As Lebanon disintegrates, its leaders turn upon each other
Lebanon is doubly threatened by war from the outside and inside. If Israel, America, and Iran and its proxies do indeed go to war, they would be fighting primarily on a Lebanese battlefield, and the country is simultaneously tearing itself apart from within.
President Michel Aoun’s notoriously corrupt son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, has launched anti-corruption probes against many of his equally corrupt rivals, prompting powerful figures such as parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri to pursue retaliatory action. Christian factions are at each other’s throats, and relations between former allies such as Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt are increasingly tense. Hezbollah are meanwhile suing Hariri’s brother over allegations of their culpability for the Beirut port explosion. Interfactional tensions are already beginning to spill over into street confrontations between rival groups, with Hezbollah and Amal repeatedly attacking protesters.
As the system turns against its own, the judge investigating the port explosion has indicted caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, and two other former ministers, Ghazi Zeiter and Youssef Fenianos, for negligence. In a separate case, several army commanders have been charged with corruption, including the sale of officer-level positions for personal gain. However, Lebanon could fill its prisons with politicians guilty of mismanagement and corruption. We don’t need politically motivated show trials, but wholesale revolutionary change.
Hezbollah was already operating a state within a state. Over the past year, as Lebanon’s economy descended into freefall, Hezbollah has been cultivating its own parallel economy. This includes a network of (US-sanctioned) Qard Al-Hassan banks, which encourage Hezbollah loyalists to deposit savings withdrawn from the central banking system. These banks’ ATMs have gained copious media attention for their apparently miraculous ability to spit out dollars. Networks of pharmacies and grocery shops are meanwhile flooding the market with cut-price goods imported from Iran and Syria, while Hezbollah exports scarce hard currency back to Damascus and Tehran. Hezbollah knows Lebanon is on the point of collapse and seeks to insulate itself from the inevitable crunch. Yet in truth, if Lebanon goes down, Hezbollah goes down with it.
Civil tensions are furthermore threatening to explode over plans to slash essential subsidies. In a nation where basic goods have increased tenfold in price and two thirds of the population can’t adequately feed themselves, any cuts to subsidies would push a significant proportion of a once-prosperous population over the precipice into starvation. Theft and violent crime are skyrocketing, there has been an outbreak of suicides, many medicines and essential goods are almost impossible to obtain. For the first time in Lebanon we are beginning to see people sleeping on the streets.
An estimated 80 percent of subsidies are consumed by the wealthiest 50 percent of society and Hezbollah dominates a multimillion-dollar racket smuggling subsidized goods into Syria, so reform is urgently needed. However, as Lebanon’s UNICEF representative warned: “The impact of removing price subsidies on the country’s most vulnerable households will be tremendous, and yet there is almost nothing in place to help soften the fall.” He predicted a “social catastrophe” for the most vulnerable citizens.
Hezbollah knows Lebanon is on the point of collapse and seeks to insulate itself from the inevitable crunch. Yet in truth, if Lebanon goes down, Hezbollah goes down with it.
No wonder angry people are out burning tires and calling for revolution. This desperate, hungry, angry place is not the proud and prosperous nation we so recently thought we knew. This anger has given rise to another un-Lebanese phenomenon; wealthy businessmen, politicians and their families are eating and partying in restaurants when activists suddenly burst in and loudly denounce them on video. In some cases these activists have targeted politicians’ homes. Such trends are symptomatic of a vast outpouring of anger felt by millions of citizens who see their nation and their personal circumstances rapidly deteriorating, while their leaders merely seek to continue their corrupt habits. Can anybody begrudge the fury these citizens feel?
Prime Minister-designate Hariri could put together a government in 10 minutes if allowed to use his constitutional right to do so. But Aoun, Bassil and Nasrallah undermine the dignity of the prime minister’s office and violate the constitution with their maximalist demands to flood his Cabinet with their loyalists, despite such a dead-on-arrival formula having zero prospect of satisfying international donors.
Where are you President Macron? We fell in love with your passion for addressing Lebanon’s deep problems. But unless words are translated into decisive action to radically transform the situation, it was all for nothing. The crooks and militants who run Lebanon aren’t impressed by your beautiful words. They understand only money and power, hence the need for you to bring your European and American colleagues together to force through radical political change.
One exciting development has been university elections, with independents sweeping the board at the Lebanese American University, the American University of Beirut and Rafik Hariri University. The results were unprecedented, cutting out the old religious factions accustomed to carving up student bodies between them.
In the eyes of Lebanon’s younger generations, as well as older demographics, the corrupt old system is entirely discredited. Educated citizens in their twenties and thirties have no intention of voting for religious factions. The model of a Sunni prime minister, a Shiite speaker and a Maronite Christian president is like something from the dark ages. The university elections prove that if new, nationalist and anti-sectarian political entities successfully constitute themselves, a disaffected population will be willing to support them at the ballot box. Indeed, a recent poll found that 60 percent of Lebanese refused to identify with any of the existing factions.
There is zero trust in the government, the parliament, the presidency, and the international community. Even the Lebanese Army is losing its universal respect. This shameless political class doesn’t care that its failures and theft are visible to all.
For the past 40 years Beirut’s kleptocrats humiliatingly and self-servingly treated citizens like mindless sheep. Today, impoverished citizens, divested of their dignity, are left with nothing except their anger. The moment of reckoning is coming.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.