Lebanon’s ‘Year Zero’

A year after the Beirut Port explosion, the country seems more broken than ever and with even less chance for a realistic positive outcome.

Drone footage of the aftermath of the explosions in Beirut, Aug. 5, 2020. Source: Screenshot.
Drone footage of the aftermath of the explosions in Beirut, Aug. 5, 2020. Source: Screenshot.
Alberto M. Fernandez
Alberto M. Fernandez

How long do you keep investing in failure? How much effort does one put into reviving a corpse? When can you, or when are you allowed to, try something different? The late Sudanese rebel leader John Garang used to say that the regime in Sudan was “too deformed to be reformed” (he made a deal with that regime though, for the sake of peace, and tragically died before seeing the consequences).

In a region full of rotten, dysfunctional regimes, tiny Lebanon has become a cautionary tale of world-class implosion and corruption. The World Bank described it as “likely to rank in the top 10, possibly top 3, most severe crisis episodes globally since the mid-nineteenth century.” And this situation has been unraveling before our eyes for almost two years, seemingly in slow motion for outside observers, and unbearable for Lebanese, suffering from so much cruelty and privation.

And while the international community—really France and the United States—has tried to cajole the Lebanese ruling elite, the same people that caused this crisis in the first place, into taking urgent steps to allow the West to help, that elite is resistant. They have other priorities, such as remaining in power, dividing up the dwindling spoils and maneuvering for future positions.

In particular, there is the question of who will be Lebanon’s president after the doddering Michel Aoun leaves the scene. Will it be another Hezbollah collaborator or a return to another agent of Damascus? Aoun, the country’s current head of state, is a perfect metaphor for the elite’s political moment—oblivious, complacent, alternating between cunning and senility.

With its distinctive history and mix of sects, Lebanon is, of course, unique. The disaster is also unique. Many states have had imploded economies, corruption and rotten elites, but in Lebanon, these are all happening with the context of the country being ruled indirectly by an Iranian terrorist group through that rotten elite and its institutions.

Hezbollah is technically a Lebanese organization, its members are Lebanese citizens, but in any real sense, it functions as an extension of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It is an occupation force whose occupiers are local citizens, akin to the old days when imperial powers would raise local subaltern forces to police their colonies for them.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds against systemic change in Lebanon, there are dreamers who articulate a different path. Civil society and good governance groups associated with the 2019 thawra (“uprising” or “revolution”), battered and weakened, still survive. Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic Patriarch has pushed the idea that Lebanon should be neutral and disentangle itself from regional conflicts (war with Israel is the reason for Hezbollah existing as an armed force, of course).

Some of these dreamers have gone even further, questioning the nature of the state itself and calling for a federal Lebanon divided into four geographical “cantons” built around the country’s four main religious sects—Sunni, Shi’ite, Christian and Druze.

The concept that Iyad Boustany has described—embodying qualities such as “subsidiarity, self-rule and localism”—is particularly attractive, not just for Lebanon but elsewhere.

Subsidiarity, that principle that social and political decisions are best dealt with at the smallest, most local level, with its echoes of Pope Leo XIII, De Tocqueville, Belloc and Chesterton, seems much more urgent in a world where—despite the tantalizing promise of social media—real power seems more centralized than ever. Lebanon has its predatory elite, and increasingly it looks like similar elites, combining political, cultural and economic power in the same permanent class, are emerging elsewhere.

Boustany sees a federal system as the last, best hope for Lebanon’s embattled and dwindling Christian population. He recently wrote that without radical change, “Lebanon’s Christians will soon be no more. Their civilization will slowly end. Not in a highly publicized massacre, not in a heroic last stand. History will not remember a fatal date nor glorious name: no May 29th 1453, no Constantine Palaeologus … and yet the lights of Hagia Sophia will go out. Slowly drained [and] exhausted by time and demography and wrapped in the shame of a corrupt system, like watching a train wreck in slow motion, our civilization will soon exit history.”

A federated Lebanon does not seem to be “either a sham or a cure-all,” but rather, one of those reformist, hypothetical ideas that will never get very far because those in power—particularly Hezbollah, but also its enablers, including the Lebanese Christian ones—will never willingly give up any bit of the power, current or potential, that they hold. Where such an idea moves from the fantastical to the merely improbable is if Lebanon’s decline continues with what remains of a rickety state collapsing and armed men putting up barricades to protect their districts and neighborhoods from looters.

The default outcome of such a scenario could be cantons or federalism, or just chaos. Obviously, collapse and disintegration of that sort could be prevented by a well-armed (mostly by the Americans) Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)—assuming that the LAF itself does not collapse—at the service of whatever fig leaf of authority remains. And that authority is likely to be a partner of Hezbollah. It seems that Lebanon must sink deeper before it has even a remote chance to rise—and nothing is assured.

Lebanon’s predicament is relatively unique, although Iran is working to repeat the Hezbollah model elsewhere, chiefly in Iraq, where it attempts to rule indirectly through corrupt parties and empowered and embedded local death squads. Other elements in the Lebanese catastrophe are not so unique and have accelerated over time: the loss of control over borders and supposedly sovereign institutions; a permanent predatory ruling class; a collapse of the currency and economic system/hyperinflation; a constant degradation of both the built and natural environment; and an emphasis on sub-group identity and loyalty over that of the nation.

Lebanon seems more broken than ever and with even less chance for a realistic positive outcome a year after the Beirut Port explosion.

At this desolate point, one can only hope that one day the Lebanese dreamers—federalists, proponents of neutrality, those students winning university elections against the ruling parties, brave journalists—have a realistic chance of coming up with something better, more human and dignified. And that in its clumsiness and lack of vision, a superficial and extremely distracted West does not just empower the latest glib and facile iteration of the entrenched status quo in Lebanon’s “Year Zero.”

Alberto M. Fernandez is vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute.

This article was first published by the Middle East Media Research Institute.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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