Contributed by Jim Hayes
Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, has just tendered his government’s resignation, after days of protests, occupations of government buildings, and clashes with the security forces. The government has now gone into caretaker mode and an election will be called.
Even before this disaster, anger was boiling over an economic melt down that’s left many in poverty. Lebanon has been badly hit by the Coronavirus. Then the horrific explosions last week added to the discontent. They left around 200 dead, more than 6,000 injured, 300,000 left homeless, and a significant part of Beirut destroyed.
Beirut protesters storm government buildings
Video from The Independent
The political crisis hangs on the longstanding large scale corruption that has plagued the nation for a long time. The Diab government had come into office promising to put an end to this corruption.
Little has changed. Diab has put it on the record that the extent of the penetration is such, that it has been able to stand against his government. This stalemate has damaged its credibility.
Although the details of the explosion remain uncertain at this time, and muddied further by unsubstantiated allegations from various quarters, there seems to be the nasty hand of corruption behind them, foreign interference, or a mixture of both.
This calls for a thorough investigation. Hassan Diab has set one up. But some voices are calling for an international investigation instead, They claim that this would be more transparent.
Lebanon has a long history of foreign intervention into its internal affairs. It was a British and French colony repectively, carved out of a part of Syria. The old colonial powers have continued to exert an influence.
Into the mix came regional geopolitics, and the entry of the United States and Israel. Lebanon suffered a devastating 15 year civil war, where foreign powers had encouraged sectarian division, as proxies for their own ambitions.
The war ended in 1990. The legacy was competing armed groups.
A national unity, even if at times uneasy, was eventually reached. The semi warlord type system is far from perfect and leads to deals at the top. But it did bring about a period of peace and economic progress.
The events of this year has put whatever progress has been made at risk.
Two other issues have drawn the attention of foreign powers. The existence of Hezbollah and its backing of the Diab government, and its decision of this government to default on the foreign debt in March. There have been some tense meetings with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Lebanon’s greatest danger now is that its latest tragedy will be used to gain sectional leverage. This is why the much needed international aid should not come with strings tied.
The former colonial powers have been leading the call for this international inquiry and are positioning themselves to play major roles in it. France’s Emmanuel Macron went to Beirut last week, pressed the flesh with demonstrators, and demanded such an inquiry. France has backed this up with an inquiry of its own.
Although the unrest in the streets has good cause, it has also been encouraged by foreign powers, ready to use the situation, to step onto some strategically important geography. This includes the even bigger prize of securing the border with Syria, which continues to pursue an independent direction.
Syria is beginning to come out from a foreign sponsored war and is receiving ongoing pressure to counter its independent direction. A regime more favourable to the ambitions of the West in regard to Syria is on the West’s wish list.
Given this, there is a real danger that an international inquiry will not be balanced and will be used as a political weapon to back some Lebanese political factions against others. This would compromise Lebanon’s sovereignty and unleash a new era of conflict.
Answers are still needed as to who is responsible for the explosions, and justice must be seen to be done. About 20 officials, mostly connected to the port where the blasts took place, have been arrested, as the internal investigation gathers pace.
If there is going to be an international investigation, it must be under the United Nations banner. This is the best way to ensure broad representation and prevent domination by a few powers.
The internal Lebanese investigation should be allowed to take its course.
On the streets, the call for political change continues. It is no secret that this is needed. But the question is what sort of political change? This must be in the hands of the people of Lebanon. Nor must it be a front for the elevation of sectarian interests. This would mean more instability, more conflict, and more hardship for Lebanon.
Change through national unity is the best option.