The week following the explosion in Beirut port put on display some of the crippling crises that affected Lebanon long before this catastrophe exposed the government’s ineptitude and indifference to the suffering of its own people. The chain of events since last Tuesday underscores the way the government has handled long-simmering security, political, economic and humanitarian disasters. Led by Hezbollah and its allies, the government has prioritized advancing the political interests of the group and Iran, not those of ordinary Lebanese.
The reaction of the Lebanese people has demonstrated the gulf between the government and its people. It was telling that French President Emmanuel Macron reached the affected Beirut neighborhoods before any Lebanese leaders did.
On Aug. 3, one day before the explosion, Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti resigned his post, citing the government’s failure to deal with the crises that threatened to make Lebanon a failed state. Other ministers followed suit after the explosion and, on Monday, August 10th, Prime Minister Hassan Diab himself announced the resignation of his entire government, saying that he had wanted to fight corruption but discovered that “corruption is bigger than the state.”
The donor conference convened by France on Sunday, August 9th, confirmed Lebanon’s isolation globally and lack of trust by the international community. While showing great sympathy for victims of the explosion, donors expressed frustration with the country’s lack of progress on fighting corruption or adopting the economic reforms proposed by international financial institutions.
Conference participants pledged small amounts, totaling about $300 million — a drop in the bucket compared to previous donor conferences that mobilized billions of dollars for Lebanon. Those pledging aid insisted that it be delivered directly to the affected population, through international aid groups, not the Lebanese government. They also conditioned future aid to implementing economic and governance reforms. Many demanded an independent investigation of the disaster and the participation of international investigators. Lebanese government representatives ignored those appeals, rejecting the idea of an international investigation.
Protests against the government’s performance, which started last year, have intensified since the explosion. It is sad that some Lebanese have given up on the possibility of reform and started the process of leaving the country altogether. Many expressed fears of a return to the disastrous civil war.
But while it is clear that Lebanon has been badly broken as a result of numerous factors and missteps, it is not impossible to put it back together. Lebanon has shown its resilience before and was able to rise from the ashes many times. I still remember when I visited Lebanon in 1990, shortly after the Taif Accord was concluded in October 1989. Many had given up on Lebanon after 14 years of civil war, but the agreement gave it a new lease of life. However, when Rene Moawad, the first president chosen under the terms of the agreement, was assassinated after just a few weeks in office, despair returned for a brief while. But the Lebanese persevered and elected another president and the engine of rebuilding was started.
There have been many disastrous missteps since then, leading to the current state of affairs, where the humanitarian situation appears hopeless, the economy is in a shambles, and the political system is in gridlock.
Unpacking this mess, let alone solving it, will not be easy. Lessons from Lebanon’s history indicate some ways out, as difficult and uncertain as they may be.
First, humanitarian assistance needs to continue and intensify, regardless of what we think of Lebanon’s current leadership. Gulf Cooperation Council countries were among the first to provide aid, despite their misgivings about the government. Assistance should go directly to those affected, with the help of independent aid organizations. Many are watching how the government handles the recovery and rebuilding of the affected areas as a barometer of its seriousness in addressing this crisis.
Second, there is an urgent need for an independent international investigation into the causes of the explosion. Tasking those responsible for the disaster with the investigation or assigning the task to a politicized body is not going to offer confidence in its results. A transparent and independent probe will help restore some credibility for the government.
Third, Lebanon needs to engage seriously with the International Monetary Fund to reform its economy, stabilize its currency and restore its creditworthiness, following the disastrous default in May. Without restoring economic activity, more Lebanese households will join those 50 percent that are now estimated to fall below the poverty line.
Fourth, Lebanon needs to address its rampant corruption. It could get help from the World Bank and the UN bodies that have developed effective methods to improve governance.
Fifth, the political impasse needs to be ended by organizing early elections, as Lebanon cannot afford more months of paralysis as political factions haggle over a new Cabinet. There were complaints that the last election was marred by sectarian gerrymandering as a result of a faulty election law. Political sectarianism was supposed to have been ended a long time ago, according to the Taif Accord. The current popular protests have called for a new merit-based political system to end the sectarian division of government jobs and other state bounties between chieftains of various sects and ethnic groups.
Sixth is judicial reform. Lebanon has had more than its share of political assassinations, including the murders of presidents, prime ministers, religious leaders, journalists, and academics. It has also witnessed politically motivated mass shootings and large-scale detentions. In most of these cases, the Lebanese courts have failed to act. That failure is one reason for the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague. A first step should be to cooperate with that court when it announces its judgment on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which is now scheduled for Aug. 18. Failure to cooperate would send the wrong message to the international community and could affect its cooperation on other tracks.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1