Opinion

Although badly broken, Lebanon can be put back together

Although badly broken, Lebanon can be put back together

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A demonstrator kicks a tear gas canister fired by riot police during a protest, Beirut, Lebanon, August 8, 2020. (Reuters)

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, 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 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.

Lebanon has shown its resilience before and was able to rise from the ashes many times.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

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
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

Macron warns Iran: Don’t meddle in Lebanon's fightback from Beirut blast

Macron told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday that all concerned parties should refrain from external interference in Lebanon. (AFP)
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Updated 12 August 2020

Macron warns Iran: Don’t meddle in Lebanon's fightback from Beirut blast

  • Macron tells Rouhani to support a new government, which can manage the emergency
  • Risk that Hezbollah will use international aid to follow Tehran agenda, analysts tell Arab News

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron warned Iran on Wednesday to stay out of Lebanon as it rebuilds after last week’s devastating blast.

Macron told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani it was essential “for all the powers concerned ... to avoid any outside interference and to support the putting in place of a government that can manage the emergency.”
At least 171 people died and more than 6,000 were injured when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in a warehouse in Beirut port last week, devastating large parts of the city and leaving about 300,000 people homeless.

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Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his government resigned amid an outpouring of public anger against Lebanon’s corrupt and inept ruling elite, and protesters have also demanded an end to Hezbollah’s grip on the levers of power, armed and funded by Iran.

Macron was the first world leader to visit Beirut after the explosion and has led the international response, hosting a virtual aid conference that raised $300 million in pledges.

Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri, a Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar, said the French president’s warning to Iran was a significant development.
“This is the real crux of the problem,” he told Arab News. “Iran, through its proxy, a heavily armed terrorist militia, has wreaked havoc in Lebanon. The Iranians have held the country hostage at gunpoint. Macron has done the right thing in calling them out."
Al-Shehri said the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his government was the first step in freeing Lebanon from the clutches of both Iran and Hezbollah. “But this is by no means enough. If this government is replaced by another which is at the mercy of Hezbollah, then it will be back to square one.

“It is important for France and other world powers to ensure that Hezbollah is disarmed and that it hands over its weapons to the Lebanese army; only then will there be stability. As long as there is a state within a state, nobody from the global community will come forward to rescue Lebanon from the difficulties it finds itself in."
Al-Shehri said Macron had correctly understood the problem and had done the right thing in warning Iran. “Now he should take this to its logical conclusion and end the nightmare for Lebanon, the Lebanese people, and the region," he said. “France will find many takers in the international and regional communities in its efforts to clean up the mess in Lebanon.”

French senator Natalie Goulet told Arab News that France and the EU were “playing with fire” over Hezbollah. 

“As the only Lebanese party that has never disarmed, its paramilitary and its international network make it a force more powerful than the Lebanese army,” she said. “It is not without reason that many countries, including the US, classify this movement as a terrorist organization. 

“But the EU and France make a totally artificial distinction between the paramilitary branch, which is associated with terrorism, and the political branch, which is not.

“It seems to me to be utopian to think that Iran would withdraw support from its proxy.

“And there is a serious risk that Hezbollah will use international financial help for Lebanon to follow its agenda,which is fixed by Tehran. We must not be be blind or naïve.” 


Two Turkish troops killed in attack in northern Iraq

Updated 37 sec ago

Two Turkish troops killed in attack in northern Iraq

  • Turkey has regularly attacked Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants
  • Ankara launched a new ground offensive dubbed Operation Claw-Tiger

ANKARA: Two Turkish soldiers were killed and another was wounded after Kurdish militants fired rockets at a military base in northern Iraq, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on Friday.
Turkey has regularly attacked Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants, both in its mainly Kurdish southeast and in northern Iraq, where the group is based. In June, Ankara launched a new ground offensive, dubbed Operation Claw-Tiger, that saw Turkish troops advance deeper into Iraq.
The ministry said “harassment fire” by rocket launchers on Thursday killed the two troops at one of Turkey’s bases in neighboring Iraq.
The PKK, designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict focused in southeast Turkey.
In a separate statement, the Interior Ministry said 71 PKK militants had been killed since July 13 as part of a series of operations within Turkey, dubbed the “Lightning Operations,” and added 38 collaborators had also been captured.