image Photo: Reuters

The Beirut Disaster: A Chance for a Systemic Change in Lebanon?

By Dr. Aiman Mansour  and Colonel (Res.) Dr. Eran Lerman

The current political situation in Lebanon is very problematic. Hizbullah enjoys full freedom of action in a country which long ago became dysfunctional. Hence the importance of lending support to the French effort to bring about systemic change in the Lebanese confessional order. Further descent into chaos and/or growing intervention by Turkey would be even more dangerous for Israel.

Executive Summary

The disastrous explosion in Beirut on August 4 further exacerbated the ongoing Lebanese economic, social, and political collapse. Lebanon is presently on the verge of collapse, with declining GDP, high unemployment, raging inflation, near insolvency, and the loss of confidence in the existing political order. It also is totally dependent on external aid for reconstruction. It also generated a significant wave of angry protest, and thus an opportunity for profound change in in the Lebanese political system.

Three future scenarios are possible:

  • Continued economic disintegration and descent into social and political chaos, in which violence would determine the outcomes. This scenario continues the present trajectory, which in strategic terms is the most problematic for Israel. It leaves Hizbullah as the best-armed and effective force in Lebanon and its Iranian masters with full freedom of action, with no restraining forces and without a proper statist “address.”
  • A growing intervention by Turkey, as part of its bid to dominate the eastern Mediterranean, by using the Sunnis, particularly in the north, would accelerate centrifugal tendencies and the confessional rivalries. This prospect, which has begun to emerge, would have significant negative implications given the growing Turkish hostility towards Israel, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt in the struggle for the Mediterranean.
  • Slow emergence of a new, non-sectarian political order. The severity of the current crisis creates an opportunity for a long-range rescue effort, coupled with a firm and consistent demand for profound governmental reform from outside actors. Even President Michel Aoun, a typical product of the old order, now speaks in favor of the “civic state.” Israel has a clear interest this demand becoming part of the international agenda.

In the absence of a coherent US position, France has taken the lead in shaping events. Paris’ fingerprints were visible in the effort (which so far has failed) to enable Mustafa Adib to form a government. President Macron came to Beirut twice. He demanded a “new chapter,” spoke of a new National Covenant that would replace the defunct Ta’if Agreement and of a non-confessional civic state. On September 28, he sharply criticized Hizbullah and others for Adib’s failure to form a government. To the extent the France can join hands with others in the West, it also should be possible to contain Turkey’s hegemonism.

The answer to the Lebanese political crisis is a gradual transition to a system of representation which is not sectarian in nature. The true interest of Lebanon, as well as of Israel (and of the region as a whole), is a new political culture based on the Lebanese national interest; and now there is at least a chance for this to develop. In the long run, this will make it possible to loosen the stranglehold that Hizbullah (and hence Tehran) now has over Lebanon’s future. In the emerging dialogue with regional partners, with Europe, and ultimately with Washington, it is important for Israel to share in the creation of a vision for the future of Lebanon; a vision that also will serve Israel’s interests in the face of challenges from both Iran and Turkey.

Lebanon’s New Realities: Implications

The huge explosion, which devastated the port and parts of Beirut in August, was followed by unprecedented angry protests directed at the system as a whole, including the corrupt leadership, Hasan Nasrallah, Hizbullah as a political player, and the Iranian regime as an “occupying power” in Lebanon. Both the event and the response reflected a painful and severe situation. The explosion exposed the full range of ills which have taken hold of Lebanon: political dysfunction and bureaucratic rot, which even prior to the explosion had brought the country to the edge of economic and social collapse. Also: sheer incompetence, negligence and systemic corruption which have compounded basic weaknesses to the point of government impotence.

The explanation of what happened probably is rooted in folly and weak controls rather than in malice, Nevertheless, blame has been placed on Hizbullah and Nasrallah personally due to their dominant role in the political system as well as the suspicion that Hizbullah is culpable for the continued storage of ammonium nitrate in Hangar 12 of the Beirut port.

The use of this substance for terror purposes by Hizbullah cells abroad has been documented by intelligence agencies in the West. The State Department’s senior counter-terrorism official, Nathan Sales, has mentioned Hizbullah caches in France, Italy, Switzerland and Greece, and there have been seizures of significant amounts in Cyprus, Britain and more.

In any case, the handling of the ammonium nitrate issue demonstrates the fixed and familiar pattern in Lebanon of the lack of elementary governmental capacity. Specifically, this is the persistent inability to settle disputes between various authorities (the port administration, customs, the Ministry of Labor and others) as to what to do about the storage, while interested parties were looking at the benefits they could draw by using it in their struggle for power in Lebanon. Hence the urgent need for a far-reaching governmental and political reform, which among other outcomes would significantly diminish the strength and status of Hasan Nasrallah (and thus reduce Iran’s influence in Lebanon).

In recent weeks, the push for reforms seemed to focus on the bid by Mustafa Adib (former Ambassador in Germany) to put together a cabinet; a failed effort which drew an angry French response. Macron proposed an initiative which links a rescue aid package to the economic reforms a future Lebanese government would have to carry out. But the basic problems that have been put on the public agenda, and the ongoing political, economic, and social dramas, are not of a personal or factional nature; again, these are the result of an all-round systemic failure. The country is in prolonged stasis during which it cannot govern in the face of chasms between the various political and confessional forces over whether to implement the required reforms.

These disputes turn Lebanese politics into a battlefield of sectarian struggles and personal vendettas, often viewed as a “zero-sum game” in which the gain of one group is the loss of rival groups.

This consistently has foiled all attempts to establish an agreed concept of national identity and interest which could supersede sectarian preferences, and which could serve as the point of departure for the unification of the country. The Lebanese economy, which has been insolvent for some time already, therefore cannot rise from the wreckage without massive external aid and investment.

Such aid must be made conditional upon structural reforms; but such reforms are unacceptable in the eyes of present office holders who hang on to power under the present system. The inevitable conclusion is that only far-reaching social and political changes can (perhaps) make it possible for Lebanon to survive the present impasse. It is necessary to recall that the political order in Lebanon, has given Hizbullah a stranglehold on all key power nodes in recent decades, alongside full freedom of action against Israel (as dictated by Iran’s needs) – without having to heed the Lebanese national interest. Hence the need for deep structural change of the Lebanese political system.

The demonstrators who swarmed the streets of Beirut do not have a coherent and well-established leadership, for the moment. There is also a persistent deterrent effect caused by the raw use of power by Hizbullah’s cadres, whose parallel groups in southern Iraq have been slaughtering the protest leaders in Basra and all over Iraq. Nevertheless, the intensity of the anger should not be discounted. It has been translated into unprecedented calls for doing away with Nasrallah along with the entire old guard and the existing political system.

A former leader of Hizbullah, Subhi Tufayli, even has called for the execution by hanging of all who are responsible and suggested that Hasan Nasrallah should be the first among them. The Maronite Patriarch Bishara Ra’i publicly has demanded an end to the existence of “armed militias,” namely Hizbullah. If backed by firm and consistent external pressure, such statements and the spontaneous outbursts of outrage which keep surfacing in the social media over time may take a more distinct and effective political form. For this to happen, the new global political message should be a demand to bring about basic changes in the political system.

Such systemic change is inevitable, despite explicit threats by Hizbullah that it will not agree to depart from the existing order. The economic challenge is far too serious to ignore. Lebanon, in the phrase used by some observers, is turning into a basket case like Venezuela, or worse. The decline in GDP, already sharp before the disaster, may reach 25%! The cost of reconstruction of the port may be $15 billion – in an insolvent country whose financial system, once the envy of the Arab world, is in collapse, where both inflation and unemployment run high and the Lebanese pound is crashing. Without external help (which again should be dependent upon domestic reforms), the situation will deteriorate further.  Israel has no wish the see a failed state on its borders.

Is Systemic Change in Lebanon Possible?

There is precedent in Lebanese political history for significant political change. When France initiated the creation of “Greater Lebanon” in 1920 and annexed distinctly Muslim regions to the territory of the Maronite Christian entity in Mount Lebanon, it established a sectarian system of political delineation which was meant to ensure Christian hegemony. (For every five Muslim members of parliament there were six Christians, 99 in all.) Since then, the country has been through upheavals, confrontations and ultimately a prolonged civil war, which led to change in the political template. Under the terms of the Ta’if Agreement of 1989, the parliamentary balance changed from Christian dominance to exact parity. (64 members of parliament each for Christians and Muslims, in a 128-seat house.) Still, the agreement retained the stipulation that the President should be Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister Sunni, and the Speaker of Parliament Shi’i.

The next phase of change may now be around the corner, although resistance may be fierce. As a community, the Shi’a in Lebanon stands to gain. Any deep reform of the Lebanese system is bound by necessity to give a more prominent political presence to the Shi’a population, reflecting their relative demographic rise. There has been no official census since 1932, for fear of the political consequences, nevertheless the Shi’a are now approximately 45% of the population, while Sunnis and Christians are down to 22% each, and the rest are Druze and other groups. These numbers exclude the massive numbers of recent Syrian refugees, and the Palestinians who are in Lebanon since 1948, neither of whom are granted citizenship.

But the Shi’a communal gain might become Hizbullah’s loss. Hizbullah is today at the peak of its power, with (as noted) complete freedom of action within a chaotic and dysfunctional system. Greater Shi’a representation will not enhance Hizbullah’s sway; the opposite may be true. This could become an opportunity for new voices to be heard within the Shi’a denomination. Part of the urban Shiite middle class abhors the blood spilled in the war in Syria and are as affected as their fellow citizens from any other denomination by the economic meltdown. They may be interested in finding other non-denominational avenues for political participation.

The call for a “revolution” heard loud in the public domain after the disaster does not begin nor end with the need to curtail Hizbullah’s dominance. It reflects a prolonged frustration with the wars, violence, assassinations, and instability which have for decades taken their toll in Lebanon. Above all, the protest is an expression of the disgust felt by many towards the pervasive corruption of the Lebanese system. It should be emphasized that that this acute dissatisfaction with the performance of the Lebanese state cuts across denominational lines – and indicates the prolonged alienation  and the general population, which staggers under the burden of taxes, unemployment, and the lack of governmental services of the political elite. For growing numbers, the solution is emigration (the exit option), often illegally and in danger of drowning, while others take to the streets (the voice option).

However, the old elites – led by militia leaders from the era of the Civil War – understand they are under attack and in physical danger. (Demonstrators overtly erected gallows after the port disaster.) They will try to close ranks and hang on – along the full spectrum from Hasan Nasrallah to Samir Geagea – to sustain the existing system with minor cosmetic changes. They will try to mobilize external support. The Sunnis are being courted by Turkey, while the French and Russians sympathize with the Christians, and Iran retains its status as the main backer of the Shi’a.

Still, the disastrous circumstances have knocked the system off balance. The utter discreditation of the political elites from both sides of the divide – the pro-Syrians and Hizbullah supporters (the “March 8 Camp”) vs. their anti-Assad rivals (“March 14 Camp”) – runs deeper than just the question of Hizbullah’s status as an non-state military power. This indeed may be the most serious threat to Lebanon in the short and medium term. (Of course, an Israeli-Iranian confrontation would lead to catastrophic round of fighting too).

But there also are wider questions as to Lebanon’s failure as a state; the result of the utter rot exposed by the explosion in Beirut. This rotten system now faces a point of decision. So do the international players which have a stake in the outcome in Lebanon.

As discussed above, Lebanon can go three different ways. The first is that the elites succeed in preserving the system. This will block all prospects of significant reform. The economy will continue down a downward spiral, emigration will intensify, and those who stay will become dependent on non-governmental support. (This support would be external in the case of Turkish activism vis-à-vis the Sunnis in the north; or internal via non-state actors, for the Shi’a populations supported by Hizbullah and its social services.)

Another option, particularly if the Turks indeed increase their grip in the Tripoli area, is that so called “isolationist” (centrifugal) tendencies will intensify, tearing the country apart. The Maronites will recede into the mountains, while Hizbullah tightens its hold in the south (Jabal ‘Amal), the Biqa’, and the Dahiya of Beirut. This could lead to a clash, the consequences of which are hard to predict.

In fact, the likelihood of this scenario increases as Lebanon (and specifically, its financial system) becomes subject to further sanctions and restrictions, mainly due the policies of the present American administration against Hizbullah and its Iranian backers, without a complementary structure of incentives for change. While the purpose of the pressure may be to weaken Iran and Hizbullah, the actual result may be a missed opportunity to bring about real change. As it currently stands, US policy will not resolve the Lebanese crisis but might rather exacerbate it and accelerate the trends described above. In practice, the dependence of other power players upon Hizbullah may increase.

The third option is suggested here as a design for pro-active policies going forward. This is the call for deep reform under constant and consistent international pressure generated by the strings attached to international rescue packages. (A donor conference is now scheduled for November 2020). As President Macron said in his first visit to Lebanon, shortly after the blast, “things will no longer be the same.”

Israel has a long-term interest in being a party to a reform effort (e.g., by taking an open-minded position on the maritime border issue). France, alongside Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and the UAE shares Israel’s interest in standing against Erdogan’s Mediterranean ambitions. Israel should thus take part in formulating an alternative to the present reality; and in “marketing” it to US decision makers, particularly after the November elections.

Parameters of Change

To generate real change in the Lebanese arena, it is necessary to steer it in a direction which would generate a free-standing Lebanese identity; a national interest which would trump external dictates. (This could avert, when the day comes, the ruin of Lebanon in a war initiated in Iran’s behalf). This requires the building of functional national institutions.

Therefore, the priority for the international community should be to push for the abandonment of commitment to the existing order – the obsolete and anachronistic sectarian system. Moving Lebanon towards a modern, non-denominational political template will require denunciation of any political figure in Lebanon who stands in the way, whether Hizbullah supporters or their opponents.

As long as “the system” persists, Lebanese confessional communities will continue to depend upon the largesse of the Zu’ama’ (traditional, authoritarian leaders) and the latter will do all they can – in operational alliance, overt or covert, with Hizbullah – to hold on to their privileges. To bring an end to this pattern, Lebanese governmental institutions need to shift from the present pattern in which appointments are made on a confessional base regardless of qualifications, to a mode in which they will be made according to qualifications, regardless of confessional identity. This, alongside a change in parliamentary representation, would be the two pillars and basic preconditions for the reconstruction of the Lebanese edifice of state.

At the same time, incentives for external investments are needed too, which will reward innovation and entrepreneurship, and provide jobs for young people, regardless of their confessional identity. In any dialogue on Lebanon between Israel and relevant powers in the West, and specifically the US, this is the direction that should be recommended.

Another useful step would be the reinstitution of the military draft, irresponsibly cancelled at the initiative of the March 14 camp in 2007. The integration of members of all confessions in military service would enhance a sense of national identity and coherence, and may help in changing the present situation, in which one denomination is clearly hegemonic in military terms over all others.

At the same time, to protect minorities in the country and protect against the tyranny of the majority, it would be useful to establish an upper house of parliament or Senate (majlis shuyukh) which would represent Lebanon’s regions. This house will have a supervisory function over parliamentary legislation, and would ensure that basic decisions, such as changes to the constitution, declaration of a state of emergency, or final approval of the budget, can only be taken by a two-thirds majority.

This would be based on the language of Ta’if Accord and Article 65 of the constitution, agreed upon in 1989 and 1990 respectively but never implemented. In the Senate there could be representatives of all eight regions (or 26 sub-regions) on an equal basis, and the elections would be regional rather than confessional. The creation of a Senate in which all regions would be equally represented would offer those who fear the prospect of change a guarantee against majority repression and discrimination. It would require future governments to take the needs of all into account in passing pass key measures in the Senate.

Another important step would be to further improve the quality of governance by devolution of power to local and regional authorities. These would act as semi-independent “cantons” with greater control over budgets and local taxation. They also would oversee attraction of external investments. All this would amount to the establishment of a federal-regional order, rather than a federal-confessional order, enhancing the sense of regional identity at the expense of the endless intra-confessional conflict which has shaped Lebanon since its establishment a hundred years ago.

These are the vital first steps towards the establishment of a Lebanese national identity (and set of priorities). Without active advocacy for them, and if the present façade is upheld, it will not be possible to bring together a critical public mass of support for change. Nor will it be possible to induce the Lebanese state to begin competing with Hizbullah, and over time to force Hizbullah out. As of now, the demonstrations are still limited in scope and lack a clear, agreed, and positive vision for the future of Lebanon, against a system which has led the country to its present pitiful state.

There has not yet emerged an uncontested, authoritative, and charismatic leadership for the movement demanding change. Until this happens, there will be those among the protesters seeking to replace the present elite by a new denominational leadership, namely themselves. Others will promote an isolationist perspective, i.e., the unrealistic vision of carving up the country along sectarian lines (a return to Maronite separatism). Such suggestions will make it difficult for the “silent majority” to find a common agenda and push for deep structural changes benefitting all denominations.

The understandable tendency to focus anger upon Hizbullah and blame it for the failure of Lebanon at all levels may also prove to be counterproductive. It presents the protesters as anti-Shi’i, and this may deepen the chasm between Shi’a and all others. Although it is tempting to rejoice when Hasan Nasrallah is loudly castigated as a villain, Israel’s long-range interest paradoxically is for the anger to be directed at the system. This would bring closer the day in which a truly national Lebanese identity could be built, one that can compete with the model offered by Hizbullah. All this, side by side with the enhancement of local authorities and the deepening bond between citizens and their regions.

The Role of the Shi’a: Implications for Israel

There is risk involved in granting greater parliamentary salience to the Shi’a, many of whom still support Hizbullah or live in areas under its control. Nevertheless, the emergence of an alternative national, non-sectarian political framework would enable frustrated young forces to join ranks with like-minded elements in other denominations to generate a discourse and a collective course of action which may gain strength within the Lebanese political system.

Attitudes towards this issue should be colored by long-range considerations rather than by present fears. Even if Hizbullah and Amal end up with a much higher representation in parliament, this would hardly make a difference. After all, even now Nasrallah has full command of every function he deems to be necessary for his (and Iran’s) purposes. Shi’a demographic dominance is a fact, and it is only a matter of time until the Lebanese system adjusts to this reality; preferably in a manner which fully uproots the confessional base of the constitution.

Such a complete undoing of the system would undermine the main reason, internally, justifying Hizbullah’s existence as a state-within-a-state. Moreover, it will generate the creation of political frameworks in which Shi’ites can join up, meaningfully, with members of other denominations – whether in government or in the private sector. Even in the worst scenario in which Hizbullah would assume full control of the state (and would thus be fully responsible for its fate, as distinct from the present ambiguity), this would not be more harmful to Israel than the present situation. As things now stand, Hizbullah has been able to embed itself at the core of the Lebanese system to protects its interests and to foil any challenge to its status as a state-within-a-state. Such a scenario would likely accelerate the counter-offensive of non-sectarian forces.

One way or the other, an end must be put to the illusionary notion that the Lebanese state can continue to thrive in its present form; when in fact it is little more than a mechanism for personal plunder by corrupt politicians and functionaries.

It should not be posited that the adoption of this non-sectarian model would lead to the demise of Hizbullah overnight. Such a scenario is neither realistic nor practical. Yet the creation of a modern and inclusive system of governance – as well as increased economic integration in the region as whole would clearly make a difference. (This a good reason for Israel to seek a generous compromise on the EEZ border, offering Lebanon a stake in stability in the Eastern Mediterranean)

Over time, this may generate the basis for the rise of a new leadership which is no longer rooted in lineage within dominant families (Jumblatt, Hariri, Gemayel); or on the command of violent factions during the Civil War (Berri, Aoun, Geagea); or on the exploitation of the rotten system (which empowered Hasan Nasrallah and Hizbullah).

In the new era, the political stabilization of modern governance as well as the resumption of economic growth would enable the middle class to nurture a new generation of women and men in leadership positions likely to come from the younger generations of all sects and the ranks of the present demonstrators. It will fall to them to struggle for a renewed definition of Lebanese national identity.

Israel cannot be a neutral spectator in this struggle, although any direct intervention will only make matters worse. Israel must continue to tread carefully, based on enhancing deterrence and denying Iran the ability to use Lebanon for actions which do not serve the Lebanese interest. The prospects for this have risen somewhat due to the Beirut disaster and its implications. At the same time, by sitting at the negotiating table on the EEZ delimitations, Israel signals to the Lebanese public that Israel does not wish it harm, and that a functional, non-sectarian state to the north is an Israeli interest. (This was manifested after the Beirut disaster, when Tel Aviv City Hall was lit with the Lebanese flag, in solidarity with victims of the blast.)

A flexible and generous response can be made by Israel on practical matters (while rejecting extravagant Lebanese demands as to the land border, such as the claim to the “7 villages” allegedly within Israel). At sea, there is a common interest for both countries to reach an agreement, enabling them to benefit from stability and increased investment. This would depend, in turn, on the ability of Lebanon to make decisions as a state, not as a convoluted skein of personal and confessional interests.

All this would aim to prove to the Lebanese population as a whole – and quite specifically, to the Shi’a – that Israel has no interest in harming them. Indeed, Israel is willing to act in ways which promote their economic well-being if Lebanon is not used in actions against Israel. Strategic thinking about the future of Lebanon requires a re-consideration of Israeli priorities. Policies geared towards long-term rather than immediate goals would seek to enhance the internal restraints and constraints imposed on Hizbullah, from within the Shi’a as well as the Lebanese people.

At this stage, the demand for disarming Hizbullah, while legitimate, is unlikely to be realistic, unless it comes from within. The international community should not be mobilized for pointless and quixotic tactical efforts such as reforming UNIFIL’s practices in (not) entering populated areas in south Lebanon. Instead, the focus should be on a prolonged, patient, focused and consistent project, utilizing the leverage provided by aid packages, to overhaul the entire Lebanese system.

Reforming the domestic political structure in Lebanon, which may indeed give the Shi’a pride of place in demographic terms, may lend greater credibility and legitimacy to the call “from within” to change Hizbullah’s present status. From an independent militia, coordinated in practice with an external authority (namely Iran), it should be pushed to integrate with the Lebanese Armed Forces. Thus, the ultimate decision at a moment of crisis as to what would happen on Israel’s northern border, will no longer rest solely with that sole faction in Lebanese politics.

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