The civil unrest and demonstrations against the inept government have been going on for months now on account of lack of basic amenities and essential items, the poor state of the economy, failing bank systems, rampant corruption and increasing unemployment and inflation which has been further aggravated by the adverse impact of COVID 19.
By Amb Anil Trigunayat
The most powerful non-nuclear blasts of August 4 in Beirut not only demolished a large part of the beautiful city and made nearly 300000 Lebanese people homeless but also gave vent to their pent up frustrations against the government and governance structures. The civil unrest and demonstrations against the inept government have been going on for months now on account of lack of basic amenities and essential items, the poor state of the economy, failing bank systems, rampant corruption and increasing unemployment and inflation which has been further aggravated by the adverse impact of COVID 19.Even tax on social media tools like WhatsApp actually triggered the public ire as it was seen as controlling their freedoms.The devastating twin blasts, at the Ward 12 of Beirut port where 2750 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate seized from a Russian company in 2013 bound for Mozambique as he went bankrupt, exacerbated the public frustration as it led to nearly 160 deaths and over 5000 injured let alone a 43-meter gaping hole.
Although Prime Minister Hassan Diab immediately set up and headed an investigation team with some ministers and heads of security agencies to submit the report in five days people’s plight became more pronounced as the public services came to a standstill and were no match to the unprecedented crisis. A large number of customs and port officials were placed under house arrest or detained. The fact remained that despite the leadership and officials being aware of this potential danger for nearly six years had not taken any remedial measures.
To alleviate the public ire or possibly streamline or deflect it, PresidentAoun made a statement even referring to a foreign hand, indirectly implicating Israel that is an obvious target for finger-pointing given the continued conflict and rivalry. Moreover, although Israelis denied any role, and overtly empathised with the dire situation like lighting the City hall in Tel Aviv in the flag colours of Lebanon and even offering assistance through other interlocutors, the accidental or otherwise destruction of such huge quantities of explosives helps in its deterrence capacity. Aoun, however, rejected any international investigation which was asked for by the Druz leader Walid Jumblatt who said that they had no trust in government finding the truth. The government sought assistance and satellite or drone /aerial footage of the port on that day from the French and the Americans for their investigations. Since Hezbollah “ Party of God” is said to be in de facto control of the Ports and allegedly keeping arms and ammunition as well as the ammonium nitrate explosive its complicity was openly shouted at by the protesters. As of now the arch enemies Israel and Hezbollah did not accuse one another of complicity and are treating it as an accident although Turkey did imply the Israeli hand in the blasts. Hezbollah leader Nasrallah clearly dissociated from any connection with the port or consignment and urged an early and fair investigation into the causes of the blasts. He also postponed his speech on tensions with Israel. Is it a wait and watch for the two remains to be seen. This calibrated reticence is desirable for the time being.
Lebanon is going through a terrible civil war-like situation with the dire economic situation and is unable to meet popular expectations. Spiralling fiscal deficit, banking and liquidity issues, $90 bn in debts and unemployment of over 17% provide a fertile ground for dissent and popular dissatisfaction. The economy is expected to fall by at least 12%. Public’s faith in government has eroded. COVID 19 has compounded the problems and hopes of recovery, even if it is a global problem, have been dashed in the near term. The capital alone will need $10-15 bn for reconstruction and relief.
In order to cope up with the immediate problems PM Diab appealed for assistance and the international community has really risen to the occasion. French were the first to come to the aid of their friends and President Macron even visited Beirut. Arab countries have extended huge assistance both material and medical. Russia sent five planeloads of emergency assistance so did the US. India has also committed to providing all requisite assistance to the Lebanese authorities. President Trump has also called a Virtual Donors Conference for Lebanon while providing significant humanitarian assistance since the country will require billions of dollars in aid and assistance to get back to normal, if at all, given the domestic unrest.
Thousands of protesters, unhappy with the state of things and polity, are on streets challenging the authority and want the government to go. They even captured the buildings of Foreign Ministry and other ministries as well as Association of Banks and make the foreign ministry as the Headquarters of the Revolution with the help of retired and disgruntled army officers. They also wanted to take over the Parliament building and hence prove their symbolic superiority. However, the riot police was able to retrieve some of the buildings and as of now prevented further deterioration but the situation remains delicate and disturbed. More than 700 protesters have been injured while a riot policeman was reported killed. The irate protesters have been urging the Police and Army to join them.
PM Diab has promised to call for early elections. Last elections were held in 2018. But will the polls solve the fundamental issues and problems? The country has a history of not being able to appoint the President or Prime Minister and other legislative positions due to the complicated confessional system it follows. On top of it various political and religious stakeholders like Hezbollah want their own share of the governance pie and the instability becomes inherent in the system. The frustration of the Lebanese people can be judged by the fact that some 60000 demonstrators reportedly signed a petition to bring the country yet again as a French Mandate for a limited period. Lebanon was a French Mandate during 18920-43 under Sykes-Picot Agreement and beyond. US embassy in Beirut also issued a statement supporting protesters for efficient and transparent governance in Lebanon. Such foreign exhortations will surely be taken with a pinch of salt by many but might add some spice to the boiling cauldron.
Moreover, Lebanon that used to be the “Switzerland of the East” due to its effective banking and finance structures that have become inefficient due to Civil Wars and conflicts for decades on one pretext or the other. Lebanese enterprise and business acumen is well known. Since 2011, the Syrian war has taken a toll on Lebanese economy as millions of refugees have reached there and strain the socio-economic structures that were already stressed by the intake of a large number of Palestinian refugees in 1970s mostly moved out of Jordan. Iran-Israel rivalry plays out in full proxy colours leading to greater instability. Again Beirut called the “Paris of the Middle East” for its amazing civilisation heritage and culture confluence and tourism potential will indeed take a while before it can boast yet again of its beauty and brilliance. Lebanon needs the fullest possible support of the international community in coming out of this unprecedented socio-economic crisis infested by political inexpediency and institutional deficit.
(The author is former Indian Ambassador to Libya, Jordan and Malta & Distinguished Fellow Vivekananda International Foundation. Views expressed are personal).