The Lebanese labyrinth

Hany Ghoraba
Tuesday 11 Aug 2020

This month’s massive explosion in Beirut has underlined the need for the Lebanese people to tackle the labyrinth created by decades of conflict and civil war, writes Hany Ghoraba

Lebanon was not able to seal its last chapter of violence and insecurity initiated after the Lebanese uprising ignited in October 2019 before it woke up to a much darker and unprecedented chapter in its modern history. The Beirut seaport explosion on 4 August rocked the capital of the country, killing over 160 people and injuring thousands more and seeming like the culmination of two decades of economic instability, political turmoil and sectarianism. 

To understand the magnitude of the explosion in Beirut, in 1995 US terrorist Timothy McVeigh used around 2,300 kg of ammonium nitrate, the chemical implicated in the Beirut explosion, mixed with diesel fuel and other substances to bomb the Oklahoma Federal Building in Oklahoma City, destroying the building, killing 168 people, injuring hundreds and damaging a further 300 buildings. In the case of the Beirut explosion, the amount of ammonium nitrate stored in the Beirut port was 2,750 metric tons, or over a thousand times the amount used in the horrific attack in Oklahoma.

Fate played a role in Beirut’s surviving this devastation because the sea and the open area around the port helped to reduce the power of the blast. Had the explosion taken place in the city centre, there would have been a strong chance that it could have wiped Beirut from the face of the earth. The Beirut explosion is the most powerful non-nuclear blast in recorded history and the third-largest following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings at the end of World War II in the same month 75 years ago. 

The Beirut seaport is the country’s main economic hub, and about 70 per cent of its imports pass through it annually. The loss of much of the port along with its wheat silos and other storage facilities has left Lebanon with an unprecedented catastrophe of the type not even witnessed during the dark days of the Lebanese Civil War.  

There has been no end to the violence in this small, yet culturally and politically rich, country in the Middle East region since the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. With a population approaching 6.8 million and a diverse and educated people and robust political life, Lebanon could have been an example to follow in a troubled part of the world. However, instead what has been labelled as “factional democracy” has dominated the country’s political life, and far from leading to stability or a functioning democracy this led to a civil war that lasted for 15 years followed by 30 years of social, economic and political instability. 

The founding of the Hizbullah terrorist militia and its political party in 1985 was an ominous event in the history of Lebanon and one that has affected the country until the present day. This terrorist Shiite militia has for years proclaimed itself as the defender of the Lebanese state and credited itself with bringing an end to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000. However, this self-created image has been revealed for what it is by Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who has not been shy of pledging the allegiance of his group to its benefactor, the Iranian regime. 

Nasrallah’s reckless leadership has brought disaster to the Lebanese just as many other Lebanese factional leaders have, but with the added problem that Nasrallah has also been content with being an Iranian puppet in Lebanon. He is not hesitant about performing military services or launching proxy wars in favour of the Iranian regime. 

Hizbullah and its military power financed almost entirely by Iran has established one of Lebanon’s modern quagmires, which is the state-within-a-state situation that the Hizbullah leadership has formed, doing its best to make the country into a vassal state of Iran. This situation has not been resolved by consecutive Lebanese governments or by the feuding political parties that have shared power over the last three decades. Hizbullah benefited from the diminishing military power of other rival factions, such as the Lebanese Forces, after the Lebanese Civil War, and these parties have shown little appetite to face the battle-hardened militia once more. 

Moreover, the show of force that Hizbullah has managed to mount in the Lebanese state, along with its ever-growing demands backed financially by Iran, have made that quest an even harder one to tackle. Yet, Hizbullah remains a liability for Lebanon, as Iran’s archrivals such as Saudi Arabia, the Arabian Gulf states and the Western countries remain wary of injecting investments into a country that is dominated by the political will of a militant group controlled by Iran. 

Nevertheless, there is a possible game-changer on the horizon represented by the French intervention in Lebanon. This is an intervention that has been welcomed by a sizeable portion of the Lebanese population, following decades of mayhem and culminating in the Beirut explosion that decimated any hope of regaining economic or political stability, even if Lebanon’s politicians have failed the Lebanese population on more occasions than they can count. French President Emmanuel Macron visited Lebanon as the first head of state to visit the country after the explosion. He was greeted by a great public reception and by Lebanese citizens of all walks of life who expressed their welcome for his intervention. 

During Macron’s meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hizbullah since 2006, he expressed his country’s willingness to intervene to save Lebanon from descending further into political and economic chaos. Macron was clear that his country’s economic aid must not reach corrupt interests in Lebanon, and this may have struck a nerve with some of the Lebanese political factions that may not appreciate the French involvement as much as the Lebanese themselves.  

Yet, unfettered by some of these political leaders’ reactions, Macron stressed the importance of political unity and called for a new political system to replace the current faction-based one in the country along with major reforms to enable an economic recovery. This is certainly bad news for Hizbullah and Iran, both of which risk losing their tight grip on political affairs in the country, and as a result it may create another assortment of problems and possibly more conflict. 

While the majority of Lebanese are fed up with international political interventions in their country, some have seemed not to mind the latest French intervention. Thousands of Lebanese even signed an online petition calling for the French colonial mandate over Lebanon to be restored. These signatures could be a result of despair and of the heightened emotion of the recent turmoil ending in the disastrous explosion earlier this month, however. 

While many countries around the world have contributed emergency aid to Lebanon following the explosion with Egypt being one of the first to help the Lebanese people, France has taken things a step further and installed itself as a player on the country’s political scene, banking on French-Lebanese historical ties and the Lebanese people’s desire to escape from domestic political feuds and conflicts.  

France may propose solutions for Lebanon, but alone it will not be able to tackle the labyrinth created in the country as a result of decades of civil war and political conflict. That labyrinth can only be escaped from by the Lebanese people themselves. Other nations can help, but they cannot do more. 

The tragic explosion in the Beirut seaport that damaged almost half the buildings in the Lebanese capital could be a nadir from which Lebanon can only rise. No nation can function properly as a result of the assistance of others alone, and hence the fate of the Lebanese nation lies not in the hands of the Arabs, the Europeans, the Americans or others, but rather in the hands of the Lebanese themselves, who must now take a stand and carve out a brighter future for their battered homeland.

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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