The COVID-19 pandemic has destabilized Lebanon’s fragile body politic and confirmed what was already obvious to all observers: Hezbollah holds the reins of power. Hezbollah acts as it pleases, overruling regulations forbidding entry to travelers from Iran, paralyzing new governmental appointments at the Central Bank of Lebanon, threatening to withdraw its support from the government if it does not allow the return of more than 20,000 Lebanese citizens, mostly stranded in Africa (and therefore part and parcel of the Shi’ite community), and ultimately forcing the government to stop short of declaring a state of emergency. Such a declaration, under the Lebanese constitution, would have put the Lebanese Army in charge of the country, including Hezbollah and its militia.
In fact, the pandemic has been of great assistance to Hezbollah since, under the pretext of sanitary measures to combat the coronavirus, all protests have been dispersed, and all of the camps of the opposition groups along the main highways have been banned from the public space. In other words, the coronavirus has accomplished in weeks what Hezbollah was unable to since October 2019. The protests in Lebanon simply evaporated, since the main goal at present is to survive, amid not only the pandemic but also the first signs of famine. Tripoli (mainly its Hay el Sullum quarter) and the Dahiyeh neighborhood in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hezbollah has its headquarters, have lately witnessed major manifestations of distress, with people shouting for food and calling on the government to intervene.
Indeed, the combination of the coronavirus calamity and the ongoing economic disaster are the main enemies of the Lebanese. After the October crisis, Lebanon’s financial disaster was exposed: The average Lebanese income is between $2 and $4 a day, in a country whose external debt is the highest per capita in the world (standing at more than $80 billion). The U.S. dollar, which had been traded at the official rate of 1,507 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, reached 2,800 Lebanese pounds to the dollar at the end of March 2020. Inflation has spiked by 27 percent since October, causing the price of food to soar by 50 percent. Lebanon announced in early March that it could no longer meet the payments on its foreign loans, while some reports have pointed at the possibility that the government would trim all deposits, a measure that would wreak havoc on Lebanon as a whole.
In order to get tested for COVID-19, a Lebanese citizen has to pay $90, while illegal residents (one million Syrian refugees and more than 250,000 foreign workers) are required to pay $500, an impossible sum even for most Lebanese. At the same time, certain powerful people, with the active complicity of some of the banks, have managed to smuggle more than $6 billion out of the country in less than three months, defying all emergency laws forbidding the withdrawal of more than $1,000 per week from what are called “fresh accounts,” namely accounts opened after October. Moreover, the state has forbidden currency withdrawal from ATMs. As a result of the shortage in American currency, almost all imports have stopped except for those sponsored by the state.
There is general agreement that the days of the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab are numbered. The reforms of the political system promised by Diab have not materialized, and the pursuit of stolen money is at a standstill (too many politicians and political parties are involved). Hopes of putting an end to a political system based on favoritism and the division of jobs and political appointments according to a sectarian key that was decided at Taif in 1989 have remained unfulfilled.
It is no wonder that the present situation has exacerbated the enmity of political rivals, such as former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea, and Hezbollah and its “caretaker,” former foreign minister and leader of the “Patriotic movement” Gibrane Bassil, President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law.
The coronavirus crisis, coupled with the economic slump in Lebanon, will force decision-makers to reconsider their positions and try once more to overcome the deadlock that is paralyzing the country.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly a foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.
This article first appeared on the website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.