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Lebanon Between Two Fires: Political Suicide or Giving Enough Time to Civil Society?

blast lebanon
Lebanese protesters clash with security forces in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020, following a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion. Photo: JOSEPH EID / AFP

The blast that ripped through the port of Beirut on August 4th, 2020 devastated Lebanon’s capital, killing more than 170 people, injuring at least 6000 and displacing more than 300,000 from their homes.

For many Lebanese, the massive explosion was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The country was already suffering from a dire economic crisis that has plummeted the value of the Lebanese lira, leading to staggering poverty, food shortages and job cuts. According to the World Bank’s figures, almost 50% of the population was living under the poverty line in April 2020 and more than 20% were living in extreme poverty.

Now enter the blast, which was caused by seven years of political and institu-tional corruption and negligence. Lebanese security officials even warned Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun in July 2020 that 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate was stored in a warehouse on the port of Beirut, presenting a hazard that could destroy the densely populated city of 2 million inhabitants. And in a televised address on August 10, Diab admitted that a level of corruption “bigger than the state” precipitated the events that led to the blast.

Hassan Diab’s cabinet has since resigned, yet Lebanese citizens and critics don’t believe that his exit will change the way the country is governed. For now, Diab’s cabinet remains in a caretaker role until a new government is appointed. However, the cabinet has no power to propose laws or issue decrees. Amidst the financial crisis, political paralysis is more worrying than ever. French and US officials who visited Beirut following the blast stated that their respective countries would not extend a financial lifeline to Lebanon unless the political class adopts structural reforms.

Nevertheless, the country could still receive $ 298 million in emergency aid. Yet Lebanon may need more than $30 billion — a sum conditioned on deep structural reforms by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — to rebuild its collapsed economy.

But under the current circumstances, structural reforms are unlikely. Analysts suspect that President Michel Aoun may attempt to bypass legislative elec-tions and appoint a new government in consultation with Parliament. That move could trigger popular unrest in the capital, considering thousands of people have literally nothing to lose after the blast.

The political class is also divided over whether to hold early elections. These divisions reflect the fault lines that date back to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country in 2005.

Since then, two political alliances have dominated the country’s political affairs. The first alliance includes Shia movements Amal and Hezbollah and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement. This coalition is known as 8 March and has friendly relations with Iran and the Syrian regime. Then there is the pro-western 14 March alliance, which includes the Sunni leader  Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement, the Christian Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb party and the Progressive Socialist Party led by Walid Joumblatt. The former is against holding early elections and are instead calling for the establishment of a national unity government, which includes Lebanon’s main traditional parties.

However, the Lebanese Forces have called for a shortening of the parliament’s four-year mandate in order to prepare for early elections. They are also calling for the formation of a neutral government and are against a national unity cabinet. Walid Joumblatt also supports a “government of neutrality” while the head of the Kataeb party, Samy Gemayel, called for early elections.

Accused by the protesters of protecting a corrupt establishment, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah called a “neutral government” a “waste of time.” Hezbollah’s leader equates “neutrality” with an alignment on Western positions. Nasrallah also warned of a greater threat of political forces trying to “topple the state and push Lebanon to the brink of civil war to serve personal and foreign interests.”

For many years, Hezbollah was perceived as above corruption and praised by large segments of society as a heroic force that liberated south Lebanon from Israeli occupation in 2000. This sanctity started to erode with the direct intervention of the movement in Syria – officially in 2013 – in support of Bashar al-Assad. It deteriorated further – including among its Shia basis – as the crisis deepened. For protesters, Hezbollah had become part of the establishment. Nonetheless, the group remains today the most powerful one in the Lebanese political arena, although it is financially affected by the US sanctions against Iran.

“I don’t think Hezbollah is weakened but it is aware that its local and regional allies are”, Karim Emile Bitar, director of the Institute of Political Science at Saint Joseph University (USJ), told Fanack. “Its main Christian ally has lost a lot of support in the last two years. And the Amal movement has been accused for a long time – but especially in the past year – of corruption. Regionally, Iran and Syria are also struggling today with many internal problems.”

Following the resignation of Diab’s government, a few names of possible replacements emerged. They include former Prime minister Saad Hariri, Nawaf Salam, a diplomat and judge and Mohammed Baasiri, former vice-governor of the Central Bank. For Hezbollah and Amal, Hariri appears as the best choice while Salam and Baasiri are no possible options since they are perceived as being too close to the US.

“Before the nomination of Hassan Diab, Hezbollah’s first choice was Hariri,” Joseph Bahout, director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American Univer-sity of Beirut (AUB), told Fanack. “They haven’t changed. But what they really don’t want, it is a neutral government. They are not scared of inde-pendence but rather of a government that would be largely held by pro-Western forces.”

Many voices stemming from the protest movement have also expressed fear over Parliamentary polls taking place without any change to an electoral law, which they believe is designed to protect the corrupt traditional establish-ment due to predetermined sectarian quotas within strict geographical lines.

But civil society has, for now, failed at creating a united front that represents the demands of the protesters. And in the current circumstances, Bahout argues that it would be nearly impossible for civil activists to compete with the old guard if the next election is held too soon.

“The request for early elections is political suicide,” he told Fanack. “Elections need to be prepared, but with a long transitional period that would leave time for civil society to organize.”

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