The catastrophic explosion in the port of Beirut last week was the last straw in a chain of disaster and misfortune that has beset state and society in Lebanon for years. It is the product of chronic corruption, government ineptitude and all-pervasive self-serving sectarian calculations that obstruct all notions of good governance and political reform.
It epitomised everything that has long stood in the way of the realisation of the hopes and aspirations of Lebanese youth who cherish new values, different from those of the generations who lived through the decades of civil war and strife that laid the groundwork for the country’s sectarian based power sharing arrangements.
The Lebanese catastrophe is threefold. It is a catastrophe of a near failed state with government institutions incapable of performing their designated functions in the service of the people. It is a catastrophe of a longstanding playground for foreign intervention and power games that have kept state and society in chains and bereft of independent will. It is a catastrophe of an economy in tatters, crippling debt and a national currency on the verge of collapse.
According to reports from some reliable think tanks, Hizbullah is at the root of this situation. In near control of the government and its arsenals, Hizbullah poses a greater threat to the survival of the state than ever before.
Lebanon needs at the very least $93 billion to pull itself out of the current crisis. A meeting of donor nations to coordinate urgent measures to resuscitate the Lebanese economy and to devise concepts for how to fund the reconstruction of the half-decimated capital city is probably a good step. However, its chances of success are uncertain given the continued refusal of the class of political elites allied in power to respond to the popular demand for a new system of government that transcends confessional quotas and lays the foundations for a modern civil state.
Such a state would threaten sectarian chieftains and all the vested interests in the quota system. It would jeopardise the Iranian-funded Hizbullah which has served Tehran’s interests in the Levant after Iran took advantage of the tumult of the Arab Spring to expand its influence westward in the Arab world, which it would never have dared to do if the Arab order had been strong and cohesive.
Hizbullah has turned Lebanon into a storehouse for Iranian arms. It has turned Lebanese seaports and airports into hubs for smuggling and logistical service stations for Iranian intelligence agencies. It has turned Lebanese banks into money laundering facilities. It has the country so much under its thumb that no party can confront Hizbullah without risk of assassination, as has happened to many who resisted Lebanon’s transformation into a pawn of the Iranian project. The Lebanese polity has been abducted.
To make matters worse, the current situation has encouraged Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan to emulate Iran, using the Sunnis for its expansionist designs. France has also stepped into the scene, approaching it via allies in Lebanon in the hope of gaining the initiative and neutralising other foreign powers.
What is unfolding in Lebanon now will have major repercussions on the power balances and patterns of influence and interests throughout the Levant. The meddling powers know that to lose the battle in Lebanon is to risk losing influence in other Middle Eastern countries. This is why the processes of managing the crisis and producing solutions are so difficult. The only hopeful avenue is to empower the country’s youth, to enable them to build a modern civil state that rejects all forms of sectarianism and advances the values of merit and professionalism.
World powers that claim to champion human rights and freedoms have a moral responsibility to promote constructive change in Lebanon so that its wealth of educated, talented and enlightened people can attain their full potential. The country of culture, arts and ideas must not be allowed to sink beneath the ruins of fires chalked up to “persons unknown”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly