What is really happening in Beirut – far from revolution (Robert Bekhazi)

The tragic event last week in Beirut, where a warehouse filled with many tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded and the tragic effect of this explosion, have once again shone the international media spotlight on this beautiful, yet tumultuous country of Lebanon, on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea.

The coverage on human suffering and the many videos of how this disaster effected the lives of so many “Beirutis” has touched the conscience of the international community.

Reports on Lebanon in the media on the political situation in the country, have not been able to pinpoint the geopolitical struggles at play nor the underlying issues at the heart of the Lebanese problem, where much reform is demanded and needed.

Since the 1990 Taef Agreement was signed, signalling an end to the tragic civil war which had decimated the country since 1975, executive power was transferred from the Presidency (a Maronite Christian position in the constitution) to the Prime Minister (A Sunni Moslem) and the cabinet.

The end of the Syrian occupation in 2005, post the Hariri assassination, created a power vacuum in the country. Lebanon was ruled by Syria’s military and security personal with an iron fist. The end of this military presence was replaced with a regional agreement known as “S-S” or Syria- Saudi Arabia. This agreement led to a degree of internal political stability as the allies of Syria and Saudi Arabia cooperated, the Lebanese government continued to borrow money to meet its budget deficit and thus underlying tensions in the country were kept relatively in check. Political parties not linked to either axis, continued to be sidelined.

The Syrian war was to be the end of this entente. Syria quickly disintegrated as it lost control over most if its territory. As a consequence, it’s influence in Lebanon was decimated. Its traditional allies, and specifically Hezbollah, a party formed in the 1980’s from Lebanon Shiite community, with both political and military arms, intervened in Syria on the side of the Syrian government. It’s military intervention as part of an axis with Syria, Iran and Russia, played a pivotal role in returning control of most of Syria into the government’s arms. Other components of the Lebanese political spectrum, intervened on behalf of the rebels. (There are whispers that the ammonium nitrate that exploded was housed in Beirut, but could have actually been intended for the Syrian arena). However, in Lebanon, this meant an end to the relative calm in the relations between different powers in the country.

At the heart of the conflict is a regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Lebanon this conflict has manifested itself as an ongoing struggle between its Sunni and Shiite communities. Protests, government resignations, simmering tensions festered for years, until an opportunity opened to return to compromise, with the results of the 2018 Parliamentary elections.

The elections gave President Michel Aoun, elected as President in October 2016, a bloc of 29 MPs in a Parliament of 128. This was the largest bloc in Lebanon’s history and marked a return to proper representation for Lebanon’s Christian community, long sidelined since the 1990 Taef agreement.

Whilst the post of President in Lebanon is non-executive and largely ceremonial, Aoun believed that his large bloc in Parliament, could work with the main Shiite party Hezbollah and Saad Harriri’s Future Movement, the largest representative of the Sunni community.

President Aoun believed that these three groups working together would mean that Lebanon’s main sects could immunise the internal scene, in order to pass much needed reform, fight corruption and finally focus on providing basic necessities such as electricity and waste disposal services. Working Together would sideline Lebanon’s internal arena from regional conflict.
The Presidents efforts led to a national unity government that represented the largest Lebanese parties, that was led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Whilst this government was met with hope by large segments of the Lebanese community, it was once again curtailed by the regional conflict still at play in Syria, and even in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, which had intervened heavily in the Syrian conflict on the side of the rebels, was deeply irate with Hezbollah’s interventions and heavily pressured Prime Minister Hariri to resign.

When Hariri continued to adhere to the agreement with President Aoun, he was summoned to Saudi Arabia where he resigned on Saudi television. It is believed that he had been detained and physically assaulted by Saudi security forces.

Lebanon’s President and Foreign Minister were quick to act and called for the release of Prime Minister Hariri. The Foreign Minister visited many governments and called for their help. After the intervention of French President Macron, the Saudis allowed Hariri to return to Beirut and resume his position of Prime Minister.

Despite this positive outcome, continued pressure on Prime Minister Hariri from Saudi Arabia, as well as a decision that it would no longer support Lebanon as long as Hezbollah remained in government, led to his resignation on October 30th 2019.

Protests erupted in Lebanon after a minister from Hariri’s bloc proposed a tax on the popular chat platform WhatsApp. Hariri soon resigned and refused to return as Prime Minister in a government that included Hezbollah and surprisingly, President Aoun’s party. Saudi Arabia’s position, backed by the US, led to a quick and severe deterioration in the Lebanese economy. This made it evident that the regional power struggle was once again rearing its ugly head in Lebanon.

The government of Prime Minister Hassain Diab was formed in February of this year. It was comprised of purely non-political Ministers and hailed itself as a reformist government. Traditional political parties aligned with Saudi Arabia fought this government and labelled it as Hezbollah’s government, ignoring the reality that Shiite participation in any government is always 20% of the government as per the constitution.

The media has focussed exclusive on the narrative of groups that label themselves as “Civil Society” groups. These groups have been newly formed, or come from community groups that have become political as a result of the deteriorating economic and security situation in the country. Many of these groups focus on the need to reform the Lebanese political system to free it from the hold of sect based politics and feudal family run parties, and the decades of corruption that have accompanied the system. These goals are truly admirable, however the slogan “All of them are corrupt” in relation to the entire Lebanese political spectrum, have largely provided cover for the corrupt.

Since the protests erupted on October 17th 2019, they have been able to draw a large segment of Lebanese society to the streets, however they have not reached anywhere near the ground swell that is needed for revolutionary change. They are yet to form a leadership, with no credible leader emerging.

The street is represented by disparate groups, with actors from the far left to the far right. They are being infiltrated by political groups seeking to use the protests against their rivals, with many of the slogan and actions of the ground coming from political operatives. Their current attempt is to focus their anger on the non-executive position of the Presidency.

These civil society groups were represented at the last elections and were able to elect one MP, Paula Yacoubian, whom they quickly rejected as being representative of their movement.

Lebanon needs reform, needs change and needs a new political system based on a civil state. In order to achieve this, an underlying agreement is needed between the major components of Lebanese society to change the broken system. It will require the street to move to organize itself and convince Lebanese society they are a better alternative.

It will also require regional and international powers to sideline Lebanon as an arena in their geopolitical struggles.

Lebanon, a consensual coexistence between 18 official sects, is not an environment that in its current state that will be receptive to a popular revolution. Rather it is a theatre in which political groups will attempt to usurp the protests to their advantage in their quest to defeat their political rivals. We are seeing this now with the steady stream of social media, put out by those who wanted to topple Diab’s new government, and the President.

The symbolic “noose” that was assembled on the weekend in Martyrs Square to hang effigies of Lebanese leaders – concentrated on three leaders, and was orchestrated by their political rivals in the guise of popular protests.

It is important that the Western Media is able to delve deeper into the Lebanese reality, with a clear understanding of the country’s situation, thus giving readers a wider perspective.

What I have read so far, is very skewed or at worst, part of the narrative being driven by certain groups via social media.

Robert Bekhazi
Federal Secretary
United Australian Lebanese Movement

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