Leaders from across Lebanon’s political and religious spectrum are warning that the country’s political crisis – which has worsened dramatically since the Aug. 4 explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut – risks deteriorating into violence or even a new civil war.
The threat of armed conflict – and the reality that one faction, the Shia militia Hezbollah, has the ability to impose its will on the others – hangs over a country bracing for another round of street protests. The opposition has called for a demonstration on Monday outside the Justice Ministry, as well as a mass march on Tuesday, exactly two weeks after the explosion, toward President Michel Aoun’s official residence to demand his resignation.
A nervous calm hung over the city on the weekend, after a Friday night speech by Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in which he overtly criticized anti-government protesters and repeatedly referred to the possibility of civil war.
Hezbollah and its allies, which include President Aoun, control most of the levers of power in Lebanon, which has made them targets of unprecedented popular outrage in the wake of the disaster. At least 172 people were killed, and entire neighbourhoods of the city left devastated.
The explosion, one of the biggest anywhere since the end of the Second World War, has been attributed to official negligence and a culture of corruption at the port, where Hezbollah wielded wide influence. The blast ignited 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that sat unattended for more than six years in a warehouse, despite a series of warnings about it, including a July 20 letter seen by Mr. Aoun.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who also saw the letter, resigned along with his entire cabinet last week, though they remain in place as caretakers until a new government is formed. The protesters want the entire ruling elite to step aside in favour of a transitional government that would oversee early elections – something Mr. Nasrallah made clear Hezbollah would not allow to happen.
“After a catastrophe of this magnitude, we have witnessed an attempt to bring down the state, and this is the most serious,” he said in the televised speech, during which he defended Mr. Aoun’s performance. “The Lebanese must be careful. Any conflict of a political nature must have a limit: avoiding the overthrow of the state and a civil war.”
On Sunday, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, the head of Lebanon’s largest Christian sect, used his sermon to warn that the country was facing “its biggest danger.” He added his voice to those calling for a snap vote. “We must start immediately with change and quickly hold early parliamentary elections … to rescue Lebanon, not the leadership and political class.”
The government declared a state of emergency last week, giving the army broad powers to prevent gatherings, censor media and arrest anyone deemed to be a security threat. Soldiers are deployed at key intersections around Beirut.
Karl Karam, a 33-year-old architect who is one of the key organizers of recent anti-government protests, said the weekend of quiet was tactical – designed to give people some rest. But he admitted that some in the opposition had been rattled by Mr. Nasrallah’s speech and the government’s declaration of a state of emergency. “People are afraid that someone might take advantage of the situation and create a problem to distract people from everything else that’s going on.”
Power in Lebanon is shared among the country’s religious groups under the terms of the 1990 Taif Agreement, which ended a 15-year civil war that was fought largely among sectarian lines and left 120,000 people dead. Protesters say the pact – which was supposed to ensure no sect dominated the others by mandating that the president always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim – has instead ensured that the sectarian leaders who destroyed the country during the war have maintained their grip on it during the peace.
Mr. Aoun, who was elected in a 2016 parliamentary vote after a two-year power struggle during which the presidency was left vacant, said on Saturday that it would be “impossible” for him to step down, because it would create a power vacuum. He also ruled out holding early elections. “The political and popular atmosphere can’t take new elections before restoring calm,” he said in an interview with France’s BFMTV. “They would be emotional, and not a true representation of the people.”
The country has been the centre of frantic diplomacy since the explosion. French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs David Hale have both visited Beirut, and thrown their support behind opposition calls for a government of technocrats, as well as an international investigation into how the blast happened.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, meanwhile, used his own visit to Beirut on Friday to complain about the presence of French and British warships that were deployed to assist in the delivery of medical assistance and other aid. “The presence of foreign warships on Lebanon’s coast is not normal and it is a threat to the Lebanese people and its resistance,” Mr. Zarif said.
Michel Moawad, a former MP who resigned his parliamentary seat to protest the government’s slow response to the port blast, told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Nasrallah’s speech was “a threat.” But Mr. Moawad said Lebanon’s multiplying crises – which also include a collapsing economy and a spiking COVID-19 outbreak – meant that many Lebanese were too angry to be cowed.
“We tried everything to find an acceptable compromise for the country,” he said of efforts to bring Hezbollah into the political system and convince it to give up its arsenal. “Now the country is bankrupt, our capital is destroyed – so what are you threatening? What can be worse?”
Hezbollah, which receives financial and military support from Iran, built up its arsenal to fight neighbouring Israel, which occupied southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, and which Hezbollah fought to a deadly stalemate in a 2006 war. However, the group’s once-vaunted status as “the resistance” has been diminished in the eyes of many Lebanese by its role in Syria’s civil war, which saw thousands of Hezbollah fighters cross the border to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
That war forced millions of Syrians, most of them Sunni Muslims, to flee into Lebanon, putting yet another strain on this country, which already hosts a large population of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
Tuesday looms as a critical day for Lebanon. The protest outside Mr. Aoun’s residence, if it goes ahead, will come only a few hours after an international tribunal based in The Hague hands down its long-awaited verdict in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Four Hezbollah members have been charged in absentia with carrying out the bombing that killed Mr. Hariri and 21 others. In his speech, Mr. Nasrallah said that Hezbollah would ignore the verdict because its members were innocent.
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