Lebanon After the Beirut Port Explosion: International Action Paths and Future Political Options

Mohamad Kawas | 11 Aug 2020

The explosion that occurred in the port of Beirut on 4 August 2020 has caused a local shock in Lebanon and in all capitals of the world in a manner that resembles a "general international revolution" in how to approach the Lebanese file. It has also caused an internal political earthquake, from the violent movement of the Lebanese street that is opposed to the ruling class as a whole, to the resignation of Hassan Diab's government on 10 August 2020 and the putting forward for discussion of the various options and scenarios that await Lebanon in the coming days and weeks.

The Port Disaster: the Collusion of Corruption and Hezbollah's Weapons

The disaster of the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which were stored in one of the warehouses of the Beirut port (warehouse No. 12), reflects the state of corruption and laxity that has been plaguing Lebanese government institutions over the decades that followed the end of the Civil War (1990). The ambiguity surrounding the issue of the arrival of this shipment of explosive materials and their storage conditions since 2014 also reflects the collusion of the corruption system with the de facto situation imposed by Hezbollah on the state and its institutions, especially in view of Hezbollah’s domination of Beirut's port and airport and the country's legal and illegal border crossings.

The disaster that has befallen the Lebanese capital raises the issue of the danger of the alliance of arms and corruption in a manner that caused what looked like the annihilation of a city like Beirut. It also raises the danger of Hezbollah's options and plans for the security of the Lebanese, as well as the security of the region and the Mediterranean. What is striking is the rising demands from within Lebanon to conduct an international or Arab investigation to reveal the circumstances of the incident, especially that President Michel Aoun did not rule out that the act could be aggression and not just an unintended tragic accident.

The Beirut disaster adds to an unprecedented economic, financial, and monetary crisis that has fueled the anger of the popular movement that has raged at varying levels since 17 October 2019. The exacerbation of the living, political and security conditions contributes to increasing internal pressure to change the ruling political system. This time, the demands go beyond the issue of holding early elections and the formation of a government of non-political competencies to the demand for early presidential elections to end the term of current President Michel Aoun.

Macron's visit and "ending" the international boycott of Lebanon

The visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to Beirut two days after the disaster marks a fundamental turning point in the ways in which the international community has dealt with the Lebanon file. While Macron established in his visit a political symbolism that expresses the special historical relations that France has always maintained with Lebanon, the goal of the visit went beyond its humanitarian and solidarity dimension to a political dimension that may establish a new shift in Lebanon's path and destiny through the following facts:

1. Macron's visit reveals that he was carrying a political road map to extricate the country from its current plight and the cycle of crises that beset it before that. It seems that Macron's move had gained the approval of US President Donald Trump whose administration has been pursuing a hard-line policy towards Beirut, demanding that the Lebanese government undertake fundamental reforms within the Lebanese economic structure, including combating corruption, closing illegal crossings, state control over the country's legal crossings, and full compliance with the standards imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) before releasing any financial aid to Lebanon.

2. The visit of the French President reveals his endeavor to persuade Washington to end the isolation of the Lebanese people on the occasion of this disaster in exchange for working to persuade the politicians in Lebanon to engage in internal transformations and create a "new political contract", given that the current US pressure policy has had adverse effects inside Lebanon and strengthened Hezbollah's position instead of undermining it.

3. The influx of Arab and international aid towards Lebanon reveals an approach that is intended to prevent the final and catastrophic collapse of the country that also hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees, without this meaning re-establishing the political engagement with the Lebanese state and its symbols, pending a serious change in the government’s performance and in the faces of the rulers.

The international action in Lebanon: humanitarian versus political

The speed with which France, in the person of its president, was able to hold an emergency conference to aid Lebanon on 9 August 2020, with attendance of President Trump and the participation of 36 officials, including presidents, kings, heads of government, foreign ministers, and directors of international financial institutions, a remarkable development. Also remarkable was the announcement by Macron that the amount collected (nearly 298 million dollars) was a start, and the assertion that the United Nations (UN), its agencies and non-governmental organizations will manage this aid. This implicitly reiterated the international community’s lack of confidence in the Lebanese state and denied the assertion by Lebanese President Michel Aoun that the disaster is an "opportunity" for the return of the international (political) engagement with Lebanon.

While some statistics talked about Lebanon's need for a huge international contribution to rebuild Beirut and its port (5-7 billion dollars), donor countries will not get seriously involved in any reconstruction projects before making sure that a government change that satisfies the Lebanese has taken place, in a way that restores the confidence of the international community and also provides a basis for political and security stability on the basis of which an international reconstruction workshop can be launched.

Prospects for the Lebanese political scene after Macron's visit

The performance of the French President during his visit to Beirut has revealed a number of signs that could be indicators of the future of the political life in Lebanon. These signs can be summarized in the following points:

  • His support for the popular movement and its demands, and his indication of the absence of trust between the people and its authority.
  • His response to the request of the inhabitants he met in Beirut by affirming that international aid will not reach the Lebanese state, but rather will be directly provided to those affected, which demonstrated a French and international accusation of the political system of impotence and the need to change it.
  • His talk of a "new political contract", and thus his drive towards a change in the way the Lebanese state is run between the Lebanese political components.
  • His assertion that, as a French president, he is not calling for a constitutional change, considering that such a matter would be determined by the Lebanese, which renders his role and, by extension, the role of the international community, a catalyst for change and not an imposer of it.
  • His meeting with the three presidents, Michel Aoun, Nabih Berri and Hassan Diab, came as a matter of protocol, while his meeting with the leaders of the main political parties in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, was more revealing of the directions in which France is pushing Lebanon and the prospects presented by the international community.
  • Macron directed the blame, to the extent described as "reprimand", to the entire political class, loyalists and opposition, participants in the current (resigned) government or in previous governments, calling on everyone to agree on a new ruling formula and agree to form a national unity government.
  • Macron never mentioned the responsibility of Hezbollah or its weapons and behavior in Lebanon and the region. He attributed the crisis to the system of corruption in which everyone is involved in. Macron invited Hezbollah to attend the meeting of the leaders of the major political currents, and did not object to Hezbollah being represented by Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, who is one of Hezbollah’s leaders featuring on the US sanctions list.
  • Macron stressed the formation of a national unity government as a priority compared to the proposition of holding early legislative elections, which he considered a necessity, although its implementation may take time while dealing with the crisis needs short-term options.

Future options

1. The option of a national unity government

An observer can easily conclude that the political developments since Macron's visit do not deviate from the signs that the French President has suggested in Lebanon. The first of those developments is the resignation of Hassan Diab's government, which paves the way for the discussion of an alternative government. While the Lebanese street stresses the necessity of the departure of the entire political class through the formation of an independent government, some of the scenarios put forward indicate that consistency with Macron's proposal of forming a national unity government leads to a government team headed by Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement, given that Hariri had previously indicated that he would accept this position under the condition of the formation of a government of experts that is independent of the entire political class, or the formation of a political government that does not include Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and President Aoun's son-in-law. Hezbollah had previously rejected Hariri's conditions that deprive it of direct influence within the government on the one hand, and on the other hand undermine its Christian ally, who was loyal to Hezbollah since the "understanding paper" concluded between Hassan Nasrallah and Michel Aoun in 2006.

It is still too early to confirm whether the political conditions that the country has been going through for months, the repercussions of the recent Beirut port disaster, and the subsequent actions by the international community, have caused transformations that would lead the protagonists to give up their conditions to produce a national unity government.

2. The option of an "independent" or "neutral" government

while the Diab government constituted a failed experiment in establishing an independent government, whether because of its evident lack of independence and subservience to the authority of the alliance between the Shiite Duo and the Aounist Movement, or because it is evident that no independent government had been capable of operating within a deep state dominated by political powers since the end of the Civil War, it would be difficult to imagine finding a new experience in this regard. While the name of Ambassador Nawaf Salam is proposed again to form an independent or "neutral" government, which may appeal to the Lebanese street and the international community, the rejection that Salam assume this task came from Hezbollah as a reaction to Salam's stances on Hezbollah, which Hezbollah considered to be aligned with foreign agendas. Salam came under an intensive campaign within the Hezbollah environment in a manner that would make accepting him again a resounding defeat for Hezbollah. However, this option may not be excluded, considering that the media sources close to Hezbollah have leaked that Gebran Bassil, Hezbollah’s ally, is the one who is re-nominating Salam, given that Basil himself was the one who nominated Diab before.

While it is unlikely that a fully independent government would be established in Lebanon in the near term due to Hezbollah’s refusal in these circumstances to relinquish its influence within any government and its unwillingness to take this step without a significant political return, the Salam option may be plausible to form a political-technical government, especially that he is close to Hariri. This may reassure Hezbollah that the government's policy would not be hostile and would not go beyond Hariri's vision of dispute settlement with Hezbollah pending the clarification of international and regional developments related to Iran.

3. The option of early elections

Other options call for the formation of the alternative government after holding early legislative elections. This option had been put forward after the outbreak of the popular movement in Lebanon months ago, but it was met with categorical rejection by the Shiite Duo (Amal Movement and Hezbollah) and the movement of President Michel Aoun. The resigned Prime Minister Hassan Diab tried to ward off the spectre of resignation from his government by announcing his intention to submit a proposal to hold early parliamentary elections. However, Berri's call for a parliamentary session to hold the government accountable revealed the anger of the leader of the Amal Movement, Hezbollah and the President of the Republic at Diab’s initiative regarding elections that they did not want. The problem of holding the elections revolves around two assumptions:

The first is that the matter needs a new electoral law that would be an alternative to the law that was tailored to the Free Patriotic Movement headed by Gebran Bassil and in the interest of the Shiite Duo, so that the election results would not be similar to the current parliamentary scene and the majority proportions within it (currently leaning in favour of Hezbollah and its allies). According to observers, this is unlikely to materialize quickly, even if it is assumed that all the protagonists agreed to holding the elections.

The second assumption is to hold those elections under the current law despite its disadvantages. Advocates of this option believe that the Lebanese public opinion has changed dramatically since the last elections, and that the new parliamentary scene would change in terms of proportions and faces even under the current law.

4. The Founding Conference option

Another discussion is taking place not far from the atmosphere of the alliance between Hezbollah and the President of the Republic, taking advantage of Macron's call for a “new political contract”. Years ago, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah had called for a founding conference to redraft the Constitution of Lebanon, thus changing the system of government and ending the implementation of the Taif Accord, which has been in force for three decades. It was understood from this call that there is a tendency towards establishing a tripartite system between Sunnis, Shiites and Christians, instead of the system of parity between Muslims and Christians in force today. Nasrallah stopped raising the issue due to its extreme sensitivity even among Hezbollah allies.

Aoun recently hinted at the necessities of change in the Lebanese political system, while Macron's visit contributed to pushing in this direction. This may drive Hezbollah, which had the full recognition of the French President as opposed to the positions of Britain, Germany and the United States which consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization, to build on the French position to launch a constitutional workshop that allows Hezbollah to constitutionally expand its influence within the Lebanese political system.

While the alliance of the Shiite Duo and the Free Patriotic Movement view with concern the calls for early legislative elections, the drive to bring about constitutional change causes concern among political movements that continue to strongly advocate the Taif Accord and the idea of ​​parity between Muslims and Christians.

Nevertheless, it must be noted that due to the Beirut disaster and its repercussions, Lebanon has become a priority among issues of international interest related to the region, which explains the intensity of international interest in Lebanese affairs. As such, the Lebanese may not enjoy the luxury of old indulgence and must respond to major agendas that prepare the entire region for drastic and pivotal shifts. Recent developments in the issue of the border dispute between Lebanon and Israel are worth monitoring, both in terms of the remarkable announcement by Berri (Hezbollah's ally) that an agreement will soon be reached, and Washington’s despatch of David Hale, the US Undersecretary of State, to the region next week to discuss this issue. This indicates that Lebanon has entered a stage of settlements and bargains whose conditions would be dictated on the entire political class in the country.

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