2020 Beirut explosion: An alarm for Lebanon’s future but a race between regional powers
By Archana Sharma and Farheen Lone
In the midst of an interminable economic and political crisis in Lebanon- a country which was once known as Paris of the Middle East, the explosion in Beirut port seems to trigger the turmoil on another gradient. On the top of the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic, the massive explosion on August 4th caused at least 200 dead, more than 6,000 injures and 250,000 homeless – which has clearly tried the patience of Lebanese civilians. Unwilling to take responsibility for storing all most 2,750 tones of ammonium nitrate, highly volatile material at Beirut’s port for more than six years and having failed to govern under rising public pressure, Lebanon’s government resigned on August 10th – which has pushed the nation on a track to accept the status of being ‘failed state’. At the same time emergence of regional powers competing with each other to secure a strong foothold in Lebanon’s domestic politics -has raised the alarming question about the future of Lebanon. Why do the regional powers want to get a handle on the Lebanese political body? How will the fate of Lebanon be decided by the external actors? Will a new democratic political structure be able to serve systematically?
Considering the current situation, Michel Aoun, president of Lebanon has appointed a diplomat Mustapha Adib as the new prime minister who was nominated by the majority of the political parties and leaders. But the evidence of being a part of corruption as an advisor to former PM Najib Mikati has already questioned the capability of Mustapha Adib. Last year, the anti-government protest known as the October Revolution on the streets of Lebanon initially erupted across the country when banks started limiting withdrawal. The shortage of the dollar has affected individual Lebanese, leaving them with only two options-either limiting the withdrawal of dollar or stop handling dollar altogether. Even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic Lebanon was the third-highest public debt to GDP in the world and nearly a third of the population was living below the poverty line. According to the 2019 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, Lebanon is ranked 137th out of 180 countries. Lebanon’s currency has fallen in the past few years. The currency has lost 90% of its value. From 2006 to 2010, Lebanon’s economy was almost double-digit figures. Being vulnerable in the worst economic crisis, Lebanese citizens seem to have lost faith in the function of the Government.
Continuous loop of the failed political system
Although the recent protests continue across the country against corruption and austerity measures; the core problem of overlong political instability is undeniably related to the structure of the Lebanese political system. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Lebanon was under the rule of colonial powers, the French and British divided the region according to their colonial interests. The sectarian government was embodied in the 1943 National Pact and reaffirmed in the Taif Accord that ended the Lebanese civil war in 1990. The leaders and allied businessmen in the government maintain a monopoly over the political system ignoring the public interest. In the opinions of the protesters, the current political structure can be replaced by a democratic political structure to maintain stability in the nation. However, the greater role of religion in politics cannot be ignored as religious authorities control a vast area over civil society. Though Lebanon is a secular country with diverse religious faith, the sectarian government was formed based on religious division. Even if the existing political system gets replaced by a democratic political system, it will be hard to counter religious issues within the state. Additionally, Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist political party and the militant group backed by Iran has a powerful influence in the Lebanese Parliament which creates a strong barrier against reforming the current political structure. The corrupted political system and strong influence of regional powers in Lebanon have signaled an unpredictable shadow over the political landscape which might create a spillover effect in the whole region.
Politicizing of Beirut explosion
It seems the blast in Beirut has provoked another wave of ‘Arab spring’. While forming a new government as per public demand is challenging; an involvement of regional powers in the domestic politics of Lebanon will be critical for future stability of the nation.
Though French has a strong grip hold in Lebanon’s diplomatic affairs due to historic ties, the appearance of a new player Turkey has introduced a tough competition for France. A day after France president Emmanuel Macron’s visit in Beirut, the vice president of Turkey Fuat Oktay along with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu paid a visit to Beirut ensuring Turkish humanitarian assistance and allocating the Turkish port of Mersin for Lebanon until the port of Beirut begins operating again. The entry of Turkey in Lebanon has evoked tension in France and Egypt as already Turkey has become an aggressive player in the Mediterranean Sea against them.
After the blast, the position of Saudi Arabia towards domestic political issues seems unclear. However, considering the fact that Hezbollah is a key component of the Lebanese leadership, the strategy of Saudi Arabia who forced former president Saad-al-Harriri in 2017 will depend heavily on the USA and Iran. However, Iran has been preoccupied with its economic crisis and political issue which might limit Iranian enthusiasm to support Hezbollah. Moreover, the next year’s presidential election can be a key factor which will determine the action of Tehran. In the same context, association of the US in Lebanon seems uncertain due to the upcoming US election, but it can be predicted that the US will not leave a chance to play its card in Lebanon.
Though both neighbors- Lebanon and Israel have been at war, Israel has offered aid and Humanitarian assistance to Lebanon after the explosion. The impact of the current situation might make it difficult for Hezbollah to justify its action against Israel, while the current Peace deal between Israel and UAE could be an additional hit on Hezbollah.
The immense attraction of regional powers towards Lebanon is not only the strategic location of the nation but also securing a favorable position for energy resources. The first oil and gas exploration operation in Lebanon started in February 2020 in its Exclusive Economic Zone. In 2017, Lebanon approved a license for exploration of oil and gas to an international consortium led by France’s Total, Russia’s Novatek, and Italy’s ENI in two blocks in the Mediterranean Sea, including one that is partially claimed by Israel. Already the discovery of oil in the Mediterranean has created a dangerous Turbulence as Turkey has become a major player against Israel, Greece, Egypt, European Union, and Russia whereas the deal between Turkey and Libya is a game-changer of energy geopolitics in the region. Thereby, making it highly possible to use Lebanon as a wrestling ground among the regional powers.
The world has already witnessed the dangerous outcome of the ‘Arab Spring’ and a negative influence of foreign power within a nation. The uncertain future of Lebanon should not be decided by the same phenomenon in this desperate situation, rather it should be handled by the Lebanese people with support of the international community. On the contrary, it is an urgent necessity to rectify the foreign policy of the western nations towards Lebanon to maintain stability and peace in the region.
Archana Sharma & Farheen Lone are in Master of Arts (Diplomacy, Law, and Business) program at Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat.