When historians come to write the definitive account of this tortuous phase of Lebanon’s history, it is likely to be President Michel Aoun who bears the lion’s share of criticism for betraying his nation.
Just as it is superfluous to criticize the Devil for being evil, nobody expects Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to be anything other than an Iranian puppet ready to tear his homeland apart at his paymaster’s behest.
There was nothing natural or inevitable about Aoun’s marriage of convenience with Hezbollah. The Aug. 4 port explosion was not the first time Aoun had presided over the destruction of Beirut. As prime minister in the late 1980s he tore Beirut apart in a series of bloody campaigns against Syrian forces and Christian rivals, culminating in his flight into exile.
From abroad, Aoun spent 15 years fulminating against Syria and Hezbollah, only to return to Lebanon in 2005 and jump straight into the Hezbollah/Iran/Syria camp to pave his path toward the presidency. His current game plan primarily revolves around shoehorning his widely detested son-in-law Gebran Bassil into the presidency when Aoun steps down next year.
As circumstances rapidly deteriorate, Aoun’s popularity within the Christian community has tumbled. Hezbollah has suffered a parallel drop in popularity. Hence the note of panic from the camps of Nasrallah and Aoun while chastising their erstwhile ally, Prime Minister Hassan Diab (now resigned) after he called for early elections.
Would elections produce change? In Lebanon, popularity is traditionally purchased, not earned. Political power means control of ministries, which entails doling out thousands of jobs to supporters, and corrupt monopolies over large budgets. Hezbollah’s coffers are annually supplemented by up to $700 million from Iran, along with income from narcotics networks, smuggling rackets, and other organized crime.
Hezbollah’s solution of monotonously replacing one zombie government with another is like a machine that continues pumping the lungs long after the patient is clinically dead
Families in Hezbollah strongholds have for decades seen the movement bestow jobs, medical care, education and other benefits, along with constant reminders from loyalist media organs that Hezbollah is their protector, and the guarantor of Shiite “dignity.” This is bolstered by a flood of conspiracy theories that Western aid after the explosion amounts to neo-imperialism. The West is alleged to be blocking an IMF bailout with the aim of undermining the “Islamic resistance,” with Macron’s visit an attempt to spearhead a new Francophile order.
Hezbollah is further seeking to capitalize on the blast: There are reports of wealthy businessmen close to the movement being encouraged to purchase demolished localities (mainly Christian and Sunni) near the port, as a means of broadening Hezbollah’s reach across the capital. However, there have been laudable initiatives to bail out those who have lost homes to discourage them from selling to exploitative opportunists.
Nasrallah used his two post-explosion speeches to make dark hints about civil war, while threatening hostilities with Israel if it is found to be behind the blast. With the nation in mourning, this is not the time for threats and unpatriotic subversion. What does Nasrallah think would happen if he dragged Lebanon into another war? Yes, he can hit Israeli cities, but Lebanon would again be systematically destroyed, just as in 2006. This is why the port explosion must be subject to an international investigation, so culprits are held to account through transparent judicial and diplomatic measures — not by Nasrallah leading Lebanon on a vigilante suicide mission.
Iranian leaders have been making noisy pledges about assisting Lebanon, even deploying Syrian factories to produce glass for the Lebanese market. However, despite speaking on the same day as the Iranian foreign minister’s visit to Beirut, Nasrallah conspicuously avoided mentioning Javad Zarif’s presence — uncomfortably aware of how popular loathing for Iran further toxifies Hezbollah’s brand. “It’s inhumane to exploit the pain and suffering of the people for political goals,” Zarif declared, with no apparent appreciation of irony.
Watching the geriatric Aoun slur his way through prepared statements, it isn’t always clear he knows where he is or what’s happening. When challenged by journalists, like a latter-day Napoleon Bonaparte he haughtily retorted: “I am General Aoun” — as if this were sufficient to stifle all criticism. Aoun even admitted being notified about the immediate threat these explosives posed to Beirut in the months before the blast. If this were an accountable governing system, Aoun would resign immediately.
Lebanon’s cultured and well-educated public unmistakably perceives the sickness at the heart of their state. Its discredited leaders are gleefully ridiculed on social media. TV channels are even boycotting political speeches, while airing increasingly biting criticisms, some against Hezbollah — despite the risks of being targeted.
Shiite clerics such as Ali Al-Amin and Subhi Al-Tufayli, the former Hezbollah secretary general, have been remorselessly critical of Hezbollah’s corrosive role, while Sunni and Christian leaders, such as the Maronite Patriarch, have been increasingly outspoken about the dangerous sectarian path Lebanon is treading.
The Lebanese state is an empty husk in its dying gasps, but there is still time to save the country. Hezbollah’s solution of monotonously replacing one zombie government with another is like a machine that continues pumping the lungs long after the patient is clinically dead. Under Nabih Berri’s dead hand, the parliament is a similarly brain-dead vestige, summoned only when required to perform its masters’ bidding.
The nation cannot wait for salvation at Macron’s hand. Citizens must demand an end to this farce; not just the resignation of a government or the parliament, but the removal of Aoun and the abolition of his alliance with Hezbollah. Hezbollah must also be compelled to disarm and stop aspiring to decide matters of war and peace on behalf of Lebanon, for Iran’s benefit.
This won’t be achieved by a couple of symbolic marches, but by taking control of Beirut’s streets until the leadership is forced to accept that sovereignty resides with the people. The entire political class is implicated in cronyism and massive-scale theft, having profited from the rotten status quo. “Killon yaani killon” must continue to be the public’s uncompromising demand — “All of them means all of them!”