The Explosion in the Beirut Port Pulverizes the Lebanese Polity


By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | August 14, 2020

Lebanon protests
Photos: Nadim Kobeissi | CC BY-SA 4.0


The scope of the damage and the aftershock that the explosion in Beirut's port caused is unprecedented. Over 170 persons were killed, some 6,000 injured, 300,000 were left homeless, and the cost of rebuilding the port and the surrounding circle of destruction is expected to reach billions of dollars. The explosion not only demolished part of the Lebanese capital; it also smashed what remained of Lebanon's economy and its governing institutions, which were already in a shambles. The explosion ignited a third wave of demonstrations in Lebanon since October 2019 that rapidly led to the resignation of the Hassan Diab government a mere seven months after it took office. In the wake of the resignation, Lebanon reverted back to the familiar political limbo of attempts to reach agreement among the heads of the country's ethnic-religious factions for appointment of a new prime minister.


The October 2019 demonstrations broke out as a spontaneous protest sparked by growing anger and a sense of disgust with Lebanon's politicians, the trigger being the government's decision to raise taxes - including taxing free Whatsapp calls. In a rare demonstration of protest marked by a supra-ethnic overarching national character, hundreds of thousands took to the streets and squares throughout the country in protests that were almost void of violence and dominated by a festive atmosphere.


Within days, the demonstrations shifted from a protest on economic grounds to a much more fundamental demand: An end to Lebanon's ethnic political system that the protesters identified (correctly so) as the underlying culprit that had led the country to the verge of economic bankruptcy, paralysis and a gravely dysfunctional infrastructure. The demonstrations continued for weeks on end, and subsided against the backdrop of the establishment in January of the Hassan Diab government and the outbreak of the Coronavirus.


In the second wave (May-June 2020) demonstrators returned to the streets across Lebanon. Due to the pandemic, the demonstrations were, relatively speaking, limited in scope but more violent. The demonstrators torched banks, smashed ATMs and car windshields, and clashed with security forces throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.


This wave of protest focused on the deterioration of the economy that had worsened under the shadow of the Coronavirus: the falling exchange rate of the Lebanese pound (which lost 80 percent of its value); a liquidity crisis and default on the country's foreign currency debt; the collapse of the banking system; further spread of those under the poverty line (from 45 percent of the population in 2019, to above 75 percent forecasted by the close of the current year); a severe shortage of electricity and fuel; and phenomena linked to absence of food security, and even actual hunger.


The explosion in the Beirut port ignited the present wave of demonstrations in the capital. The demonstrations have taken on a more violent character and have returned to focus with force and clarity, on calls to expel all of Lebanon's political and ethnic leaders and their lackeys in the parliament, as well as President Aoun - and change the governing system. The demonstrators raided government offices, raised cardboard effigies of senior officials from all the ethnic factions with nooses around their necks called them to "resign or be hanged".


Many in Lebanon place the blame for the explosion in the port on Hezbollah. The organization is perceived, rightly so, as the one who controlled everything in the port (and in the airport) in Beirut. Lebanese citizens know well that Hezbollah is stockpiling and manufacturing weapons in built-up areas in Shiite villages and in Beirut (and explosions and 'work accidents' have already occurred in such sites). Hezbollah also has a long history employing ammonium nitrate, including stashing the material in apartments around the world as part of its foreign terror infrastructure.


In any case, in recent months Hezbollah had been under piercing criticism even before the explosion. The organization that controlled the Ministry of Health and was a dominant component in the Hassan Diab government is identified more and more with failures addressing Lebanon's Coronavirus crisis. Hezbollah has incurred criticism for its opposition from the beginning of the crisis to suspend flights from Iran, and later on its opposition to declaring a state of emergency in Lebanon that would authorize the Lebanese Army to take command of the crisis on a national level. Likewise, Hezbollah drew fire for taking issue with the IMF 'bailout' plan. In addition, it has faced a blow to its public image and to its coffers by Germany's declaration of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization (without any distinction between the political and military wing of the organization) and by the shadow cast by revelations about Hezbollah's deep involvement not only in Syria, but also in Iraq.


The accusations against it in the aftermath of the explosion in the port caged Hezbollah into a defensive position that was clearly evidenced in Nasrallah 's speech in the wake of the disaster. The secretary-general of Hezbollah denied vehemently that his organization controlled Beirut port; warned-threatened "misinformants" and "war mongers" not to smear the organization with false accusations; and underscored that investigation of the tragedy must be carried out by the Lebanese state – a statement that reflects Hezbollah's opposition to an independent international commission of inquiry, as many are demanding in Lebanon.


The continuum of relentless demonstrations in Lebanon since October constitutes a significant crossroads in Lebanon's history. Beyond the repressed fury that has surfaced against the backdrop of loss of trust in institutions and the banks, and the disgust from corruptions, growing socioeconomic gaps, lack of equality and mismanagement of governance, it appears that the demonstrations reflect three deep underlying processes.


The first, rejection of the economic and ethnic-based system that has governed Lebanese politics, and realization that these 'arrangements' are no longer able to provide for the needs of the citizenry. The second, an intergenerational struggle between the generation that lived through the civil war and a younger generation with no such experience. The third, a social class-based crisis that has prompted rank-and-file citizens to protest corrupt elites, who have exploited the social and governing system based on ethnically based patron-client relations to enrich themselves at the expense of the public.


Traditionally, discussion of the ethnic system of power-sharing was considered taboo, out of apprehension that the country would again roll down the slope into violence and a civil war. At the same time, many young people who are filling the streets in Lebanon today have not experienced the horror of the long civil war, and feel less committed to the Taif Treaty that brought the Lebanese civil war to an end. Moreover, the mass demonstrations of 2005 that brought the historical achievement of a withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon was the formative experience of the younger generation, a model for them.


Despite the calls for a fundamental change, Lebanon has hit an impasse and has entered an era of ongoing paralysis and instability with no end on the horizon. This comes against the backdrop of the calcified ethnic elites determined not to give up control which they view as an existential interest on one hand, and an inability to govern the state effectively under the current system, on the other. This complex reality makes it hard to establish an alternative governing system to solve Lebanon's enormous economic and infrastructure problems and lead to a tangible change in the quality of life of its citizens.


Under such conditions, one can draw three possible scenarios as to how things might play out in Lebanon:



Scenario A


Continuation of the chaos and a process of disintegration of the state. In this scenario, Lebanon is liable to slip down into increasing domestic inter-ethnic violence (and another civil war?), if protest against the ethnic 'system' intensifies, and if Hezbollah will sense a threat to its standing and its right to possess weapons beyond the control of the state.



Scenario B


Temporary arrangements, without any substantial change in the governing structure. In this scenario, a new government will be appointed with international intervention, whose members will again be presented as technocrats free of ethnic vested interests. The government will lead to elections and will strive to carry out reforms that, depending on their depth, could open the way for regional and international assistance. At the same time, without change in the ethnic 'system' such arrangement will be unable to cure Lebanon's economic ills, and they are liable to disintegrate and lead back to Scenario A.



Scenario C


National consensus behind a gradual process for systematic governmental change. This scenario is more likely to play out, on the heels of broad escalation and violence within the country. Yet even then, it is questionable whether Lebanon can move towards an authoritative supra-ethnic central government model.



What are the implications from Israel's perspective? On an immediate tactical level, scathing criticism of Hezbollah in the domestic Lebanese arena makes it harder for the organization to immediately carry out a 'surgical retaliatory strike' against Israel in response to the recent killing of one of its operatives in Syria which Hezbollah blames on Israel. At the same time, it appears that Hezbollah seeks to keep such an operation on its agenda so as to not appear weak at home and facing Israel.


In a broader perspective, the defensive stance that Hezbollah has been forced to take and calls in Lebanon to disarm it, place additional restraints on the organization as far as future conflict with Israel is concerned. Still, should Hezbollah feel it has its back to the wall, it might choose to intensify tensions with Israel as a ploy to deflect criticism at home.


The period of instability that Lebanon has entered as a polity, with demolished institutions and infrastructure, presents Israel with an additional unstable front on its northern border, along side Syria. Under such conditions, Israel and the IDF need to prepare for scenarios that could arise from this state of affairs, such as crowds of civilians massing on the border; attempts by refugees and enemy elements to breach the border; and exploitation of the lack of governance in the country by Iran and other players to fill the vacuum.


Parallel to this, Israel needs to broaden its dialogue with regional and international players in light of their increasing involvement in the Lebanese crisis within the context of assistance and economic and political restructuring. Growing outside involvement on the one hand, preferably led by the U.S., and Hezbollah's defensive position on the other hand, present an opportunity for Israel to ensure its interests are taken into account in international diplomacy over the Lebanon issue.



Israel's objectives in this context are:


  1. Extending the capabilities and authority of the international force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), whose annual mandate is up for renewal in the Security Council at the end of the month. This should focus on enhancing the efficacy of the force and the means at its disposal for surveillance and report on any military presence of Hezbollah in the south of the country.

  2. Bolstering awareness in the world of the mammoth threat of stockpiling armaments of Hezbollah in civilian areas, applying more pressure on the organization in this respect.

  3. Making progress on a solution to disputes in marking the overland and maritime border between Israel and Lebanon.

  4. Curtailing Iranian influence in Lebanon, parallel to rehabilitating the influence of Saudi Arabia and the moderate Gulf States in Lebanese affairs.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



If you wish to receive the weekly brief regularly, please follow the link to register.




Back to the newsletter >>