An unstable debt crisis. A failing banking sector. A falling currency. Runaway inflation. Burgeoning poverty and unemployment. And, a refugee problem. Add to this, the strain of dealing with a pandemic and an incompetent and corrupt political class.
This was the condition of Lebanon, a country in West Asia bordered by Syria, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea, when on August 4th 2020 an explosion wreaked havoc on the capital city of Beirut, killing 200, injuring 6,000 and rendering a quarter of a million people homeless.
Founded after World War I when the Ottoman Empire was disintegrated, the state of Lebanon was established and placed under the French mandate in 1920. It remained a French colony till 1943 when it achieved independence. Since independence, the country has been marked by periods of political turmoil interspersed with prosperity built on its position as a regional centre for finance and trade. From 1975-1980, it witnessed a bloody civil war amongst the different religious militias. An estimated 120,000 people were killed in this war. Simultaneously, Syria and Israel invaded and attacked the country in 1976 and 1982, respectively, establishing a military presence and influencing domestic as well as foreign policies.
The civil war was resolved in 1990 after the signing of a power-sharing agreement, known as the Taif agreement. This was a huge achievement for this is a region where civil wars and conflicts are not necessarily resolved. The agreement disarmed all sectarian militias except for the Shia Muslim’s Hezbollah that was fighting a war against Israel at the southern border. Lebanon's government was designed to provide political representation to all the religious groups, with its three largest being Christian Maronites, Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims. The number of seats in parliament is split between Christians and Muslims and proportionally divided among the different denominations within each religion. Government posts and public-sector positions are also divided among the majority sects with the President always being a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni and the Speaker of Parliament a Shia. At present, Muslims account for 61.1% of the population (30.6% Sunni, 30.5% Shia) with 33.7% Christians.
This arrangement transformed the militias into political parties and the erstwhile warlords into suit-adorning politicians: corrupt, incompetent to govern and influenced by their vested interests and foreign backers. This has stymied the political institutions and made the nation dependent on a handful of sectarian leaders who usually inherited rule from their fathers.
Lebanon is deeply embedded in the West Asian region, being heavily influenced by the geopolitics of the region. An estimated 350,000 Lebanese expats live and work in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait.
Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria have all vied for influence and control in this country through their proxies and support for local politicians.
Shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Hezbollah – a Shiite political party and militia was created and funded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) under General Qassem Soleiman in Lebanon. Billed as a Shiite resistance movement, it enshrined its ideology in a 1985 manifesto that vowed to expel Western powers from Lebanon, called for the destruction of the Israeli state, and pledged allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader. It also advocated for an Iran-inspired Islamist regime but emphasized that the Lebanese people must have the freedom of self-determination.
After the civil war ended, Hezbollah, unlike other militias, was not disarmed. It has subsequently, developed strong political and social arms in addition to its military operations. It manages a vast network of social services that include infrastructure, health-care facilities, schools, and youth programs, all of which have been instrumental in garnering support for Hezbollah from Shiite and non-Shiite Lebanese alike and building on its reputation as “a state within a state.” It has also been touted as the “world’s most heavily armed non-state actor” and is designated as a terrorist organisation by several nations.
This development has been to the delight of Tehran which has used Hezbollah as a proxy to help support its cause in the region by providing military support to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria against the rebels, fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, keeping Israel’s ambitions in check and also training and arming the Houthi rebels in Yemen much to the anger of Saudi Arabia – Iran’s main regional rival.
Hezbollah and its Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah have become major power centres in Lebanon. Through their allies, they effectively control the Parliament, the Cabinet, and several other government institutions. However, the explosion in Beirut, much like Chernobyl, has laid bare the criminal negligence and apathy of Hezbollah and other political parties alike towards the Lebanese people. Protestors in Beirut have started to question the legitimacy of Hezbollah and have asked for it to be dismantled.
Although with its arms, financial resources and foreign support it would be extremely hard to dismantle this organization, Hezbollah needs the support of Lebanese to continue to function effectively in the region. It would not want to oppressively govern the country while engaging with Israel, Saudi Arabia or the United States. At the same time, it would also not give a lot of concessions to the protestors in terms of removing the existing power elite and conducting a free-and-fair election that might cause harm to its prestige.
Hezbollah would also not want to lose any ground in a situation where its enemies, the UAE and Israel, have agreed to normalize ties effectively to increase cooperation in areas of defence, possibly nuclear capabilities and to control Iran’s aspirations in the region.
The explosion at the Beirut port has had other consequences as well. Lebanon is host to over 1.5 million refugees from Palestine and Syria. And, the Port of Beirut functioned as a major logistical hub for aid bound to Syria. With the port now destroyed, humanitarian officials are scrambling to find ways to keep the supply chain open.
The explosion acting as a catalyst can also nudge Lebanon and Hezbollah in search for economic assistance to forge stronger ties with China especially because the Western powers and the IMF have voiced their inhibitions in helping the Lebanese state without the assurance of adequate reform in the political structure and China’s recent overtures towards Iran.
A new social contract needs to be negotiated in Lebanon for this explosion has brought the attention of the international society to the functioning of the Lebanese state and Hezbollah marred by decades of systemic negligence and lack of accountability.
Beirut Explosion Imperils Lebanon’s Refugee Population—and Aid Routes to Syria, Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/08/11/lebanon-syria-refugee-population-beirut-explosion/
China Wants to Be Lebanon’s Savior, Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/09/china-wants-to-be-lebanons-savior/
Hezbollah and the people will have to negotiate a new Lebanon, Al Jazeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/post-blast-protests-usher-political-age-lebanon-200810132037834.html
Lebanon: a nation brought to its knees, Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/0e8aff25-629c-4737-a1dc-8ed4ee32447e
Lebanon as We Know It Is Dying, Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/30/lebanon-as-we-know-it-is-dying/
Lebanon Is Paying the Cost of Its Dysfunctional Politics, Chatham House, https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/lebanon-paying-cost-its-dysfunctional-politics
The Beirut Blast is Lebanon's Chernobyl, Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/08/05/beirut-explosion-blast-lebanon-ammonium-nitrate-chernobyl-corruption/
What is Hezbollah? Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-hezbollah
Rishabh Ahuja is an undergraduate student of Cluster Innovation Centre, University of Delhi. He is interested in International Relations, Public Policy and Philosophy. E-mail ID: Ris.firstname.lastname@example.org