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Emerging from the fallout

In its present state of crisis, Lebanon not only requires international aid and competent leadership but also a way to reform it’s deeply corrupt and unchanging institutions

Emerging from the fallout
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Lebanon has been on the brink and has been for a while causing widespread disenchantment and protests over government malpractice, economic instability and rising unemployment. For years, the Lebanese economy has struggled under the weight of excessive national debt and the politics of sectarianism. Political inaction and the devaluation of the country's official currency have contributed to a growing wave of anger, frustration and desperation.

In the latter half of 2019, a plan to tax WhatsApp calls spilled over into a mass protest against economic turmoil and corruption, which eventually led to the resignation of the Saad Hariri Government last October.

Protests, cutting across sectarian lines — a rare phenomenon since the country's devastating 175-89 civil war ended — and brought the nation to a virtual standstill subsided due to the Coronavirus but there was no change in the economic woes of the people.

The public anger grew alarmingly against the Government after the August 4 devastating explosion in Beirut, triggered by the ignition of around 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the city's port that killed at least 200 people, wounded thousands and left more than 300,000 homeless. For many Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional governance in the country that has seen two governments fall in less than a year.

Faced with the massive public protests seeking to overturn the country's political leadership and demanding major reforms, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who had taken over the office only last January, and his cabinet resigned last Monday.

How deep-rooted corruption is in the country can be gauged from the fact that while announcing his resignation Diab blamed "a system of corruption … deeply rooted in all the functions of the state."

Diab, who had come to power after mass protests had brought down Saad Hariri-led unity Government, said: "one of the many examples of corruption exploded in the port of Beirut, and calamity befell Lebanon."

"But corruption cases are widespread in the country's political and administrative landscape; other calamities hiding in many minds and warehouses, and which pose a great threat, are protected by the class that controls the fate of the country, he said in a strongly-worded speech.

He did not name any group or power for the blast, but many believe the militant group Hezbollah, which is part of the governing establishment and widely seen as the most powerful military and political outfit in Lebanon, knew of the storage of the explosive at the port, probably for its own use in the future.

According to 'Foreign Policy' magazine, Hezbollah has now penetrated every official Lebanese institution, including the armed forces and most internal security agencies, and it is entrenched at the Beirut port and airport.

Bahaa Hariri, son of Lebanon's slain former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, blamed Hezbollah for the incident. "It is crystal clear Hezbollah are in charge of the port and the warehouse where the ammonium nitrate was stored. Nothing goes in and out of the87 port or the airport without them knowing", he was quoted as saying by Arab News.

The daily also quoted journalist Dima Sadek bluntly telling Hezbollah in a video: "You claim you are here to protect us. After all your security people were at the port. You force us to accept you as a part of the state, but what did you do? Do you really want to say you did not know there was 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate in the port? Israel has not done to us what you are doing."

Although Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has denied any involvement of the group in the blast and called for accountability, the Lebanese President Michel Aoun's rejection of any international probe, as demanded by the protestors, into the catastrophic port blasts says a lot.

The strength of Hezbollah, which has the backing of Iran and Bashar al Assad's regime in Syria, rivals that of the Lebanese Army. Every other party in Lebanon had to disband their militias as part of the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the Lebanese civil war.

However, Hezbollah kept its militia under the initial pretext of fighting Israeli occupation of South Lebanon. Israel was compelled to withdraw from Lebanon 20 years ago, yet Hezbollah's military wing endures — despite the UN resolutions calling for the disbanding of all Lebanese militias.

Unless the influence of Hezbollah is totally wiped out or at least substantially reduced there can be no salvation for Lebanon, let alone building a civil state and good governance.

One of the reasons for the crises Lebanon is facing is political sectarianism or groups looking after their own interests. Lebanon officially recognises 18 religious communities — four Muslim, 12 Christian, the Druze sect and Judaism.

Since the end of the civil war, political leaders from each sect have maintained their power and influence through a system of patronage networks — protecting the interests of the religious communities they represent and offering both legal and illegal as well as financial incentives.

Lebanon ranked 137th out of 180 countries on Transparency International's 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index. According to the watchdog, corruption "permeates all levels of society" in Lebanon, with political parties, parliament and the police perceived as "the most corrupt institutions of the country."

Definitely, Lebanon is in need of international help and competent leadership not only to recover from the tragic blast but also deal with the deeply entrenched corruption, economic crisis, poverty and unemployment.

The writer is a former Editor of PTI and served as the West Asia correspondent for the same. Views expressed are personal

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