Lebanon blast has ramifications felt in country, around the world

Days after an enormous explosion tore through the city of Beirut, leaving at least 170 people dead and thousands injured, Lebanon’s cabinet last week resigned. It might have been an opportunity to end a sad chapter of the country’s history. Protesters have been on the streets since last October, angry at official corruption, mismanagement and spiralling inflation. With the politicians resigning en masse, this was surely a turning point. Unfortunately there appear to be many more sad chapters for this tortured nation to endure.

Lebanon’s tragedy today is that it is caught between Iran and the US, a standoff which saw the UAE and Israel – former foes – draw closer last week. Iran backs Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist political party and a US-designated terror group, which has become a pillar of the Lebanese state by weaving a web of multi-sectarian alliances.

The “Party of God” has been part of Lebanese coalition governments for more than a decade. It is also Israel’s most potent adversary. Previously Hezbollah lurked in the background, allowing rivals to run the government but able to intervene at crucial moments. When demonstrations brought a new government in January, Hezbollah was firmly in charge. This meant it could be blamed for the state’s dysfunction, which it can do very little to fix. With the suspicions that it stored weapons near the site of the explosion, the Tehran-backed group will struggle to retain its dominance.

Lebanon’s confessional-based political system lies at the heart of its dysfunctional governance. Based on a French colonial-era power-sharing agreement and reinforced by the 1991 Taif agreement which ended the country’s 15-year civil war, seats in parliament are shared out proportionally among the country’s 18 religious groups. Public sector jobs are divided up among sects. This system ought to have disappeared within the first parliament after the civil war ended.

But Lebanon’s political parties had no interest in dismantling the system of patronage. They use ministries to dole out jobs to their followers. Lebanon’s political system relies on foreign powers, which back local proxies. Syria ran the country, with tacit US approval, until its 2005 withdrawal – which was sparked by assassination of then-prime minister Rafik Hariri. This week a UN-backed court in the Hague is to deliver its verdict on four men, linked to Hezbollah, tried for his murder.

Hariri’s death should have been the spark for real change: national reconciliation between communal groups and, as the Taif accords envisaged, the establishment of a parliamentary body to end Lebanon’s “confessional” democracy. There needs to be a process of reform. But Beirut is hunkering down, enacting a law that gives the army sweeping powers while demonstrations rage.

The Lebanese, who host 1.5 million Syrian refugees, ought to decide their government. They are rightly angry: rolling blackouts, food shortages and soaring prices mar their daily lives. Aid to deal with Covid-19 is needed. More US sanctions will be self-defeating. New elections might help. But voting carried out using the current system favours incumbents.

One demand from the protesters is, before any new election, for the electoral law to be changed to a non-sectarian basis. That needs the current caretaker government to cede power to a more representative one. Something must give, and it would be better for the Arab street to be heard. As we saw in neighbouring Syria, a civil non-sectarian movement can morph into deadly sectarian strife. That is a chapter of Lebanese history nobody wants to write.

-The Guardian