Tough times for Hezbollah? Beirut explosion deepens opposition to government in Lebanon

Bassem Aly , Thursday 6 Aug 2020

Gross negligence appears, so far, the main factor behind Tuesday’s Beirut explosion. But this won’t lessen the pressure on Hezbollah, which dominates the government

A soldier walks at the devastated site of the explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday Aug.6, 2020. (Photo: AP)

It will always be remembered as one of the world’s most shocking moments in its recent history. The blast in Beirut’s port on Tuesday was compared by the city governor to those that decimated Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II in 1945. People in Limassol, Cyprus, 240 kilometres away from Lebanon, felt the blast as if it was an earthquake.

The explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, according to Lebanon's President Michel Aoun, stored in the port caused destruction that official estimates suggest might amount to $15 billion. Some 300,000 Lebanese citizens are currently homeless, and the nation was left with less than a month in reserves of grain. Some 140 people are dead, with 5,000 others injured, and rescue groups are looking for those missing. Many foreign governments and international organisations have offered help.

Debates on who is to blame for the explosion quickly started the morning after in Lebanon, in a nation already experiencing endless political, social and economic hurdles. An investigation began in parallel with the Hezbollah-backed government’s decision to put port officials under house arrest and impose a state of emergency that the army will implement for two weeks.

Yet, by no means will this move bring Hassan Diab’s Hezbollah-backed government any relief. The public is clearly holding it accountable for leaving explosive materials in the port.

“This investigation has been already rigged and politicised by placing potential suspects among the investigation committee. The public has no confidence in this state of warlords, nor its investigation. What is needed is an independent international UN-sponsored investigation body with executive powers, similar to those formed in failed states, to bring responsible persons to trial regardless of their confessional affiliations, political connections, or foreign backing,” Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, told Ahram Online.

Ahead of Tuesday’s tragedy, Lebanon had serious problems in terms of its political future. Saad Al-Hariri, a Sunni leader who enjoys good relations with Western and Arab states, resigned as premier in October 2019 amid protests over worsening economic conditions, refusing to lead a new coalition after failing to finalise a deal with Hezbollah. These developments were taking place at a time when protesters were calling for the “fall of the regime” and chanting “All of them means all of them," referring to all political forces.

In December 2019, Diab was nominated by the Shia Hezbollah movement and Aoun, an ally of the Iran-backed, armed group, to be the next prime minister. One month later, he formed a coalition that only includes Hezbollah’s allies (even the coalition deal was hindered by disagreements among pro-Hezbollah forces over dividing cabinet portfolios). Al-Hariri's Future Movement, the strongly anti-Hezbollah Christian Lebanese Forces Party and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party are not represented in government.

Since then, Lebanon has seen regular demonstrations against tough economic conditions, with some of them involving clashes with security forces. The Lebanese pound has lost about 60 percent of its value against the dollar and the country has a debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 150 percent. Thousands of business owners are suffering in the import-based economy and more than a third of the population of six million is jobless. A garbage crisis, continuous power cuts, and increases in the prices of basic goods such as bread are also present.

Adding coronavirus and an explosion to the list, the country could not have tolerated a ruling by the UN-backed court on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri, Saad’s father, which was expected 7 August. It was postponed to 18 August in “solidarity with the Lebanese people in these difficult times.” Four Hezbollah members are involved in this case.

Sarah El-Richani, assistant professor of mass communications at the American University in Cairo, said it appeared that the current cabinet was on its way out before this week’s calamity. Although believing that putting port officials under house arrest is good in principle, El-Richani argued that it all depends on how the “street responds after the dust settles.”

“It’s difficult to speculate how things would unfold, but it would largely depend on the reaction of the street and international pressure, as in addition to this disaster, Lebanon is on the brink of economic collapse and the release of the verdict in the assassination of former premier Rafik Al-Hariri. It would be easy to do away with the cabinet to calm the protesters,” said El-Richani.

So far, few fingers have pointed to external factors, though Hezbollah is certainly not on good terms with a number of regional actors, including Israel. Earlier on the same day as the explosion, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned that Israel would “do what is necessary to defend" itself following an infiltration bid into Israel from Syria by suspected militants. Israel recently killed a Hezbollah militant in Syria through an aerial campaign, fearing a response from Hezbollah — a force it fought against in 2006.

After the airstrike, Israel saw tension on its northern borders with Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, with both Hezbollah and Syrian regime troops respectively.

“Thus far, most suspicions have pointed to public negligence and corrupt practices, with Israel, Hezbollah, and the Lebanese army denying external acts. Regardless, the acknowledgement by the Lebanese government of storing such hazardous and explosive materials in a public arena is by itself a public crime that begs international condemnation and sanctions,” Salamey said.

For El-Richani, it is still unclear what caused this horrific blast. She noted that “some witnesses claim they heard fighter jets”, but believed it “is best to await the investigation.” "For now, all evidence points to gross mismanagement and criminal negligence perpetrated by a corrupt political class.”

Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s control over government, the presidency and parliament — as parliament speaker Nabih Berri is a close ally of Hezbollah — makes some unhappy, including the Americans and the Emiratis, though both offered support after the explosion.

Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said in June that Lebanon’s “economic meltdown is very worrying”, but stated that “Lebanon is partly paying the price” of “a deterioration of Lebanon’s Arab relations and Gulf relations over the past 10 years.”

During the same month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington will support Lebanon if it conducted reforms and operated in a manner that is not “beholden to” Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah will deliver a speech on Friday.

Both domestic and international reactions are certainly expected after hearing his post-explosion address. 

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