Lebanon Sinking

A nation's political and economic meltdown.

The sight of people burrowing in garbage cans to find some food, or a violent fight in a supermarket over a carton of milk, as well as gasoline lines extending for hours as fuel prices soar, are the telling stories of today’s Lebanon. The country is bankrupt due to the corruption of its political leaders, accused by many of pocketing public funds. The confessional leaders have not only mismanaged the economy, they likewise failed to protect the population from the coronavirus pandemic. If that is not enough, last year’s massive explosion at the Beirut port caused further deterioration to the already fragile economy. Throughout all this turmoil, there has not been a functioning government in Lebanon, and Hezbollah and its patron, the Islamic Republic of Iran, are holding the country hostage.  

The Wall Street Journal reported that, “Nearly 200 people were killed and more than 6,000 injured in a massive explosion at the port of Beirut on August 4 (2020), ravaging the heart of residential areas and the City’s vibrant commercial district. Dozens of people are unaccounted for.” Two dozen people were arrested but no government ministers were among them. A cache of ammonium nitrate was ignited at warehouse Hanger 12, and the explosion shook Beirut and far beyond.  

The damage to the port through which much of Lebanon’s imports entered had caused food prices to soar. Violent protests forced Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet to resign. Mustapha Adib replaced him, but he too quit, less than a month later. Thus, the political elite named the former PM Saad Hariri for the job, who subsequently quit (July, 2021) as well, as he (Saad Hariri) and Lebanese President Michel Aoun disagreed over the composition of the cabinet.   

A year later, as of July, 2021, there is still no functioning government in Lebanon. Lebanon’s economic depression is getting worse, and it was described by the World Bank as, “Likely to rank in the top 10, possibly top 3, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-nineteenth century.” The Lebanese pound (LP) was trading at an unofficial rate of about 19,700 for one US dollar. The official exchange currently stands at 1527.57 LP per dollar. The charismatic Maronite-Christian Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai, blamed Maronite-Christian President of Lebanon Michel Aoun, and his ally, the Shiite Hezbollah, for the Lebanese disastrous situation.

Back on February 4, 2020, the New York Times reported that the antigovernment protesters “Were caught on TV denouncing Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Islamist militia and political party Hezbollah, in the month long Lebanese uprising.” The uprising was directed against the Lebanese government’s corruption and incompetence. Nabih Berri, the head of the Shiite Amal party, and Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, is considered among the Lebanese of all stripes as one of the most corrupt in the ruling class.  

Many of the Shiite protesters derided their Shiite Hezbollah party (and terrorist group) for focusing on the war in Syria rather than on domestic bread and butter issues. With Lebanon’s political and economic meltdown (occurring months before the August explosion at the Beirut port), protesters of all religious backgrounds were united in their scorn for their leaders who were unable to deliver the basics: 24-hour electricity. With Hezbollah essentially in control of the government by virtue of being the most powerful armed group in Lebanon, it is the primary culprit in Lebanon’s crisis.

The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), the most trusted institution in Lebanon, is however dwarfed by the far more powerfully armed Hezbollah. Many among the LAF rank-and-file are Shiites, who are more loyal to Hezbollah than to the nation. LAF chief, Maronite-Christian Joseph Aoun, addressing army personnel (July 16, 2021) stated that, “Our responsibility is large in this period and we need to preserve the security of the nation and its stability, and prevent chaos.” He previously refused President Aoun’s (no relation) request to forcibly clear the protesters blocking roads with burned tires and garbage. Nevertheless, discontent has been brewing in the army and security forces in Lebanon over the loss of 90% of the value of the LP against the dollar. This has driven down the soldiers’ wages, and many have taken extra jobs while some others quit the army altogether.

The European Union (EU) is putting pressure on Lebanon’s bickering political leaders by threatening them with sanctions. These efforts are led by France, the historical protector of Lebanon, and a strong backer of Saad Hariri. Paris is seeking a legal framework to target Lebanese politicians for sanctions, including travel bans, and freezes on assets. This is meant to force Lebanese politicians to form a new and functioning government, implement reforms, and reach a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

Joseph Hakim is a native Lebanese Christian, and President of the International Christian Union (ICU), an umbrella organization of Middle Eastern Christians. As he put it, “My feet left Lebanon, but not my heart.” Concerned about the crisis in Lebanon, he had this to say: “According to the Lebanese Middle East TV, Lebanese politicians have robbed the public treasury of more than $100 billion.” He added, “Lebanese politicians stole taxpayers’ money from the Central Bank, the head of the Central Bank stole from the affiliated banks, and the affiliated banks stole the peoples’ lifelong savings.” According to Hakim, “Government employees’ salaries currently amount to $50 a month. They can hardly afford to buy bread. The government should go under Chapter 7.” Hakim maintains that, “Lebanon is no longer sovereign.” It has defaulted on its financial obligations, with 55% of the population living below the poverty line.

Hakim believes that Hezbollah, along with the political cartels that are robbing the nation, must be eliminated. Hezbollah, he said “Must be placed under tougher sanctions.” He pointed out that Hezbollah is the only beneficiary of the current Lebanese crisis. Hakim explained that, “Hezbollah is able to bring cash into Lebanon via planes, ships, and overland from Iran. They bypass the Lebanese banks and escape international monitoring. Hezbollah has created its own banking system called al-card, al-Hassan (the good loan). A lot of cash comes from Africa and South America, while much of the cash comes from laundered drug money. The absence of a functioning Lebanese banking system provides Hezbollah’s cash political power.”

The solution Hakim offers to alleviate Lebanon’s crisis is to be found in the large Lebanese Diaspora. “We need to form a political party temporarily named ‘the Diaspora Party,’ made up of mostly American Lebanese ex-patriots, including some members from Latin America (Mexico included), and Europe, who are willing to bring western values to Lebanon such as non-sectarianism, the rule-of-law, government accountability, fiscal responsibility, and general democratic procedures in government. The Party would focus on raising money for Lebanon while ensuring accountability, and it would appoint its representatives in consultation with the local (in Lebanon) representatives, developing a slate of qualified candidates to Lebanon’s parliament, free of confessional considerations.”

As a final thought worth mentioning, as good neighbors, the Israeli government has offered to provide Lebanon humanitarian aid, including foodstuff. To avoid embarrassing the Lebanese authorities, Israel suggested transferring the aid through the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The Lebanese, probably under pressure from Hezbollah, rejected Israel’s offer…

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