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Lebanon Needs a New National Compact

Lebanon Needs a New National Compact

Friday, 14 August, 2020 - 04:45

The aftermath of last week's shattering explosions in Beirut shows that Lebanese civil society is not only alive and well, but dynamic and inspiring. It also reaffirms that the Lebanese power structure is broken, perhaps beyond repair. Yet the tragedy could force reforms on an entrenched oligarchy.


Beirut, which was devastated last Tuesday by an explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, is beginning the slow process of cleaning up and rebuilding. But government agencies are virtually nowhere to be seen.


Instead, Lebanese civil society has once again risen to the occasion. Thousands of volunteers are hauling away the rubble, assessing the damage and beginning the process of restoring normal life. Some are organized, but many are simply citizens doing what's necessary because they know their government won't.


Public anger has become overwhelming. The government clearly knew about the vast stockpile of dangerous explosive chemicals being stored at a warehouse in the middle of the city. An internal government report was provided to President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab in July, laying out this danger and predicting that much of the city would be destroyed in the event of an explosion.


On Monday, Diab and his entire cabinet quit. That’s the second government to fall due to public outrage since massive popular demonstrations for reforms began in the country last October.


Since then, Lebanon's economic crisis has become a Venezuela-like calamity, with the governing parties unable to adopt a unified stance on a much-needed $20 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The coronavirus has continued to spread, and now much of the capital is damaged or destroyed.


The recent resignations won't fix things. After all, Diab will stay on as a caretaker, and most ministries either function — or, more typically, don't — no matter who is nominally in charge. But they do pave the way for the country to negotiate its next political chapter.


The international community has been responsive to Lebanon's plight. A French-organized international aid conference on Sunday pledged $300 million in humanitarian support following the explosion, and the United Nations is sending a large shipment of flour for immediate food needs. The IMF is offering a partial bailout — funds in exchange for economic reforms — but Lebanese ruling circles are reluctant to accept even modest requests.


Many activists and commentators are insisting all aid be routed through NGOs so as not to reward the bad actors who dominate state institutions. This is a good short-term approach, since it would strengthen Lebanese civil society and maximize chances that donations actually help the needy.


But in the longer term, state institutions can't be avoided. No one else can negotiate with the IMF or manage crucial infrastructure such as electricity, sewage and roads.


Skeptics warn, however, that any support for the Lebanese state is de facto support for Hezbollah. Since October, the government, including both Aoun and Diab, has been entirely composed of allies of the Iran-backed militia group that maintains its own private army.


Still, only the Lebanese state provides a viable alternative to Hezbollah’s domination of the whole country. And there is hope for one yet. By sparking popular outrage and commanding international attention, the tragedy has created an opportunity to form a new political system, which can serve and mobilize Lebanese society.


Ultimately that means elections or some other national forum to create a new compact — one that empowers the public rather than the nation’s corrupt leaders, strengthens direct rather than sectarian representation and holds groups such as Hezbollah accountable.


Such a compact could be based on unfulfilled Lebanese pacts such as the Taif Agreement, the Baabda Declaration and parts of the Constitution — all of which point to a more accountable, non-sectarian system that does not provide cover for armed gangs and foreign intrigues.


For all its impressive qualities, Lebanese civil society can’t achieve such change on its own, since the status quo serves those with the money and the guns. The global community has to partner with them in forcing the country's ruling elite to accept the need for reforms.


Donors should condition additional aid on an international investigation into what happened at the port, why the ammonium nitrate was stored in the middle of a highly populated city and what triggered the blast.


The Hezbollah-backed government has refused other countries’ participation in the investigation. The group is known to dominate most of Lebanon's key access points, including the area of the port where the explosion took place. But for a series of complex reasons, including last week’s blast, it is increasingly vulnerable. That is likely to intensify when verdicts for the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri are issued by an international tribunal on Aug. 18. Four of Hezbollah’s cadres are likely to be convicted.


Between the economic bailout, aid and reconstruction following the explosions, fallout from any guilty verdicts in the Hariri killing, and, most importantly, sustained and widespread Lebanese public anger, it’s clear Lebanon needs a new national compact. Out of these tragedies, it could get one.


Bloomberg


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