More trouble ahead for Lebanon

Hassan Al-Qishawi , Tuesday 18 Aug 2020

A spike in the number of Covid-19 cases, the verdicts in the Al-Hariri assassination trial, and problems in forming a new government all spell trouble ahead for Lebanon, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut

More trouble ahead for Lebanon
Workers hang banners on the facade of warehouses that were destroyed by a cataclysmic explosion at the port of Beirut, on August 19, 2020. AFP

Decimated by two explosions that destroyed extensive areas of the capital Beirut earlier this month, Lebanon is now facing a sudden second wave of the coronavirus pandemic as well as the verdicts in the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005.

Such developments, when added to the radically reduced powers of Lebanon’s now caretaker government after its resignation in the wake of the Beirut explosions, spell further trouble ahead for an already crisis-stricken country.

The number of people testing positive for Covid-19 has dramatically spiked since the Beirut explosions, while protests continue against Lebanon’s ruling class across the country. Lebanese President Michel Aoun has refused to resign, saying that this would lead to a “total vacuum” of power in the country as the cabinet has already resigned.

Hamad Hassan, minister of health in the caretaker government, said on Monday that there was a “sense of revolt” in the country and demanded that a “brave decision” be taken to shut it down for two weeks.

Hassan suggested that the army should take control of hospitals that refuse to admit Covid-19 patients in the current state of emergency.

At an earlier news conference, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that more than 50 per cent of hospitals and medical facilities in Beirut were out of service due to the devastating port explosions.

Richard Brennan, acting regional emergency director for the WHO’s Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean in Cairo, said that “after evaluating 55 hospitals and medical centres in the Lebanese capital, we now know that more than 50 per cent of them are out of service.”

Brennan added that three major hospitals in Beirut had been completely shut down and three others were operating well below capacity. He also warned about the dangers of not correctly following safety procedures in hospitals, which could facilitate the spread of Covid-19.

Lebanon’s Ministry of Health announced six deaths and 439 newly confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country this week, bringing the total number to 8,881.

The Egyptian field hospital that has been set up in Beirut has played a key role in recent days in receiving patients that have not been able to access other hospitals in the capital as these are no longer admitting critical cases.

Lebanon is now facing the phantom of hunger after earlier virtual bankruptcy and the destruction of the port of Beirut in the explosions, including the silo where vital wheat supplies were stored.

Moves are afoot to form a new government to help to end the crisis, with the country facing two main options. A national-unity government including all the Lebanese political forces could simply continue the sectarian politics that have destroyed the country over recent years, and it is unlikely that the protesters who have been demonstrating for the last year against this system will accept one.

 The second option, much less likely, would be an interim national-salvation government bypassing the current political elite and drawing up new foundations for future elections. This could have the trust of the international community and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), vital if Lebanon is to receive the emergency financial aid it needs.

France supports the first option, which would require Saad Al-Hariri, son of assassinated former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri, to form a national-unity government excluding former minister Gebran Bassil, who has antagonised many in the opposition.

However, Washington has suggested that Nawaf Salam, an ambassador and judge who has served as Lebanon’s permanent representative to the UN and the Lebanese judge on the international tribunal investigating Al-Hariri’s assassination, should form a new government.

Salam is also backed by Saudi Arabia, and he could form a government of independents and technocrats that did not include either the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah or the Free Patriotic Movement.

But for many Lebanese, the exact composition of any new government has been pushed off the agenda as the protests that have toppled two governments over the last year are continuing, with many activists intending to remain on the streets until there is real change.

Another potential problem awaiting Lebanon is the outcome and repercussions of the trial of Al-Hariri’s alleged assassins, who include Hizbullah members. Should they be found guilty of the assassination, this could escalate the tensions even more.

The tribunal delayed the scheduled 7 August verdicts due to the explosions in Beirut, and the Future Movement did not build up a campaign before them. Its leaders did not appear on television, and there were reports that the movement had no plans to move onto the streets.

“We do not want action on the streets, or mayhem could develop,” said one Freedom Movement MP. “We don’t want revenge or sectarian strife, or for the verdicts to trigger domestic clashes. Our goal is justice and for the culprits to be punished.”

The tribunal has cost more than $600 million since its creation, and the controversy over it is expected to deepen after the verdicts are issued in the shadow of a Lebanese government that is detested by many in Lebanon and the recent visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Lebanon that will have put more pressure on the country’s ruling class.

Macron did not mention Hizbullah by name during his visit, however, and he did not implicate it in what he described as “the political, economic, financial and moral crisis” in Lebanon.

The four Hizbullah defendants disappeared in 2011 when they were indicted, and they are being tried in absentia. Should they be found guilty of the assassination, the Netherlands tribunal will likely issue international arrest warrants for them.



AL-HARIRI VERDICT: Salim Ayyash, one of the four men accused of killing former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri was found guilty by the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) on Tuesday.
Ayyash, a member of Hizbullah, was found of conspiracy to commit a terrorist act, murdering Al-Hariri and 21 others and attempting to murder 226 more in the suicide car bombing on 14 February, 2005.  The three other defendants, who have been tried in absentia since 2014, were acquitted by the STL.
“The trial chamber is of the view that Syria and Hizbullah may have had motives to eliminate Mr Al-Hariri and his political allies, however there is no evidence that the Hizbullah leadership had any involvement in Mr Al-Hariri’s murder and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement,” said Judge David Re, reading a summary of the court’s 2,600-page decision.
The trial centred on the alleged roles of four Hizbullah members in the suicide truck bombing that killed Al-Hariri. Prosecutors based their case largely on data from mobile phones allegedly used by the plotters to plan and execute the bombing.
The killing of Al-Hariri, one of Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni Muslim politicians, caused outrage across the country.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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