Will Lebanon Rise From the Ashes?

Foreign Policy, 11.08.2020
Hisham Melhem,  columnista (Alhurra TV channel) y corresponsal (Radio Monte Carlo-Paris)
After decades of living in denial, the country has hit rock bottom—but glimmers of a brighter future are starting to emerge

A picture taken on Aug. 9 shows graffiti on the wall of a bridge overlooking the port of Beirut, the site of the explosion which killed at least 154 people and devastated swathes of the capital. (Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

Bad times have visited Lebanon before, but the Lebanese have never been as tested and humbled as they have been recently. On Tuesday, the Lebanese caught a glimpse of the apocalypse, which came by way of decades of political dysfunction; a diabolical culture of criminal negligence and corruption; and economic plunder of resources and public assets by an entrenched, lawless coalition of feudal political families, former and current warlords, and new oligarchs. This corruption culminated in the explosions that flattened Beirut’s whole port area and caused severe damage within a 5-mile radius. The port’s huge grain silo suffered the brunt of the blasts, leaving part of it standing like an ancient ruin signifying the hulk of a bygone civilization. The dead will be in the hundreds, and the wounded already exceed 6,000. The reverberations from this man-made earthquake will continue to be felt for many years to come.

Lebanon is a remnant of its fading past. By now, the country’s tale of woe, which brought it to this nadir, is well known. The veneer of economic prosperity centered on a glitzy Beirut could not hide the rot that afflicted every facet of life in a country that imports more than 80 percent of its needs and produces very little worthy of foreign currency. Years of economic mismanagement, endemic corruption, overspending, indebtedness, and outright plunder of financial resources by the dominant powers with the complicity of a compromised banking sector led to the collapse of the Lebanese lira, which has lost more than 80 percent of its value since last October. By the time of the Beirut explosions, Lebanon had become a Weimar Republic on the Mediterranean.

Last fall, Lebanese protesters took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations, many of them demanding serious structural change that would sweep the whole ruling class from power. That sentiment was expressed by their catchy rebel yell, “All means all.” For the first time since Lebanon fell into a cycle of wars, invasions, and occupations in the 1970s, many Lebanese dared to hope that a nonsectarian, even progressive movement could arise in the divided country. But the liberal activists who created the early burst of enthusiasm could not create and sustain a political wave capable of challenging the entrenched classes and participate in electoral politics, in part because of the stiff resistance led by the most reactionary force in Lebanon: Hezbollah.

The country that emerged from civil war in 1990 never had a serious chance to redeem itself. There was no Truth and Reconciliation Commission to identify culprits and to console and compensate victims, no attempt at exorcising the demons of the conflict to prevent their return in the future, and not even a hint of introspection. The Lebanese have always excelled at living in denial. If everybody is innocent, then there are no villains.

Since 1975, Lebanon’s two powerful neighbors, Syria and Israel, have invaded the country and even occupied its capital, Beirut; their recurring rampages left an indelible scar on the collective memories of the Lebanese. Foreign armies including those of the United States, France, and other European powers, with contingents from Gulf Arab states, were dispatched to Beirut at one time or another to restore stability. All of them failed. But every army that entered Lebanon, by invasion or invitation, found a Lebanese group or groups showering its soldiers with rice and flowers and pledges of support. Wily Lebanese politicians thought they could exploit the outsiders to serve their parochial goals. The decision by Iran, Syria, and their local allies to exclude Hezbollah from the demobilization that other militias were subjected to after 1990 put Lebanon on the road to perdition.

In subsequent years Hezbollah developed into the most powerful sustained nonstate actor in the world. Its intelligence and financial cells operate in five continents, generating illicit funds through smuggling and money laundering, particularly in Latin America and Africa. Hezbollah fought Israel to a standstill for 33 days in 2006. Israel’s reaction went beyond fighting Hezbollah’s fighters to destroy Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure in a collective punishment designed to force the Lebanese people to rebel against Hezbollah. The militia that Iran helped create, guide, and finance has evolved into a full-fledged Persian satrap in Lebanon, giving the theocratic regime in Tehran influence in the Eastern Mediterranean region (for the first time since the Greco-Persian wars). It became a rapid intervention force that would later support—and in fact save—the despotic regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as well as train pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Yemen. No decision affecting Lebanon’s foreign policy or economy would be made without the consent of Hezbollah, which was allowed to build its own communication infrastructure and local economy.

Hezbollah has now penetrated every official Lebanese institution, including the armed forces and most internal security agencies, and it is entrenched at the Beirut port and airport. Any serious, independent investigation of the port explosions would have to acknowledge Hezbollah’s unfettered access to the port, because the cache of confiscated ammonium nitrate that apparently accidentally leveled the port and large swaths of the capital can be used for commercial and noncommercial explosions. Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s rejection on Friday of any international investigation into the catastrophic port blasts says a lot about the collective mentality of Lebanese officialdom: to deny, to obfuscate, to cover up the truth, to reject responsibility—all of which led to colossal criminal negligence. It is not difficult to see Hezbollah’s influence on the hapless Lebanese state. There can be no salvation for Lebanon, let alone building a civil state and good governance, until Hezbollah’s malignant influence is sharply reduced or totally wiped out.

The Lebanese are still dazed from the immediate impact of their national catastrophe. But there is much evidence, as seen in recent demonstrations, that a rising wave of rage is forming against a criminal political class that built a shaky house of lies, delusions, fears, corruption, and inequities. Against the background of hyperinflation, a worthless currency, hunger, and a lack of basic food and medicine, the anger will be spontaneous and unfocused, as it cannot be translated into meaningful political action by organized opposition groups—which would lead to sporadic violence, rampant criminality, and vengeance. There will be chaos, and, yes, there will be blood.

The Western democracies still interested in helping the Lebanese people should insist on an international, transparent probe into the Beirut blasts. The United States should offer its considerable technical expertise to help the investigation. Beyond providing immediate relief such as food, medical supplies, and temporary shelter to the injured and those made homeless, there should be no economic or financial aid going to any Lebanese official agency, because it will likely be stolen, squandered, or ill-used. In the foreseeable future, international assistance should be provided through local and international nongovernmental organizations. Before the explosions, officials at the International Monetary Fund were frustrated because the custodians of the decomposing political system kept refusing the necessary basic reforms demanded to secure transparency and accountability. The custodians of the system are the brigands living off of its carcass. After the blasts, the IMF should be more insistent on its conditions. One would easily imagine Lebanese politicians rejecting serious reforms if their ill-gotten gains are exposed.

One would hope that Beirut’s latest calamity will be the final impetus for the Lebanese people to begin thinking and acting as one united people. It’s time for them to shake the whole country once again with that rebel yell, “all means all”—and this time to act on it.

If the United States lets France take the lead, the Lebanese people will get more political paralysis, cosmetic reforms, and Hezbollah control of state institutions.

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