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Amid deadlock specter of partition hovers over Lebanon

Mar 02,2021 - Last updated at Mar 02,2021

Seven months after the horrific explosion that destroyed Beirut port and large parts of the capital, little progress has been made in uncovering the facts and bringing the culprits to justice. The port’s explosion has become a symbol for Lebanon’s quick descent into anarchy and political and economic paralysis. The incident forced the government of Hassan Diab to resign. After weeks of disarray and following an initiative by French President Emanuel Macron, veteran politician Saad Al Hariri was named as designate Prime Minister with a mandate to form a cabinet of non-partisan experts to salvage the country and invite international financial aid.

Since then Hariri’s attempts to form such a government had been met with resistance from President Michel Aoun, whose unholy alliance with Hizbollah continues to put the interests of the pro-Iran militia group ahead of that of the country. The group wants to have veto power in the cabinet; an experiment that had paralysed previous governments and stood in the way of adopting political and economic reforms.

For decades Hizbollah had enforced itself as a state within a state with a military arsenal that surpasses that of the national army. It had benefitted from a sectarian political system that served the narrow interests of a bickering ruling class at the expense of the Lebanese people. In the process the country’s main ministries and institutions were divided among various parties and groups paving the way for mass corruption and a slow collapse of the country’s infrastructure including its banking, municipal and health sectors.

When Lebanese took to the streets in late 2019 to protest worsening public services, unemployment and a falling lira, they were met with force and their demands for an end to the political status quo went unnoticed. Hizbollah, whose involvement in the Syrian civil war had dragged Lebanon into a never ending crisis, was not in the mood to give in to pressure to open a new chapter that would include handing over its arsenal to the regular army.

The Beirut port explosion was a major milestone in Lebanon’s turbulent history; perhaps as important as the spark that triggered the country’s bloody civil war in the 1970s. A triad of health crisis, economic collapse and political deadlock now threatens to bring the country to its knees at any moment. What is more worrying is the lack of regional and international interest in getting involved in the Lebanese quagmire. Except for France, no other party has expressed willingness to exert pressure or step into the Lebanese crisis.

And when Lebanon’s influential Christian Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al Rai warned on Saturday of a “full-fledged coup”, and called for an international conference to avert “chaos, hunger and oppression”, while repeating his earlier call for Lebanon to be united and neutral that is active, positive, sovereign, independent, free and strong”, Hizbollah responded by accusing him of trying to “internationalise” the crisis.

The basic reality is that Hizbollah holds the key to Lebanon’s stability, unity and sovereignty. But it is the party that has “internationalised” the crisis by vowing loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader and not to the Lebanese state. It has become a proxy in Iran’s regional misadventures and a pawn in Tehran’s confrontation with the United States and by extension Israel. The group is already responsible for dragging the country into a major war with Israel in 2006; the result being horrific devastation of Lebanon’s infrastructure and loss of life.

As Hizbollah continues to stockpile Iranian made missiles, Israel is preparing for a major and perhaps final confrontation with the Shia group. It goes without saying that Lebanon will pay dearly if and when such a conflict detonates.

There are a number of future scenarios that could take place. One involves a break out of civil war; a possibility that seems unlikely despite the fact that the state could collapse at any moment. Another is cornered on the assumption that Hariri will succeed in forming an independent government that will pave the way for international aid to salvage the economy and rebuild Lebanon’s institutions, but this would mean that Aoun and Hizbollah would be willing to compromise. Such a possibility would push Lebanon further towards adopting positive neutrality on a number of key issues including the Syrian civil war and the conflict with Israel. That seems unlikely.

A third scenario involves the de facto partitioning of Lebanon along sectarian lines as the state institutions finally cave in. As wild and unimaginable this scenario looks today it could emerge as a convenient option for each party in light of the current and insurmountable deadlock and as time runs out to save the 100-year-old Greater Lebanon. Hizbollah’s intransigence and its fealty to its masters in Tehran have already determined Lebanon’s fate, raising concerns that its ethnic and religious diversity—long an example of its vitality and creativity — is also the cause of its doom.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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