Just as the explosion has permanently altered Beirut’s urban landscape, so has it made clear the monumental shifts in the country’s political dynamics.
Surveying the videos and photos of the aftermath of the massive explosion at Beirut’s port, those familiar with the city are invariably struck by the scale of the destruction, so widespread that it prompted the Acting Administrator of USAID to comment that “throughout my career I have visited many disaster sites. I have never seen this level of destruction.”
As if Beirut had become a metaphor for Lebanon’s politics, amid crumbling infrastructure resulting from years of corruption, poor urban planning and neglect, much of the city’s history both literally and figuratively collapsed while the glimmering glass structures that symbolised Lebanon’s post-Civil War facade were shattered by the unstoppable force of the explosion.
While it is widely held in Lebanon that the foundations of the political system have been rotten for some time, the protest movement that began in October last year has gone a long way in exposing this rot to a wider audience.
Moreover, as the ramifications from last week’s devastating blast continue to reverberate, a new political era in Lebanon appears to be crystalising. The roots of this shift undoubtedly lay beyond the October 2019 protests. But if there were any doubt left that Lebanon’s political status quo is no longer tenable, the explosion and its aftermath seem to have provided the post-Ta’if era its final blow.
As it stands today, there remain more questions than answers regarding both the blast itself and Lebanon’s political future more generally.
Although the fact that the explosion was ultimately caused by carelessly stored ammonium nitrate is clear enough, amid a crisis of trust, doubt continues to swirl around official narratives, exacerbated by rejections of international oversight of the investigation into the blast by the highest authorities in Lebanon to persistent anecdotal reports of jet’s swirling in the skies above Beirut just prior to the explosion, and claims of ‘sabotage’ by a former Interior Minister from Saad Hariri’s Future Movement.
On the political front, the ostensibly independent government led by Hassan Diab has resigned, opening the door to another potential months-long round of negotiations to settle on a new cabinet.
On the surface, it may appear as though history is repeating itself. However, amid a revived and significantly angrier protest movement, increased international pressure on Lebanon’s traditional political players and the political, social and economic structural faults that have been amplified by the impact of the pandemic, it may yet turn out to be an instance of ‘appearances can be deceiving.’
Backed into a corner
Amid all this uncertainty however, there are two dynamics that are becoming increasingly clear.
First, there is a renewed effort, both internationally and domestically, to disempower Hezbollah politically and increase their isolation regionally.
While not likely to entail the oversimplified knockout blow envisioned by American neocons and their Israeli counterparts – a point that seems increasingly clear in light of the French President’s recent overtures to Iran – the international engagement that has largely sidelined the Lebanese government and the growing momentum being gathered in the wake of the blast towards the striking of new political pact in the country seem set on, at the very least, rolling back Hezbollah’s influence.
Even if one accepts the premise that the explosion at the Beirut port was indeed the work of external actors, designed to take advantage of the resulting political situation to strike a fatal blow to Hezbollah – something that at this point cannot entirely be ruled out – it nonetheless points in the same direction; namely that Hezbollah’s regional and domestic opponents are trying to back the party into a corner.
Getting rid of Hezbollah ‘once and for all’ is of course, no more than a dark fantasy based in a worldview more fit for Hollywood than for the real world, one that fails to account for the massive human suffering such an endeavor would entail, let alone its political infeasibility.
Secondly, as Lebanon’s traditional political elites struggle to find novel ways to maintain their influence – a dynamic that was already well underway prior to the explosion- the loose coalition of civil society groups and individual citizens from across Lebanon’s sectarian system that make up the protest movement is slowly but surely taking its place as one of the most potent political forces in the country.
Hezbollah as the defender of the status quo
This needs to be understood against the backdrop of the political dynamic in the country since October 18. What quickly grew into nationwide protests targeting the core of the political system was ultimately framed by Hezbollah as part of more general targeting of the ‘resistance axis’ in the region.
This framing seems to have been based largely on domestic political considerations including the insulation of its core constituency from any potential fallout from the protests and to restate the party’s role as the sole protector and guarantor of Lebanon’s Shia community in the face of increasingly dire socio-economic conditions.
In effect, this put the party, once one of the most ardent critics of Lebanon’s political system, in the position of being the most powerful defender of a political status quo increasingly seen by the citizenry as being bankrupt.
Thus, while one arena of contestation revolves around traditional parties competing amongst themselves within the existing political system, another is emerging between a loosely defined ‘street’ seeking an overhaul of the political system and those who seek to maintain it.
For American University of Beirut Journalism professor Rami Khoury, the blast in Beirut represents a turning point in Lebanon’s political history. As Lebanon’s traditional political actors begin to fade and others seek to ride the wave of palpable popular anger in a struggle to maintain influence among an increasingly pauperised middle class, Hezbollah’s role as Lebanon’s pre-eminent political and military power has become increasingly clear.
For Khoury, the future of Lebanon will be negotiated between the ‘people’ on the one hand and Hezbollah on the other. For a citizenry with nothing left to lose, in the long run, it is Hezbollah that stands to lose the most.