Lebanon is a failed state, and its misfortunes are characteristic of a broader regional malaise.
The thousands of tons of nitrate ammonium that exploded in the Beirut port last week may have belonged to Hizballah or not. While many angry Lebanese took to the streets and openly accused Hizballah and its leader of responsibility for the disaster, a reliable inquiry is unlikely, and president Michel Aoun has already rejected offers by external players to investigate. It may never be known for sure exactly who is to blame for negligent storing of the chemicals. In a dysfunctional country like Lebanon, corruption and incompetence are legion.
Indeed, Lebanon suffers from interminable political crisis and government paralysis. Citizens have lost trust in their political institutions and are demonstrating in the streets demanding change. The country is beset by high inflation and poverty, and it recently defaulted on Eurobond debt. Government ineptness in dealing with the coronavirus crisis has added to public misery.
Lebanon must be considered a failed state, going back to the 1989 Taif agreement to end the civil war. In accordance with the agreement, all militias were disbanded with the exception of Hizballah, which was allowed to remain armed as a “resistance force” against Israel in the south of the country. That was the moment when the government of Lebanon formally lost its monopoly over the use of force; a monopoly that is the main defining characteristic of a modern state. Things came to a test of will and power in May 2008, two years after Hizballah initiated a war with Israel without the consent of the Lebanese authorities: the Lebanese military forces were roundly defeated, and in the 12 years since never tried again to challenge Hizballah’s control of vital national facilities. Nor did the UN forces – although this is what UNIFIL was mandated to do – ever interfere with Hizballah’s stockpiling of a massive arsenal aimed at Israel.
This failed state phenomenon is not limited to Lebanon. Lebanon’s misfortunes are characteristic of a broader regional malaise. Other Arab states also have descended into chaos and civil war. A Somali civil war erupted in 1991. The Palestinians lost control of Gaza to the Hamas militia in 2007. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 put an end to Saddam Hussein’s regime but failed to establish a strong successor government. The result is a plethora of sectarian and ethnic militias, each vying for control. Syria, Libya and Yemen are divided in similar disarray. The Arab states in the Gulf are an exception.
It seems that modern Arab political culture has a hard time sustaining statist structures for stable and effective government. Even Egypt, the only Arab country with a truly historic pedigree, is fighting an Islamic insurgency in Sinai. And overall, the Arab world suffers from an unresolved democratic and educational deficit, despite the vain hopes raised in 2011.
Lebanon was once a flourishing state with quasi-democratic institutions. It was basically destroyed by the inability of the political class to put the state above parochial interests. The Palestinians, as well as radical Islam (the Shiite version in particular) played a large role in in bringing Lebanon to its current miserable state of affairs.
Where Arab states have failed to deliver basic services to the population, radical Islam has stepped in. Islamists like Hizballah are providing health, welfare and education services, and are seen as more honest and caring than the aging, ruling elites. This is the secret of the Islamic appeal. Unfortunately, attaining their agenda dooms the people to poverty and ignorance, as well as to conflict as a way of life. This is probably the fate of Lebanon.
Hizballah has been associated with the havoc from the explosions, with public anger at the organization growing every month. Hizballah lost some of its appeal after it took control of government ministries like health and port services, only to exploit these ministries to its own advantage. But the street protests will not weaken Hezbollah’s grip over Lebanon. Hizballah has the guns. The Lebanese Armed Forces is a weak organization; it is riddled with Hizballah sympathizers; and cannot confront truly Hizballah.
Moreover, Hizballah is the only organization in Lebanon with the logistical abilities to deliver assistance to the masses. Whatever international aid will flow to Lebanon following the port explosions, Hizballah is likely to gain control over that aid. (Many global precedents show that humanitarian aid invariably goes first to the people with the most firepower.)
The Lebanese people, too, are unlikely to resist Hizballah’s entrenched domination of the state. The many years of civil war have exhausted the political energies of Lebanon’s citizens and their willingness to fight. The specter of a new civil war is too frightening to allow ethnic bellicosity to erupt into violent clashes. In contrast, Iraqis, Libyans, and Yemenites may still have the energies to fight, dooming them to a Lebanese future, or worse
Lebanese citizens with skills appreciated elsewhere, in particular Christians with family ties abroad, may exercise the option of emigration from the country in ever-larger numbers. This will further strengthen Hizballah. In fact, many young Arabs across the region seek a better future elsewhere, where religious zealots are less influential and where politicians are less corrupt. Gazans are perhaps the best example of this. This trend does not augur well for much of the Arab world.
In the short term, the tragedy in Beirut may divert Hizballah’s attentions from military confrontation with Israel to the shoring-up of its home base status. However, Hizballah’s ingrained hostility to the Jewish state, which is shared by other Islamists in the Middle East, is not going to be affected by oscillations in domestic political appeal. The safe working assumption must remain that Israel must be prepared for an all-out confrontation, with all that it might entail.
Published in The Jerusalem Post 12.08.2020
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