To argue that Lebanon is heading toward a perfect storm would be a gross understatement, as it is already engulfed in one that is blowing from all directions. This small country on the coast of the Mediterranean is constantly experiencing political discord and dysfunctional government. On the verge of economic collapse, it is suffering from chronic corruption and is divided along religious and ethnic lines. To further complicate things, private sectarian militias are more powerful than the government’s security forces. One of them, the Tehran-sponsored Hezbollah, is participating in the elective political process and in government while at the same time behaving as if it was a sovereign entity within the country, not to mention its near-decade of involvement in a civil war in one country, Syria, and being on the verge of a conflict with another, Israel.
Although Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943, its sovereignty has been repeatedly violated with the different factions in society “enjoying” the support of external forces that have contributed to the divisions and the prolonged and intensified domestic conflict and discord. Under these conditions, any semblance of state functionality is miraculous. Yet, the tragic explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate on August 4, that obliterated the port of Beirut and left more than 200 dead, 6,000 injured and 300,000 homeless, might prove to be the last straw for the people of Lebanon, who have taken to the streets to demand radical changes in the way the country is governed.
There is something about the lethal explosion that has encapsulated the appalling way the country is governed and has also triggered the anger expressed by so many of its citizens. An investigation into the cause of the enormous blast is already on its way. Not surprisingly, it involves international forensic experts, not only because their expertise is vital, but also because few would trust an internal investigation of the chain of events that led to this disaster. Considering the magnitude of the disaster, the geo-political importance of the country, and the impact of the explosion on foreign nationals residing in Lebanon, there is almost unprecedented international interest in exactly what happened and what circumstances led to it.
The event cannot be examined in a vacuum, since it took place amid a political-economic crisis that has been manifesting since last October. Thousands of people took to the streets to protest against worsening economic conditions, widespread corruption, and the clumsy new taxes imposed by the government that has particularly enraged the young generation. As a consequence of the mass protests, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in October 2019. The Lebanese currency has depreciated by 50 percent since the beginning of 2020.
The international community’s interest in the Beirut port disaster goes beyond the painful humanitarian element. There are widespread fears that this geopolitically important country might descend into another civil war if a thorough investigation into this disaster is not conducted. While the economic crisis and government corruption together constitute a powerful reason for the malaise within Lebanese society, the root causes go much deeper, to the very structure of Lebanon’s society and political system, which is characterized by patronage unsuited to the 21st century. An evident manifestation of the protests’ reformist nature is that the participants come from a cross-section of Lebanese society that is fed-up with sectarianism and the confessional system. This might spell unrest and even some level of violence in the short term. Still, in the long run, it signals the potential for the emergence of a Lebanese identity that might displace the outdated divisions along religious and ethnic lines.
It is reasonable to expect that the negligence, widely considered a crucial element of the Beirut port catastrophe, will serve as a game-changer and an accelerator of already existing developments, to which the international community, and hopefully its more responsible members, are going to contribute. In the aftermath of the explosion, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres convened a high-level meeting. He set the tone of contextualizing what happened in Beirut as not only affecting the city and the many who have lost their loved ones or become homeless, or even the country, but as an event whose shock waves are being felt across the Mediterranean, “the economic, social, and other reverberations,” which will continue for some time.
In what can be seen as an unusual though fully justified direct intervention in the member-state’s affairs, Guterres called the anger of the Lebanese people “palpable.” He insisted that their voices be heard as part of a credible and transparent investigation aimed at establishing the precise cause of the explosion and that those people or organizations responsible for it be held to account.
The disastrous negligence shown by the Lebanese authorities has led to international leaders distancing themselves from the country’s political leadership. They emphasized that all countries must go beyond showing solidarity with the people or providing humanitarian aid and reconstructing the parts of the city devastated in the nuclear-like blast, and set themselves the goal of helping to bring radical and long-term reforms to the country. The call for the truth to be unearthed and for justice to be done also means a full interrogation and exposure of the political and social structures that have produced a recent history of chronic instability and incompetence.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, a host of donor nations, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, convened in a virtual conference and pledged €253 million ($298 million) in humanitarian assistance. This was a generous measure though still a drop in the ocean of the estimated $15 billion damage caused to the city. He insisted that this financial aid be delivered directly to the Lebanese population and linked it to an “impartial, credible and independent inquiry” into the disaster.
Moreover, echoing Secretary-General Guterres’ remarks, President Macron maintained that while funds will be made available to provide healthcare, food security, education and housing, for the international community to operate effectively in assisting Lebanon in the reconstruction efforts, the Lebanese authorities must implement, without delay, political and economic reforms in line with the demands of the Lebanese people. One of the tragic ironies of this demand by the French president is that it leaves a strong sense of déjà vu. France has led four donor conferences over the last two decades, leading to more than $20 billion in pledges accompanied by similar conditions that have never been met.
However, the magnitude of the ineptitude shown by the Lebanese authorities on this occasion might shake the international community enough to ensure they take a more proactive and assertive role and insist on radical reforms instead of feeding division and sectarianism by simply throwing money at the problem.
On the face of it, some reactions to the shocking news from Beirut amount to intervention in Lebanon’s sovereignty, although it could be argued that this is long overdue. In terms of foreign aid, it is not unusual to make funds conditional on the implementation of structural reforms. Lebanon’s dysfunctional and outdated system of government harbors an intrinsic resistance to such reforms. The international community has been treading extremely carefully in dealing with these, either because of its vested interests or because it was afraid that considering the troubled history of the country, things could at any given moment implode with horrendous implications not only for Lebanon but also for neighboring countries and those beyond.
For a brief moment in 1989, when the Taif agreement was ratified to end the long Lebanese civil war and pave the way for reforms to the political system, there was a glimmer of hope of historical change. Unfortunately, it has never materialized. However, currently, there is a triangle closely connected developments that may make the Lebanese leadership and the political elite more likely, even if reluctantly, to accede to reforms as a condition of aid.
First, Beirut’s explosion also shocked Lebanon’s ruling elite, exposing it for what it is. Second, the disaster came on top of already widespread anger at the cancerous corruption and incompetence that has become the norm among the Lebanese ruling class. According to Transparency International, which defines corruption as: “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain,” Lebanon is very much at the wrong end of the league table of perceptions of countries as corrupt, standing at 137 out of 180, and even more worryingly, has slipped down this index from the 46th position in just 14 years. And third, the unacceptably high rate of the spread of coronavirus in the country has also revealed the lack of investment in its healthcare system and the shortcomings of its leadership in times of crisis.
On September 1, 2019, Lebanon began celebrating the centenary of colonial France’s carving Greater Lebanon out of Syria in 1920. It was hardly a celebration; nevertheless, in a rather unnerving act of farcical desperation and exasperation at the political, social, and economic configuration of the country, nearly 60,000 people have now signed a petition calling for Lebanon to be once again placed under a French mandate, claiming that the explosion in Beirut’s port should be the last nail in the coffin of Lebanon’s leaders, who have demonstrated their utter inability to secure and manage the country.
There are few takers in Paris or the Elysée Palace for this idea. But it resonates with the prevailing feeling internationally that Lebanon will remain both unstable and a source of instability without proactive involvement from the outside. Though it is not in a form like that of Syria’s oppressive control of the country until 2005, nor the deadly havoc caused by the ill-conceived 1982 Israeli invasion of the country, which took nearly 18 years to undo, nor by foreign powers siding with one faction or another in Lebanese society and politics to merely reinforce sectarianism, discord and even armed conflict.
It also remains to be seen how the publication, a fortnight after the deadly blast in Beirut, of the verdict of a UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), whose primary mandate was to hold trials for the people accused of the February 14, 2005 attack, which killed 22 people, including the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, and injured many others, is going to play in Lebanese domestic politics. The report’s findings will directly affect Lebanon’s trust in the international community’s role in its affairs.
No one should doubt the integrity and the rigor of the tribunal’s investigation, but the high standard of establishing guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which ended in the tribunal finding no direct link to the Hezbollah leadership or Syria in Hariri’s killing, left many doubtful about the ability of the international bodies to bring justice to the families of the victims and Lebanon more generally. It is especially staggering considering that the only person convicted in this trial was Salim Ayyash, a well-connected, mid-level Hezbollah operative. Who would believe that such a complex terrorist operation was carried out not only without the consent of the higher echelons of the Syrian and Hezbollah leadership but without their active involvement and guidance?
The international community’s pledge of hundreds of millions of dollars for immediate humanitarian relief caused by the destruction wreaked on Lebanon’s capital, on the condition that reforms are enacted, is a first step in the right direction. However, it is also for the international community to accept that it must share responsibility for the sorry political, economic, and social state of Lebanon. On their own, funds will never heal Lebanon’s ills as long as there is no good governance and accountability. They will only make the situation worse if they feed more corruption. With a national debt greater than 170 percent of its GDP, and a ruined economy that reflects its social-political sectarianism, the road to collapse and becoming a failed state is a rather short one.
Lebanon’s geo-politics, and its entrepreneurial skills and resourcefulness, combined with a very successful global diaspora, mean it has unlimited potential to return to its heydays of prosperity and relative calm. However, it can only achieve this if it rids itself of sectarian power-sharing. Instead, it elects and selects people based on possessing the right qualities for the role while rejecting divisive foreign interventions such as Iran.
A crisis of this magnitude presents not only danger but also an opportunity, and one can hardly think of a more acute problem than that which Lebanese society is going through in the aftermath of the Beirut port disaster. The country can emerge from this strengthened if a partnership is developed to put the national interest above vested interests and, in collaboration with the international community, build a new covenant that serves all its citizens and a political system that is transparent, accountable, and free of corruption.