It will take Beirut quite a few more weeks to come to terms with the explosions that hit the Mediterranean city over a week ago. The bodies of the dead, the pain of the wounded, and the agony of those who do not know the fate of their loved ones or who have lost their shelter cannot be easily digested.
It is hard to exaggerate the anger of the Lebanese people over the explosion that hit the port in Beirut last Tuesday afternoon and ended up erasing part of one of the Arab world’s most beautiful capitals.
Despite the resignation of a government that had taken office just a few months before in response to demands for economic and political reforms by nationwide demonstrations since 17 October last year, the new protests that started on 8 August in the wake of the explosion are demanding an end to the rule of a political elite that has taken hold of Lebanon since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1989.
“Our city is gone, our pain is deep, and our anger at the corrupt political leaders, all of them without exception,” is great, said Sahar, a Lebanese woman in her late 30s.
Today, Sahar added, “it is just like what it has been since the beginning of the 17 October protests. It is about all the Lebanese and their wish to get rid of all the political leadership without exception. We mean it, even if they cannot understand it.”
The chant of “all means all” that was championed at the protests of 17 October forced the fall of lines that had marked out Lebanese society’s three main groups: the Shias, the Sunnis, and the Christians.
The protests, like those of the past few days, saw none of the long-dominant divisions that had been observed in the Taif Accord, the Saudi-sponsored political pact signed in 1989 allowing for the division of power among the leaders of the three main religious groups in the country.
It was clear for the many Lebanese who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly from Beirut that the days of the Taif Accord are over and that an agreement that was once the only exit for this troubled country has now evolved into being a main cause of its misery. The leaders of the three blocs have been accommodating one another in what would serve their interests and not those of the nation as a whole, they said.
According to Beirut-based foreign diplomatic sources who spoke from the Lebanese capital, a post-Taif moment seems to be in place, and this was clear from the talks that French President Emmanuel Macron had with political leaders when he visited Lebanon last Thursday, just two days after the blast.
In the chats that the French leader had with Lebanese men and women as he walked through the streets of Beirut and in the tense meetings he had with Lebanese leaders, sources said, Macron had conveyed the firm message that the political leaders of the three Lebanese blocs have failed every possible test and that other countries with an interest in the stability of Lebanon can no longer turn a blind eye to their ineptitude and corruption.
“There are many questions about the future of Lebanon, and one of them is whether the political tycoons will bow to the demand for a new political lease of life for Lebanon. Then there are the questions of who the powers that could help the Lebanese at this time of trouble are and how any new pact could be compatible with the aspirations of the Lebanese people as demonstrated during the past few months and with the political realities of Lebanon and the region,” commented Ashraf Hamdi, a former Egyptian ambassador to Lebanon.
“If we are talking about a new pact for Lebanon, then we are not just talking about a new Taif, so to speak, but possibly also about a new constitution,” he added.
France today, despite the keen support Macron has demonstrated throughout his years at the Elysée Palace in Paris, is not necessarily as able to play the same role it has done in the past in Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia has been overwhelmed by its involvement in Yemen and Iraq, and much the same is true of Iran. The Saudis are deeply involved in a set of internal issues said by some Riyadh-based foreign diplomats to include the upcoming question of succession at the top of the power structure.
Iran is consumed in squabbles with the US over its nuclear programme, the economy, and regional influence.
Beyond the internal and external factors that could help clarify the situation in Lebanon, the Beirut blast will also have an impact on several regional players.
Syria, Hamdi argued, could be influenced in many ways by the devastating explosions that hit the Lebanese capital. “Syria could offer a nearby alternative port while the Beirut port is being reconstructed,” he said.
The port of Beirut is vital to the trade of Lebanon and nearby countries. It is not clear when it could be back in service, but most estimates have not suggested any time earlier than the second half of next year.
Turkey has already offered to substitute one of its ports for the destroyed port of Beirut. However, this might not be to the liking either of all Lebanese forces or to some key regional and international players committed to helping Lebanon find a path out of the tragedy.
The question of Syria, according to Middle East-based European diplomats, is difficult, because Syria is an ally of the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah, with other Lebanese factions being frustrated at the choices made by Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.
“There are many voices, including from Shia groups in Lebanon, calling for an end to Nasrallah’s impunity, but the region is not a place where such established facts can be changed overnight,” said one European diplomat.
What was worthy of attention, he added, was not whether Syria would provide Lebanon with an alternative temporary port, but rather what this heart-breaking tragedy would do to Syrian refugees in Lebanon already faced with dire economic conditions.
The Lebanese economy has suffered tremendously during the past few months as a result of political squabbling and divisions between the people and the political elite.
“I think it is important to think of Jordan, a nearby country that cannot escape the tremors of whatever Lebanon will have to go through and also a host state for a large number of Syrian refugees,” the diplomat said.
According to foreign diplomats who spoke in Cairo and Beirut, the blast that hit the Lebanese capital last week had produced a tense situation across Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, already suffering subdued socio-economic unease, as well as Iraq that like Lebanon has seen demands for an end to the control of a failed elite, this time put in place by the US-led war on Iraq in 2003.
According to Hamdi, however, Iraq is a country that can find a way “to re-embrace its Arab role through reaching out to Lebanon with assistance, as has been announced by the Iraqi authorities. I think that if we try to see a bit of light underneath the rubble, the Iraqi commitment to reach out to Lebanon is certainly part of it,” he said.
Hamdi argued that the tragedy of Lebanon could also see the revival of effective Arab diplomacy to help provide solutions to other Arab problems. Egypt, Hamdi argued, was well placed to play a constructive role in helping the Lebanese find their way out of the current crisis.
“Egypt is a country that has the respect and confidence of almost all the Lebanese parties, and I think Egypt is well placed to play a significant role,” he said.
In his statement at an international conference called by France on Sunday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi pledged Egypt’s commitment to help Lebanon.
On Tuesday, Al-Sisi dispatched Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri to Beirut to express support and to pursue leads explored by Egyptian Ambassador to Lebanon Yasser Elwi and Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit, who visited Beirut late last week.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly