The Beirut Disaster: Implications for Lebanon

The mafia-militia nexus in Lebanon responded to the Beirut explosion in two ways. First, it brought about the government’s resignation, expecting this to quell anger on the street and earn international approval. But this strategy failed because the international community and the Lebanese street alike recognize that the current government is a scapegoat, and that today’s power brokers will endure absent wider changes. Still, the resignation does signal that Hezbollah recognizes that its government failed and the people know it. The second mafia-militia response was to impose a state of emergency, putting the army in charge and allowing it to target the media and protestors.

Hezbollah cannot meaningfully change because it is intrinsically tied to Iran’s regional project. In the past, changes made by the group were born of pragmatism, with an eye to gaining long-term control. But the group’s base is shifting. Its legitimacy is based on three pillars: resistance, provision of services, and Shia identity. The resistance element has crumbled in recent years, particularly since Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah announced the group’s priority as Syria, and a defense of the Assad regime, as opposed to responding to Israeli attacks. The second pillar is faltering due to Hezbollah’s financial crisis, with the group no longer considered the protector and provider. Therefore, much of its legitimacy now rests on the third pillar.

The year 2005, the last instance of true political change in Lebanon, differs from the situation today in three fundamental ways. First, street anger in 2005 was successfully translated into international diplomacy with clear goals, with both internal and external initiatives converging on the same objectives. Second, a political opposition existed in 2005, embodied in the March 14 camp. Today, by contrast, demonstrators chant, “All of them means all of them,” a call for a wholesale dethroning of elites, with no established opposition recognized as an acceptable alternative. Third, in 2005 the army protected the protestors, whereas today it has turned on them, emboldened by the state of emergency. The United States should urge the Lebanese army to protect the protestors.

Members of the Lebanese street have a vision for the future, but they still lack a clear way to implement it, even as their demands are moving in the right direction. Last year, the emphasis was on getting the government to resign; now, it is on removing the president. Domestic protestors must now achieve coordination with the international community, as occurred in 2005.

The international community, meanwhile, has to push for real change in Lebanon, which means refusing to support the formation of another national unity government. Lebanon needs an election, but how a new election law can be passed under the state of emergency is unclear. A first step would be implementing a transitional government headed by an independent candidate. Nawaf Salam has been suggested for this role. The international community must also push for an independent investigation into the explosion and, when sending humanitarian assistance, avoid working through government channels.

In the long term, Lebanon needs to figure out what kind of system it really wants. The confessional system is failing, and it must be replaced through either proper enforcement of the 1989 Taif Accord or creation of a new agreement.

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