister’s emergency measures may be too little, too late. Most protesters appear bent on the government’s resignation if not the political system‘s complete overhaul.
After 13 years of maintaining the status quo, Israel and Hezbollah are now negotiating new rules of engagement.
Originally published in Middle East Eye
The Israel-Lebanon border has been relatively quiet for the past 13 years. The latest tit-for-tat threatens the balance.
Originally published in The American Prospect