Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 2 December 2020

From one crisis to the next: where is Lebanon headed?

The explosion that devastated much of Beirut last week did far more than kill at least 160 people and injure thousands. It also led to the resignation of Lebanon’s government by showing the criminality of the country’s political class and tightened the bind in which Hezbollah has found itself.

There are two broad versions of what happened in Beirut’s port on August 4 – the official explanation put out by the government, and one circulating among many Lebanese. Both placed the political leadership in a bad light.

The official explanation is that a large quantity of ammonium nitrate was left at the port for several years, despite the risks this entailed. An accidental fire ignited fireworks stored in a hangar, which in turn set off the ammonium nitrate, destroying a large part of the Lebanese capital.

The second version, which is more widespread among the population, is that it was a Hezbollah arms depot that blew up. The ammonium nitrate had been placed inside or nearby, so that when Hezbollah’s weapons began igniting for some as yet unknown reason, it triggered the ammonium nitrate.

The reality is unclear and no independent international investigation will take place because the Lebanese authorities have rejected one. Most probably, the domestic investigation will confirm the government’s version of an accident and the file will be closed.

However, the broader repercussions may be far-reaching. The government’s reaction to the blast was inept and coldblooded. No officials visited the victims in the early hours after the blast, nor did any walk around devastated quarters to commiserate with the inhabitants. Searches were delayed, leaving buried victims to die. When a minister did try to go to the area some days later, she was insulted and chased away.

The possibility that the ammonium nitrate was situated near or in a Hezbollah arms cache hardly alleviated matters. That the party might have stored its weapons near residential areas only served to reinforce the view of many Lebanese that Hezbollah can do what it wants and that the country's governments are under its thumb.

No independent international investigation into the blast will take place because the Lebanese authorities have rejected one

Last October, when anti-government protests broke out, Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, tried to neutralise public protests against the political class. By protecting the corrupt politicians, Hezbollah was seen as the final pillar of a discredited political system.

The growing public hostility to the party since that time rapidly eroded the facade of unanimity Hezbollah had set up, through a combination of alliances and intimidation, after Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005. For many people Lebanon’s political and economic problems have been exacerbated by the fact that Arab states, the country’s traditional financial benefactors, refuse to assist a Hezbollah-controlled order.

In the aftermath of the port explosion there were no restraints on attacking the party. In a mock hanging organised by anti-government protesters on August 8, one effigy on the gallows was that of Nasrallah. The party has faced great domestic criticism, even from quarters that were considered its constituency. Lebanon’s grave financial crisis and ensuing poverty essentially have undermined Hezbollah’s ability to fight Israel in any future conflict.

In recent months, the general dissatisfaction with Hezbollah and the political class steadily weakened the government of Hassan Diab, which was under Hezbollah’s influence. Nor did the party’s alliances provide respite. Hezbollah’s ties with the Free Patriotic Movement and its leader Gebran Bassil, widely regarded as one of Lebanon’s most corrupt politicians, only heightened animosity towards the party.

Then came the port explosion. In a speech on August 7, Nasrallah had to deny that it was caused by a Hezbollah arms cache. No one expected him to do less, but his denials also revealed unusual defensiveness. What they implicitly indicated was that in a future Hezbollah conflict with Israel fought on Iran’s behalf, many Lebanese were likely to turn against the party and refuse to pay a price for its fealty to Tehran.

French President Emmanuel Macron may have offered Hezbollah and Lebanon a way out of their impasse. According to reports, Mr Macron brought a package deal when he visited Beirut on August 6. It included the party’s abandonment of the Diab government and the formation of a new national unity government that would organise early elections. This would be followed by measures to facilitate a deal between Lebanon and the International Monetary Fund, as well as donors.

The Iranian order in Lebanon is at a crossroads. Hezbollah has used the political system as a front to protect its arms and independence. However, the politicians became too much of a liability. If Mr Macron’s package deal is implemented, it could provide a vital lifeline to Hezbollah. But it could also save Lebanon from disintegration – a French fear.

Much can still go wrong for Hezbollah. The outcome of the US elections will be watched closely by the party and Iran to see if the policy of maximum pressure against Tehran will continue. Inside Lebanon, public anger with the politicians will not subside anytime soon. But the desire of the French to avoid Lebanon’s destruction in the US-Iranian standoff has allowed them to exploit Hezbollah’s setbacks and prepare for a new phase that just may buy the country some much-needed respite.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut

Updated: August 11, 2020 02:11 PM

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