21 August 2020

Lebanon – Is it time to push the reset button of the political system?

Claudiu Nebunu

The explosion in the Port of Beirut could mark the turning point in Lebanon’s political development. A big number of deaths and wounded people and the destruction of a large part of the city led to restart of the protest movements, which were trying to overthrow the entire political class since October 2019. Last year, when the Lebanese economy collapsed, due to a difficult to handle debt and a bad management of the economic and financial crisis, many of the Lebanese people became aware that they suddenly became poor, marginalized in their own country, forced to survive on their own, only having the basic services and small hopes related to the future.

Image source: Profimedia

The tens of thousands of citizens who went out on the streets after the explosion revealed that they have reached a new distrust limit regarding the authorities… The attacks on ministries and public institutions proves that the Lebanese people want to be in the driver’s seat and stop allowing the politicians who run the government so far to stay in power. Is it time to push the reset button of the political system in Lebanon?

Accident or attack?

The massive explosion that took place two weeks ago (Tuesday, August 4th) in the Beirut Port provoked huge intensity shocks, both physically, over the Lebanese people and capital, and mentally, on the Lebanese citizens, in terms of the political system which is not able to manage the country’s issues. Lebanon was already close to an economic collapse, fighting to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the citizens’ lack of trust in the authorities reached an unprecedented level. Although immediately after the explosion some voices were suggesting that Lebanon got attacked, the cause of the explosion is most likely something usual: the authorities’ lack of care led to inadequately deposit thousands of tons of chemicals in the port, for years.

The conspiracy theories have embroidered after the incident. Some witnesses provided contradictory information about what happened, stating that missiles or aircrafts have flown over the area. The source of the controversy comes from the fact that the explosive (ammonium nitrate), which was stored in the port, would have needed fuel and a detonator to explode, except for the case of that explosive being stored at high temperatures, for a long time. The speculations on these controversies are different from a fire, burst due to the high temperature and the bad storing conditions, a detonation in a nearby deposit storing fireworks or Hezbollah munitions and an Israel action (an option mentioned, however, sheepishly, by some Lebanese politicians, only as part of a set of four or five scenarios).

So far, most of the clues lead to the idea that the explosion was an accident, rather than an attack. Many other things are still to be clarified about the circumstances of its explosion and it is necessary to have a clear response to eventually end all the speculations. Equally important is for the investigation to reveal the responsibility of the bureaucrats, the military commanders, judges and governmental officials who knew that such a dangerous chemical substances stock was stored in the port, in bad conditions. But the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, joined President Michel Aoun when refusing the idea of an international investigation of the explosion, stating, just like other politicians, that his party knew nothing about the ammonium nitrate stored in the port. 

The Beirut Port works with no real governmental surveillance. It is commonly manageable by the custom authority and the port authority in Beirut. Meanwhile the first one is controlled by the people loyal to president Michel Aoun, the second one is managed by the bureaucrats loyal to the former prime-minister, Saad Hariri. Both authorities are monitored, technically speaking, by the government, but, in fact, do not follow any official hierarchy or parliamentary control as the other Lebanese authorities and institutions, which are reporting to the leader or party protecting them.

However, the investigation will be extremely complex. If no strong evidences about an attack appears, the final result will, most likely, be that the incident is a combination of mistakes committed by many actors (for example,  the custom, the security agencies, the port’s authority etc.), which reveals an ineffective bureaucracy, lack of care, incompetence and corruption.

But, regardless of how serious the investigation would be, this will always be seen by the public through the lenses of skepticism, given peple’s lack of trust in the entire political structure, as many representatives from the highest level of the Lebanese state, who contributed to this tragedy, might not face justice ever.

The impact on the political class

The negative message sent by the citizens’ complaints revealed the breaches inside the governing elite. On August 9th, a number of members of the parliament and members of the government resigned under the street’s pressure. One day later, the rest of the cabinet, together with the prime-minister Hassan Diad, gave up their mandates, simply formalizing the lack of authority in front of their citizens. The protesters have also brought, for the first time, allegations to Hezbollah as being a member of the sectarian leaders who got called “the mafia” or a “bunch of criminals and thieves”.  Most likely, the developments to follow will reveal new waves of protests and ways to go against the state and, eventually, military responses of the authorities. Last week, for example, the citizens have asked foreign donors to not send humanitarian aid through the government, which their fear they might steal or sell the help or simply direct it towards sectarian loyalists.

Lebanon might face the same dynamic other Arab countries have experienced as well, starting with 2020: the intensification of street protests of a population that’s poor and angry, which wants to overthrow a power structure which refuses to evolve. However, just like in Sudan, Algeria, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and other countries, the Lebanese people are facing a rooted militarized regime, which cannot be that easily pushed away. Furthermore, the power structure in Lebanon is different from any other Arab country and it is even more difficult to be called into question. So far, the main sectarian parties of the Sunni, Christians, Shiites, Druze and other cults have called, in times of crisis, on a small retaliation and sought reconfiguration solutions to share the power, aiming at staying in power.

Last year’s events have discredited the main sectarian parties in the eyes of most of the Lebanese people, including of few of their supporters, whose wealth level decreased. Currently, these seem unable to stop the structural changing demands. Parties such as the Free Patriotic Movement of president Aoun and the Future Movement of Saad Hariri cannot lead but with Hezbollah’s support, as we have witnessed in the last couple of years.

Is there any chance for Hezbollah?

The explosion can mark the start of a phase in Lebanon wherein the two biggest actors, Hezbollah and the uncoordinated protest movement might join forces to create a new more democratic power structure, based on a governing system inspired by the rule of law’s norms. If the protesters would use their popular support in concentrated political process, they could, eventually, commit to overthrowing the current power elite and, then, organize parliamentary elections, monitored by independent groups (two of their key demands).  Intense negotiations are expected in order to get to an agreement over a new non-sectarian electoral law, to lead to the election of a new president and a new governing system. Ideally, this would be managed by an emergency transition government, composed of technocrats, focused on stabilizing the economy and supporting the poor people.

Many in the sectarian elite, which is not discredited, will go against this scenario, but Hezbollah might accept it if certain criteria is accomplished. Hezbollah is different. It is stronger than the state, militarily speaking, and more cohesive than any other sectarian elite. Also, it is structurally connected to Iran, Syria and other militant parties in a regional “resistance” front. Hezbollah especially operates in the backstage, by changing alliances with Christian, Shiite and Sunni groups from the successive governments they have previously supported. Hezbollah will not allow the Lebanese state to collapse and does not want to govern the state by itself. At the same time, however, it will not give up the military capabilities.

Therefore, the challenge for the Lebanese people is whether the protesters and Hezbollah can reach a compromise agreement to allow a more capable government to take the power for a long transition period, keeping, for now, Hezbollah at the negotiations table…

The impact on the economic situation…

Beirut is a city that knows how to rise from the ashes - it is said to have been destroyed and rebuilt seven times in its 5,000-year history. However, this explosion seems to have a greater impact than any past war, invasion or earthquake, because it was brought not by an external hostile force or a natural disaster, but came from within, because of Lebanon's own elites’ mistakes.

Given that hyperinflation is knocking at the door and the spread of coronavirus is already testing the capabilities of the national health system, Lebanon's economic crisis is unprecedented in its eighty years as a modern state. Perhaps a return before independence in 1943, to World War I and to the final days of the Ottoman Empire, could reveal a similar moment of famine and deprivation. A small country with a population of over 6 million, Lebanon is home to nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees, as well as about 300,000 Palestinians classified as refugees by the United Nations Agency for Security and Works for Palestinian Refugees in the Middle East ( UNRWA).

Basic services such as water, electricity and sanitation have declined at an alarming rate, not to mention education and public health. In addition, a financial crisis, accelerated by rising international and domestic debt, has weakened the national currency.

It is unclear whether the government is able to provide the funds needed to provide shelter for the more than 300,000 people who have lost their homes and to ensure the flow of basic services following the explosion. Thus, the Lebanese government will be even more dependent on foreign aid and weaken its negotiating position with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and existing divisions in the country on foreign policy will deepen on whether and where to turn for help. (France, USA, Iran, China?).

What is certain is that, at the moment, the Lebanese people are facing an unprecedented situation and need all the help they can receive from the international community. But the country's elites, directly or indirectly responsible for this tragedy, should not be allowed to use international aid as a life jacket. The international community seems to see the Beirut explosion only as a humanitarian crisis. Providing assistance to the Lebanese political system, without calling into question its role in causing the explosion and economic collapse, will do more harm, giving another opportunity to corrupt elites to avoid responsibility and implement the structural reforms the country desperately needs.

Revolution or reform?

There are two logical ways out of the current chaos in Lebanon: revolution or reform. The first option asks for strong leadership, organization and, even if a non-violent strategy is adopted, the risk of an extended period of violence. The second option requires an agreement of the Lebanese elites to start a new chapter, gradually developing the ability to manage business without corruption.


The popular movement that began in October 2019 wants to completely change the Lebanese system of government. It is most often called "hirak" or "movement", although the protesters' favorite slogan is "thawra" or "revolution". Various groups came together in what eventually became known as the Revolutionary Steering Committee, totaling over sixty entities. However, the spokespersons of the Revolutionary Steering Committee clearly acknowledge that they do not represent all those who protest, not even all those who are members of the Committee.

Protest groups came largely from professional or trade union groups, such as former military and teachers' unions, regional membership groups, subsidiaries of minor political parties and civil society organizations.

The revolutionary potential of the protesters remains minimal, due to the lack of unity around a single vision and the lack of specificity in the overall strategy. So far, none of the major parties has joined the cause, and sectarian parties, in particular, maintain a distance that does not threaten their power base.


Protesters have repeatedly called for the "return of stolen money" and the punishment of those who blatantly used their public office for private gain. The problem, according to activists, is that virtually everyone in public office has been involved in the theft of public funds to varying degrees, probably since the beginning of the republic. Therefore, it is simply impossible to expect public officials to betray each other. You can't even start with a single officer, because the "why me?" catchphrase will be heard and the sect of this official would feel victimized.

Another option would be a general amnesty for past financial crimes. A new beginning would have been made through an independent investment council, preferably of international level and composition, in order to effectively award and supervise all state contracts. To satisfy international donors, the state could simply demonstrate its commitment by launching and carrying out infrastructure projects in a transparent manner.

If the revolution requires leadership and unity behind a common strategy, so the reform requires vision and strategy from a leader or a leading party, which must then persuade other parties to support the measures needed to implement the reform. To this end, street pressure is as instrumental as pressure from the international community. The reformer should be convinced that maintaining power is conditional on carrying out the necessary reforms. The ingredients for this approach to Lebanese reform are present. However, it remains a cause that awaits the right winner...

Lebanon needs a change, not another corrupt union government

It is already quite clear, at least from the revolution that started back in October 2019, that the topic of the Lebanese protests is not a simple failed financial administration case, but a deeply defective system, which overlaps sectarianism and corruption to each government decision. The issues this system has have increased over the years. Basically, each government position must have been distributed depending on the sect, which meant patronage for the both religious and secular actors, in terms of allotting jobs, the contracts the government was offering and the import of goods and services.

The corrupt allocation of this reward has worked, albeit to the detriment of sustainable economic development and the efficient provision of basic services to all citizens, as long as there has been a consensus on sharing the benefits of government.

What Lebanon needs instead is a new beginning, a new political and social contract that eliminates sectarianism and establishes accountability through judicial reforms. This can only happen through a new electoral law that involves proper representation and the end of the confessional system, as well as early elections, which would produce a new parliament, a new government and a new president.

The explosion in the Port of Beirut, caused by the disastrous economic and financial situation, only highlighted the need for change and its urgency...

Lebanon also needs both the truth and the responsibility for the reconstruction that follows, to overcome this tragedy...