Lebanon Update 15 August, 2020: Hariri Verdict Coming Next Week

Lebanon has captured the attention of the international community with the Beirut port explosion in early August and subsequent renewed anti-government protests across the nation. Official corruption has been a way of life in Lebanon for decades. Only now does it seem that the proverbial chicken is coming home to roost. The government resigned earlier this week as backlash against the political class has reached new heights. There are many questions emerging now about Lebanon’s political future. How Hezbollah will figure into the mixture is one of the more significant ones. Although many Lebanese like the idea of political change coming to their country, Hezbollah support remains considerable among the people.

Early next week the verdict on the 2005 killing of former Lebanese premier Rafic Hariri will come down from the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). The verdict had been scheduled to come earlier in the month but the port explosion in Beirut brought on a postponement. The verdict, regardless of which way it goes, could spark fresh violence in Lebanon between Hezbollah, and Hariri supporters. Given the present political climate such clashes will be counterproductive for Hezbollah to say the least. This reality could be the reasoning behind Hezbollah’s claim that it will ignore the Hariri verdict when it is handed down.

What Hezbollah says and does are generally two entirely different things, as the world has learned. The world will be watching the verdict carefully as well. For the first time in decades Lebanon could be on the verge of genuine political change. It would be an absolute tragedy if the Hariri verdict, and Hezbollah were somehow able to derail that chance.

Eastern Mediterranean Heating Up

The Eastern Mediterranean has gone from lukewarm to a rapid simmer over the past week. In Lebanon the political winds of change appear to be descending upon Beirut following the massive explosion at Beirut’s port facility on 4 August. The incident reinvigorated protests, and heavy anti-government sentiment across the nation. This morning the Lebanese government saw the writing on the wall and resigned. In an address earlier today Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his resignation, and his intent to “take a step back,” and “fight the battle for change alongside them.” Diab went on to denounce the political ruling class and lay blame for the explosion squarely on their shoulders. Diab’s cabinet resigned earlier in the day, and it appears now that at least some of them will remain on in a caretaker role until a new government is formed.

The dissolution of Lebanon’s government is drawing considerable attention from Western nations, as well as from some of Lebanon’s neighbors and longtime allies. Questions about the future are being asked, with no answers readily available. What shape will the new government take? Is the present mood in Lebanon one that will see the removal of Hezbollah and its influence from Lebanese government and society? How far is Hezbollah, and Iran willing to go in order to keep the nation afloat and in their corner? Three of many questions that will need to be considered as the situation plays out in the coming days and weeks.

The Greek-Egyptian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) deal is drawing a decidedly negative reaction from Turkey-as was anticipated. The deal is seen as a direct challenge to the EEZ established by Turkey and the Western-recognized government of Libya. On Monday, Turkey issued a Navtex international maritime alert to conduct ‘seismic research operations’ south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo over the next two weeks. The Turkish research ship Oruc Reis and two auxiliary vessels are presently underway to the area. Turkish naval forces are also presently conducting a two-day naval exercise off of Kasetellorizo and Rhodes. The exercise was announced on 6 August, the same day Greece and Egypt signed their EEZ agreement. Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with his military chiefs today as both sides exchanged accusations of fueling regional tensions.

While all of this was going on today the lira continued its tailspin, reaching record lows against the dollar and euro. Despite Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hopes, Turkey’s foreign adventures do not seem to be having a positive effect on the economy. Turkey is dealing with serious economic, and domestic issues. The lira has a history of being influenced by domestic politics. If the economic outlook does not improve soon enough, Erdogan may be faced with the unpalatable choice of either having to request IMF assistance, or call snap elections. Either one will cost him a fortune in political capital and perhaps leave Erdogan and his government in a vulnerable spot at the wrong time.

Lebanon’s Ambivalent Path Forward

Lebanon is coming to terms with the horrific explosion in Beirut earlier this week. Aid is pouring into the nation from every direction. Old allies, and even old enemies are joining in the effort.  The explosion has focused international attention on Lebanon for the moment, and the world is beginning to see how mismanaged, and corrupt the Lebanese government has become. Granted, Lebanon has always had to deal with this to one extent or another, but in recent years the levels of graft, and negligence have skyrocketed. The Lebanese people are seeking a solution and are not confident one can be found within their government. This was evident on Thursday night as anti-government protests flared up outside of the parliament building in Beirut. Fires were set, stores vandalized, and clashes with security forces broke out. Last night could be an indication of larger unrest to come in the future unless the Lebanese government can convince the people that it is committed to being the solution instead of the problem.

France has wasted no time in coming to Lebanon’s side in support. Less than 24 hours after the explosion French aid was arriving in Beirut and French president Emanuel Macron arrived in the city yesterday. French ties to Lebanon run deep so Macron’s arrival, and France’s swift response come as no surprise. The role that Paris will take in the near future remains to be seen. Macron is calling for politicians in Lebanon to come together and bring about change. In short, Macron is demanding reform, as are many other regional, and Western governments.

Lebanon’s people simply want change. A petition calling for Lebanon to fall under French mandate received the signatures of 50,000 Lebanese. This is indicative of the festering mood in the country and the populace’s almost complete lack of confidence in their government. The people want change, and if it is to come from the outside so be it. A dangerous message. Doubly so in uncertain times like these.

Post-Explosion Worries Grow For Lebanon

It has been around thirty hours since the ammonium nitrate explosion in Beirut devastated parts of the city. The initial of the investigation now underway strongly suggests that the explosion was the result of negligence, and a number of variables coming together at the most inopportune time. The investigation is nowhere near complete yet though and this should be kept in mind. A final verdict will not be rendered for some time. It is worth noting, however, that as Lebanese officials and authorities continue their investigation, at the same time the intelligence services of many Middle Eastern, and Western nation-states are conducting their own investigations of the incident.

Accident or otherwise, the explosion has come at a very delicate time for Lebanon. First there is the COVID-19 pandemic. Infections are on the rise, and the nation’s healthcare system and hospitals are struggling to cope. Economic conditions are another factor. Lebanese are dealing with an economic crisis worse than any since the 1975-1990 civil war. Brownouts are a part of daily live, and clean drinking water is not readily available on a consistent basis.  Large scale street demonstrations against the government were a regular occurrence until the pandemic arrived, and the mood of many Lebanese has turned decidedly anti-government, and anti-Hezbollah.

The explosion occurred at Beirut’s port and caused an immense amount of damage. Significant quantities of stored grain have been destroyed, leading to worries about a possible food crisis in the near future. To exacerbate matters, the destruction caused to the port is leading to questions about its operational capacity. The Lebanese government is releasing 100 billion lira in emergency funds to help offset any economic consequences, but there is a growing consensus among economists, and geopolitical analysts that the impact of the blast on Lebanon’s economy will be long-lasting.

Lebanon: Protests Turn Violent, Economy Remains in Free Fall

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Over the past week protests in Lebanon have turned violent. Following months of relatively peaceful demonstrations across the small country anti-government protesters and security forces clashed in the streets of Beirut. The past weekend saw the most violence with over 100 citizens injured. Police and security forces made dozens of arrests, with most coming as protesters attempted to storm Lebanon’s Parliament building. The situation on the ground deteriorated to the point that the Lebanese government called in the military to bolster the ranks of police and security personnel.

Political corruption has been at the heart of the protests. Frustration with the ruling class had been rising for quite some time in Lebanon. As has been the case in other nations across the region, the people have taken to the streets to demand change. Lebanon is in the midst of a severe economic crisis, and the government appears unable or unwilling to address it properly. Inflation and unemployment continue to rise, the national currency’s value is diminishing, and Lebanon’s credit ranking is in the basement.

To make matters even worse, cash is running short in banks around the nation. Commercial banks have placed restrictions on withdrawing dollars, and blocked money transfers abroad. These moves have sparked a number of extreme incidents at banks ranging from scuffles between depositors and bank employees to depositors physically occupying branches.

Unfortunately, even if the government brings on early elections as the protesters have demanded, there’s no guarantee a new parliament and cabinet will be able to stave off the looming economic catastrophe.