JUST two days before the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a mushroom cloud briefly reared its head on the shores of Beirut. The devastating explosion that ripped through the Lebanese capital’s port and neighbouring areas last week may have come as a surprise, but the same cannot be said of the explosion of rage that followed. Even Monday’s resignation of the government had been prefigured by ministerial exits in the preceding days.
In his resignation speech, prime minister Hassan Diab blamed his country’s latest woes on a level of corruption “bigger than the state”, adding: “Only God knows how many catastrophes they are hiding … May Allah protect Lebanon.”
Diab has been in office only since December, after his predecessor, Saad Hariri, bowed out following protests, sparked by a $2 monthly tax on WhatsApp but reflecting a plethora of pent-up frustrations.
Many participants in the protests that erupted in October 2019 were demanding a sweeping transformation. Instead, they were fobbed off, not for the first time, with a change of faces. Not many were fooled — there were demonstrations against Diab within days of his inauguration.
There have, of course, been plenty of occasions for frustration and rage since the unsatisfactory settlement that in 1990 ended what is referred to as Lebanon’s 16-year civil war.
It was rather more than that, though, given that it incorporated a full-fledged Israeli invasion — which included the Sabra and Shatila atrocities as well as a failed effort to decapitate the Palestine Liberation Organisation, compelling its leadership to decamp to Tunisia. It also paved the way for the emergence of Hezbollah.
It was a deeply wounded Lebanon that emerged from the cauldron of relentless conflict in 1990. There were hopes, nonetheless, that it could be restored to its erstwhile status as the relatively strife-free Switzerland of the Middle East. To many it did not seem outrageous a couple of years later for a Saudi-spawned billionaire by the name of Rafic Hariri to take charge of the nation and manage the reconstruction it required.
But billionaires are no strangers to corruption, and the trend has only been exacerbated by the compromises ordained by Lebanon’s colonial-era constitution, whereby power is confessionally shared between Christians, Shias and Sunnis. This unique arrangement has helped to entrench in power particular families and clans, whose vested interests and shifting allegiances complicate any prospects of tackling the national malaise.
“Pity the nation,” the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran lamented around 90 years ago, “that raises not its voice/ save when it walks in a funeral,/ boasts not except among its ruins,/ and will rebel not save when its neck is laid/ between the sword and the block.”
To be fair, the citizens of Lebanon have rebelled frequently. Even today, though, their admirable fervour is inchoate. They seem resolved, perhaps like never before, to dismantle an order that has done them disservice every step of the way that led to last week’s catastrophe, which cost more than 200 lives and rendered a hundred times as many homeless. Many of the protesters attacking government buildings and facing off against security forces have been quoted as saying that they have nothing to lose. Lebanon’s economy was in free fall long before the Covid-19 pandemic. Bank deposits were inaccessible for ordinary folk even as oligarchs spirited billions out of the country. In Beirut, municipal services were rare and the supply of electricity erratic. Employment was dwindling alongside the prospects of an international ‘rescue’.
The outrage against the dying of the light deserves universal solidarity. But where is it likely to lead? A new-old government may emerge, and an early election is likely if enough MPs resign — but then what? A contest between the same old warlords and thoroughly discredited elites for another opportunity to rip off the nation?
Can the popular anger and despair morph into a movement with a coherent goal? Into an electoral alternative that holds out the prospect of a secular Lebanon that does not habitually kowtow to Riyadh, Tehran, Damascus, Tel Aviv or Paris?
A virtual international conference on Sunday pledged $300m in emergency aid, and talked about longer-term support contingent on reforms. But the kinds of reforms French President Emmanuel Macron might desire — after strutting about in Beirut like a colonial overlord even as local politicians cowered in their mansions — are unlikely to come close to the veritable revolution that Lebanon requires.
“Pity the nation divided into fragments,/ each fragment deeming itself a nation,” lamented Gibran. Right now the people of Lebanon deserve solidarity rather than pity. But it might be wise for them to heed the advice of the American trade union activist Joe Hill, who instructed his comrades before facing the firing squad 105 years ago: “Don’t mourn. Organise.”