Does the resignation of the Lebanese government truly signal a brighter future?
BY: Dima Kiwan
We all saw the videos of the catastrophic explosion that rocked Lebanon’s capital of Beirut last Tuesday. As the world watched that massive red cloud rise, time nearly froze. Over a week later, the devastating aftermath and disastrous state of the country has shocked Lebanon and the global community back to consciousness.
What’s going on in Lebanon right now?
On August 10th, amid raging protests across the capital, Lebanese President Michel Aoun accepted the resignation of the Lebanese government, asking the ministers to maintain a “caretaking” role until a new cabinet is formed. In his televised statement, Prime Minister Hassan Diab blamed the explosion, which killed nearly 170 people and injured over 6000 others, on corruption “bigger than the state.” He proclaimed his supposed solidarity with the Lebanese people and their fight for change, envisioning a transition “from a corrupt destructive state, a state of brokerages and theft, to a state of law and justice and transparency, to a state that respects its people.”
However, for the majority of Lebanese people, these sentiments are shallow and ironic, as Diab’s government and especially their allies embody the very corruption, brokerage, and theft of which he speaks.
The explosion was caused by thousands of tons of extremely dangerous ammonium nitrate stored at the capital’s port for over six years, despite numerous warnings from workers urging the government to act. In this sense, the disaster that exacerbated Lebanon’s already dire political and economic state was due to criminal negligence. Considering this negligence resulted in billions worth of damage and nearly 300,000 people left homeless, the fury of Beirut protestors is warranted.
As they clash with aggressive security forces, these anti-establishment protests have turned very violent, injuring hundreds more mourning and angry demonstrators. It should be noted that in an investigation analyzing first-hand media sources and medical evidence, Al-Jazeera concluded that security forces are using excessive force against Beirut protesters, violating international standards. As many revolutionaries experience similar issues with police forces in various countries, whether it be in the United States or Belarus, Lebanon’s struggles are finally resonating deeply across the globe.
What does this mean for the future of Lebanon?
As for the practical significance of this move by the government, it is a very small step in the right direction. Of course, protests in Lebanon did not begin after the explosion – mass demonstrators have been out in the streets since October, demanding an end to the mismanagement, corruption, and neglect of the country’s sectarian “leadership.” However, for many, this resignation is much more of a beginning than it is an end. The oligarchy in Lebanon has been in power for decades, leaving very few trustworthy replacement candidates not tied up in the complicated web of Middle Eastern politics. In other words, everything is connected, and that is the problem. A new day for Lebanon, if even possible, will be an uphill battle in the very least.
While this may seem to be a highly pessimistic view, understanding the structure of Lebanese politics clarifies the challenges ahead. Here are the three key factors influencing the future of Lebanon at this moment in time:
1. Hezbollah’s Puppet Show
If there is one thing to understand about Lebanese politics, it is that there is currently absolutely no legitimate democracy. In fact, it would be reasonable to claim that the ruling hierarchy is essentially a puppet show run by Iran-backed Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim militia and political party, and its allies.
Most of the actions of the Lebanese government are largely believed to be the will of this political elite, including executive appointments and changes to the electoral and parliamentary systems. Hezbollah, which is designated a terrorist group by the United States and the Arab League, is often referred to as “a state within a state” due to its extensive social, political, economic, and criminal networks that operate substantially both in the region and worldwide.
So, why does Hezbollah have so much absolute power to begin with? The short answer: weapons. Since the end of the Lebanese Civil War, this militia has benefited from a ridiculously large variety of weapons regularly used to threaten and coerce both people and entire nations into maintaining their preferred status quo. With considerable funds from Iran and by actively stealing from the Lebanese people, the group continues to grow its stash and networks, solidifying its power. Due to this notorious reputation, many suspect that Hezbollah was using the ammonium nitrate stored in unusually extreme amounts at the Beirut port, as this chemical is often used for, you guessed it, bombs.
Effective democracy cannot thrive in this type of environment. Since it is up to the elite to decide who will fill executive positions in the country, the government itself is essentially powerless. Even if the ministers and officials wanted to end corruption and serve the people instead of stealing from them, the elite would block their efforts. For instance, earlier this year, establishment politicians and bankers killed the government’s IMF-supported economic program, likely because it dug into Lebanese banking profits from which this elite often stole.
In the end, the government’s resignation does not matter at all if the elite remains in power. Now, the system in place calls for the President to consult with Parliament and decide on the best-supported candidate for the next Prime Minister; however, this is all part of the same puppet show. The same people will decide on the next puppets, and without real change, the ones after that. Perhaps, electrical employee Antoinette Baaklini said it best: “It’s a mafia.”
1. Religious sectarianism
Additionally, it is important to understand that tensions in the Middle East are largely fueled by ancient conflicts between different ethnic and religious sects. This reality becomes even more complicated in Lebanon, which is notoriously diverse in terms of religion. Due to this diversity, the country’s political structure often prioritizes “national unity” over coherent, competent, and efficient leadership that gains the trust of both the global community and the Lebanese people.
As the Director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, Maria Yanya explains that the root of Lebanon’s problems is this focus on balancing power between rival groups rather than ensuring proper governance.
1. International pressure
Finally, now is a unique opportunity for the international community to truly invoke change by interfering, and as is true with most problems, money is the answer. Of course, Lebanon is currently facing what is arguably the worst economic crisis of its time – a crisis significantly worsened by both the explosion and the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to this state, French President Macron hosted an international donors’ conference on Monday, where various countries pledged a total of nearly $300 million in humanitarian aid to Lebanon, yet there is a very important catch – the serious economic and political reforms demanded by the people must be implemented.
This condition puts Lebanon’s corrupt political elite in a very difficult situation. As the Lebanese currency has lost approximately 80% of its value since October, the oligarchy relies on international funds. Since Iran is currently suffering a crisis of its own due to plummeting oil prices, the money pledged at Macron’s conference is extremely powerful. Unsurprisingly, the Iranian foreign ministry responded by urging countries to lift sanctions on Lebanon and not to “politicize” the explosion. Of course, it would be awfully convenient for Iran if the world ignored the Lebanese people’s outrage and continued funding the luxurious lives of the elite. Fortunately, international leaders are aware of this fact, only providing aid directly to the people and withholding funds to the government.
In this respect, there is indeed hope. With continued aggressive international pressure, the fair election of clean, competent, and efficient leaders will be inextricably tied to the pledged funding and IMF economic deal that Lebanon desperately needs.
In addition to dismantling the elite by cutting off their funds, the international community also plays an integral role in ensuring a credible investigation into the explosion. On Monday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres committed to this mission – if Hezbollah and/or their allies had any responsibility in what happened August 4th, they will face consequences. Until the Lebanese people see the real change they deserve, rebuilding efforts and undying protests continue in full force in Beirut, as local volunteers and international organizations fill the leadership roles vacant for too long.
https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/08/lebanon-pm-hassan-diab-resigns-anger-beirut-blast-20 0810135202076.html https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/lebanon-explosion-aftermath-monday-1.5680392
https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/10/middleeast/lebanon-government-future-intl/index.html https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/11/world/middleeast/lebanon-government-resigns-explainer.h tml
*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.
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