To comprehend today’s resignation of the Lebanese government, amid country-wide unrest, it helps to think of the Who’s old line — meet the new boss, same as the old boss. In the case of Lebanon the boss’s name is Hezbollah.
President Macron visited Beirut last week, shortly after a devastating port explosion that killed at least 200 people, wounded more than a 1000 and left half of the city in shambles. He announced a new fund drive to rebuild the country but said foreign aid will depend on major political changes.
Last week’s port explosion was the result of “endemic corruption,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab said Monday, as he announced his, and his entire cabinet’s resignation. He took over the premiership in January following widespread throw-the-bums-out street protests.
At that time, Lebanese were demanding the abolishment of the country’s sectarian-based political system, saying it entrenched a hold on power by a small number of politicians and families. The speakership of parliament, say, is allotted to the country’s Shiite community. As a result, the speakership has been held by 82-year old Nabih Berry since 1992.
Answering public anger at the power structure, Mr. Diab, a British-educated academic focused on engineering, was appointed Prime Minister as a “technocrat,” replacing a scion of Lebanon’s family-based patronage system, Saad Hariri.
However, Mr. Diab and “the cabinet we had for the last 200 days or so is nothing like a technocratic government,” a protest leader, Luna Safwan, told the BBC Monday.
Over the weekend security forces employed tear gas and, according to some reports, also used live ammunition against Beirut protesters. Unrest, though, is so far unabated after Mr. Diab’s resignation.
The reason skeptics wonder the latest events will change much can be summed in one word: Hezbollah. The protesters are divided and lack a unifying agenda and real leaders, a Lebanese friend tells me. On the other hand, he adds, Hezbollah supporters are “organized, have leadership, boast Iran’s regional backing and, crucially, they have fire power.”
Hezbollah became the most successful model for Tehran’s doctrine of regional power-projection. That model — finance, back, and arm local militias to export the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary ideology — was established in Lebanon in the 1980s. It was so successful that it was then exported to other corners of the Mideast by Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general slain earlier this year by an American drone.
Essentially, Iran supported the south Lebanon-based Shiite organization with the goal of achieving military parity with Israel. Along the way, though, it roped-in the entire sectarian-based Lebanese political structure by using levers — from Iranian money to assassinations — to push aside anyone opposing it.
Western powers, including Washington, maintained that Lebanon is an independent country. In a report to the Security Council this week, for example, United Nations Secretary General Guterres called on the national Lebanese army to fulfill its UN-mandated obligation to disarm Hezbollah.
UN chiefs have long repeated that Security Council-mandated call for disarming all militias, even as Hezbollah has long controlled the army, as well as all relevant government functions. America joined other powers in financing and arming the Lebanese army, which is widely influenced by an organization defined by the State Department as the world’s foremost terrorist.
Which brings us back to Mr. Macron’s Beirut visit and his call for “reform.” According to some reports, the French president’s plan is to reinstate Mr. Hariri as prime minister, thus bringing a modicum of stability that would enable international aid to pour in and rebuild Lebanon.
That’s not a promising idea.
Saad Hariri is the son of Rafik Hariri, who according to a UN tribunal expected to soon release its verdict, was assassinated by Hezbollah operatives in 2005. The younger Mr. Hariri has learned his lesson well. He became part of the Hezbollah-controlled structure and symbolized Beirut’s corruption-laden political system. It’s hard to see how bringing him back could end the unrest, and easy to imagine that it will help maintain Hezbollah’s stronghold over the country.
Regardless, as Mr. Diab learned in the lead up to his Monday resignation, it hardly matters what puppet serves as prime minister. Hezbollah has an interest in keeping intact the political structure that propelled it to control Lebanon.
And Hezbollah remains Lebanon’s best organized and most heavily armed body. The country’s problems will endure, including corruption, incompetence, and the occasional explosion — like the one last week that some suspect, if only suspect, was ignited by a hidden Hezbollah arms cache at the port.