Lebanon: What happens when a ruling class goes unchecked

The recent explosion in Beirut, Lebanon — which killed more than 150 people, injured more than 5,000, affected the livelihoods of more than 300,000, and caused material damage of over $15 billion — is no accident. 

Rather, this is the consequence of corruption; of power-mongering games, and a clientelist mentality rooted in a sectarian ruling structure that has constantly been awarded re-legitimisation by the international community since the French ’mandate’ after WWI. The combustion of Beirut’s port — the most vital commercial gate to an economy that imports more than 70% of what it consumes — burdens the devastated Lebanese society, which is already struggling with the worst financial crisis since Lebanon’s establishment.  

The current financial crisis and political crisis were predicted back in 2018 by Charbel Nahas, former minister and current General Secretary of the vibrant young movement ”Citizens within a State”. Nahas tried to warn “our” heads of state and the ruling class, to no avail.

Today, Lebanon pays for our elites’ ignorance and incompetence.

Insultingly, the Israeli regime has chosen this critical moment of failure to show unprecedented gestures of support for Lebanon and the Lebanese. Israel’s regime has, on multiple occasions, vowed to demolish Lebanon’s infrastructure (and partly accomplished this in 2006) while the Israeli military continuously breaches Lebanese airspace and maritime territory on a regular basis.

The “international community” (in this case the US, EU and their client-regimes in the Middle East) responded to the calamity in a manner that is even more worrying to those who care about the future of Lebanese society. All at once, they are competing to broaden their influence in Lebanese affairs — either through carrot-and-stick offers of conditional financial aid, or by singling out Hezbollah as the sole responsible party. That singling-out of the Hezbollah party as “prime suspect” of course results from the Lebanese organisation’s rather unique record in having stood up to continuous Israeli aggression, and from Hezbollah’s guerrilla involvement in the Syrian war when it allied itself with official enemies of the West.

The international community prefers focussing on the General Secretary of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, rather than on the whole political structure of Lebanon, in the hope of expanding and further inflaming ongoing tensions between Washington’s and Tehran’s regional allies.   

What can we do to support the Lebanese during this time? 

Certainly, donations and sentimental support help to overcome grievances and to rebuild. This, however, will not affect the root of the country’s problems, which are entrenched in a sectarian political-social-economical structure. That fragmentation can only be solved by the Lebanese.  

For those of us in the Western countries (and outside of Lebanon), our share in the task of solidarity involves pushing our governments to stop their speculative policies towards Lebanon specifically, and towards the Middle East, in general. Until now, Western policies have officially stated their aim of ”stabilising” the MENA region in order to maintain global business interests; ensuring a steady flow of cheap fossil fuel, and the liberalisation of markets in the Arab world, simply for the benefit of multinationals and the local financiers and cartels.  

The above should give clear insights as to how our struggles (against oligarchy and global finance)  in Europe interconnect with those of Middle Easterners.    

One example of how European interference — whether deliberate or not — further entrenches Lebanon’s ruling class, was when France called for the CEDRE conference in 2018 weeks before the 2018 Lebanese parliamentary elections to provide the Lebanese oligarchies with another ’foreign legitimizing’ act in front of their constituents by pledging financial support of approximately $ 11 billion in loans and grants to the State. Another example is the World Bank-funded Bisri dam project, that would bring about an enormously damaging environmental impact. The currently halted construction — due to public pressure — of the Bisri dam is meant to be carried out in clear collusion between local oligarchs and international investors, who profit on the back of mother nature and society.

Within 48 hours following the devastating explosion, French president Macron — dodging the “yellow-vest” anti-austerity and anti-Macron protests which have only momentarily subsided due to the lockdown — visited Lebanon to confer with the ruling class, admonishing them to ”pull their act together”.  

Such paternalistic sounds from Macron towards his Lebanese associates, breaks with every notion of interstate cooperation, reducing French-Lebanese relations back to a retrograde patronage reminiscent of past French colonial forms. This, clearly, also exemplifies how our struggles relate, and that the fight in Europe for a better world requires working together.   

The recent tragedy has given a wake-up call jolting the middle classes, who on one hand form part of the problem, as well as part of the potential solution.   

Part of the problem, because the current configuration has allowed Lebanon’s middle class to accumulate its affluence by way of speculations and savings. This has created a corrupted sense of progress that has slowly but steadily lost its value. This middle class, however, can also become part of the solution if and when they acknowledge that our current political and socio-economic imbalance cannot sustain itself. It must be confronted, before hopefully pulling out the rug from underneath the oligarchs.

To stand in solidarity with Lebanon beyond mere gasps and sentimental gestures requires us to push the EU to summon enough backbone to finally iterate a common EU foreign policy: one that stands up to US aggression, while rejecting the imperial policies that have so far fragmented the Middle East. All too often, our societies in the Middle East are left alone to deal with the blowback of an imperial superstructure that helps feed and entrench our rotten ruling elites.

The current political and socio-economic situation in Lebanon is dire. The short-lived government fell last Monday, in addition to the resignations of various members of the façade Parliament — those who declared an unnecessary emergency state of martial law. These events further emphasise that the political and socio-economic structure in place after the end of the civil war in 1990 (the result of the intersection of foreign interests of the US, Syria, and Saudi Arabia) is broken and bankrupt. Rather than reform, Lebanon needs a total overhaul. But we cannot accomplish this without external solidarity movements exerting pressure and support from abroad. 

Mohammad Khair Nahhas is a member of DiEM25 and its thematic DSC Peace and International Policy 1.

The author extends his warm gratitude to the thematic DSC Peace and International Policy 1, especially Arturo Desimone and Robert Wittkuhn for their valuable support and feedback.

Photo (c) Mehr News Agency, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92996957

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