Lebanon at an Impasse—One Year Since the Blast

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


One year since the death of over 200 people following a powerful explosion, life in Beirut and more generally in Lebanon continues with no sign of accountability or improvement. In many ways the destruction of a large segment of the port in Beirut last August serves as a sad reminder of the state of the Lebanese economic and political reality. While allies and friendly nations gather in Paris for another round of donations to boost the ailing economy, at home Lebanon is struggling with a restive population and an entrenched political and economic class unwilling to reform itself.

Reporting on demonstrations taking place on the anniversary of the blast, Al Arabiya’s Marco Ferrari and Omar Elkatouri note the anti-Hezbollah and anti-Iran sentiment that runs through many of the protests, adding that “Anti-Iran and anti-Hezbollah slogans could be heard from the crowds on the anniversary of the deadly blast that killed more than 200 people and left thousands more injured. Meanwhile, security forces fired tear gas at anti-government protesters demonstrating outside the Lebanese parliament building. Tensions have been mounting in the crisis-stricken country over what many believe is the government’s failure to fully investigate the blast.”

Meanwhile, France’s president Emmanuel Macron, in an effort to provide some much-needed relief for Lebanon’s economy, organized a donor’s meeting earlier this week, with countries pledging financial support in the millions. Among the countries pledging support were the UAE and Saudi Arabia. According to a Khaleej Times’ report, Reem bint Ibrahim Al Hashemy, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation, promised that “The UAE will continue their support to Lebanon through this difficult phase. She affirmed that country’s support to the Lebanese people and said the UAE will continue to provide all forms of humanitarian aid and support development in cooperation with international organizations and partners.”

The Saudi Gazette reports that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan, presiding over the Saudi delegation in Paris, expressed support for Lebanon, while singling out Hezbollah as a destabilizing force in the country and the region: “Saudi Arabia has always stood by the people of Lebanon during their times of crises and challenges…. Prince Faisal said that Lebanon is facing difficulties in forming an effective government and that Hezbollah’s insistence on imposing its hegemony on the state is the main cause of Lebanon’s problems. He reiterated the Kingdom’s affirmation that any assistance provided to the current or future Lebanese government depends on how it carries out serious and tangible reforms while ensuring that aid reaches its beneficiaries and not the corrupt who seek to control the fate of Lebanon.”

Despite such pledges of support, most observers agree that the current situation in Lebanon is unlikely to improve without understanding the root causes of the crisis. Amer Al Sabaileh, columnist at The Jordan Times, sees little ground for optimism and pins the blame on the sectarian nature of Lebanon’s political system: “Almost a year has passed since the explosion that destroyed a large part of the port of Beirut and brought the fragile Lebanese economy to its knees. However, one year on and the political and social landscape appears to be worsening…. This highly unstable situation is the result of the sectarian system which makes the country inherently fragile and whose components are more prone to internal confrontation than to collaboration and constructive conciliation. There is little optimism for quick or easy solution, as a wicked problem often requires a wicked solution.”

Mohamed Chebaro, writing for Arab News, is equally pessimistic about Lebanon’s present and future. However, unlike Al Sabaileh, Chebaro is of the view that “a closer look at Lebanon’s internal divides, which no one wants to address, the entrenched discord that has plagued the regional actors that have influence over the country, and the disappearance of any moral or immoral compass on the international level as a result of a non-alignment of objectives between the no-longer-dominant West and the more-assertive East, such as China and Russia, leave it in an intensive care ward without power. It is left running on batteries as the nurses queue for a visa to migrate after the doctors found jobs abroad to feed and educate their children because that prospect dwindled in Lebanon following the Beirut port explosion.”

The darkened outlook seems to have had an effect on the Lebanese people as well. The National’s editor-in-chief Michael Young expresses some frustration with what he considers ‘Lebanon’s struggle and surrender’ one year since the blast, a conclusion to which he arrives by observing that “in Lebanon, even as the situation has continued to deteriorate to levels hitherto unseen in the country, even during the civil war, the population has remained relatively passive. Perhaps their fault is having lived for so long in a dysfunctional country that they are prepared to adapt to the worst…. a year after the port explosion there is a sense that the Lebanese just don’t have it in them. They’re good at examining their predicament, but only once in a while do they rise up to try to resolve their problems – before soon abandoning everything. Those who lost family members on August 4 are alone in not surrendering, but all the signs are that their struggle will remain a long and lonely one.”

Aware of the critical perspectives on Iran’s role in Lebanon, the Iranians for their part are keen on shifting the focus elsewhere when it comes to identifying the source of Lebanon’s malaise and state of dysfunction. In an interview with Talal Atriss, Head of the Center for Political Studies at the University of Lebanon, Tehran Times’ Mohammad Mazhari stresses Atriss’ view that “international intervention will not heal Lebanon’s wounds. ‘Part of the crisis in Lebanon has to do with the Western-American blockade on Lebanon, and this started two years ago’. The United States under the Trump administration imposed a bunch of economic sanctions on prominent Lebanese politicians and key allies of Hezbollah on charges of corruption. ‘Sanctions were imposed on banks, as some banks were closed by U.S. direction, and thus the external role had a significant impact in this regard’. The economic deterioration caused by U.S. sanctions is coupled with a complicated network of corruption.”

Following the decision of prime minister-designate Saad Hariri to step back, many hoped that new Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati may have an easier path toward the creation of a new government. Judging by Bassem Aly’s op-ed on Al Ahram, that is unlikely to be the case, especially since “Mikati does not seem to be optimistic about his prospects either, saying on Monday that ‘frankly, with regard to the government, I was hoping the pace would be faster’ after a meeting with Aoun…. Rabha Seif Allam, a Lebanon expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said that several political forces in Lebanon have said they will not join Mikati’s government, especially since a new one will be negotiated after next year’s parliamentary elections.”

It may very well be the case that those political forces may have to reconsider their position. Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman asserts that Lebanon’s internal weakness may make an Israeli incursion in the south of the country a necessity as Hezbollah-backed militant groups fire rockets against Israel, leading the latter to retaliate: “In Lebanon, the state has largely broken down. There are no laws or rules for the powerful. There is no accountability…. Meanwhile, in southern Lebanon, a group, likely given a green light by Hezbollah, fired rockets into Israel, leading to Israeli responses that included artillery and an airstrike. It is not clear whether the rocket attack is linked to attempts to distract from the protests in Beirut, or is linked to an attack on a ship off Oman last week, but the overall picture is clear: Lebanon has little control over what happens inside its borders.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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