Experts: Lebanon blast brings foreign insistence on reform

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Sept. 9 (UPI) — Weeks after the blast that devastated Lebanon’s capital, aid from France, the United States and many other countries may have helped prevent the collapse of the country and avert a civil war, experts told UPI. But further efforts to help resolve the country’s unprecedented economic crisis hinge on Beirut’s action to root out corruption and start delivering on reforms.

Whether the Aug. 4 explosion — which killed more than 190, wounded 6,000 and left 300,000 homeless — was an accident, an attack or the result of years of negligence, it has unleashed a wave of public anger at the government.

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The blast ended Lebanon’s isolation and opened a window for foreign governments to push for reform.

French President Emmanuel Macron was the first foreign official to arrive in devastated Beirut, two days afterward. Realizing the extent of the human tragedy and the mounting dangers facing the country, he also saw an opportunity to reshape Lebanon and prevent it from disappearing — as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned on Aug. 27 — or plunging into a civil war.

International donors were quick in responding to the Beirut tragedy, pledging at am Aug. 9 conference organized by Macron and the United Nations nearly $ 300 million in humanitarian assistance “directly delivered to the Lebanese population.” The United States also sent a team to help investigate the blast.

“The most important thing at this stage is that France and the United States have demonstrated that they seriously don’t want Lebanon to collapse. That would harm their interests,” Riad Tabbarah, Lebanon’s former ambassador to the United States, told UPI.

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Foreign interests

While France fears Lebanon’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees would seek to reach Europe if the situation deteriorates, the United States is most concerned about Israel’s security and the possible infiltration of Islamic State members from Syria into northern Lebanon, Tabbarah said.

Washington, he said, would also want to seize the opportunity to settle the Lebanese-Israeli maritime border dispute “in favor of Israel.” The demarcation of the maritime border became important when natural gas was discovered offshore in the Mediterranean Sea in 2009.

Even Iran and Hezbollah are keen to keep the situation under control in Lebanon until the U.S. presidential elections in November, hoping that President Donald Trump would lose and they could negotiate a better deal with his successor.

Macron’s second visit to Lebanon on Sept. 1 was meant to pressure Lebanese political leaders to swiftly implement reforms. Macron went so far as to draft a roadmap for them, including a timeline of action, starting with the formation of a new government within 15 days, setting an agenda for resuming talks with the International Monetary Fund, adopting an IMF-approved capital control law and starting an audit of the central bank, reforming the power sector, appointing members of a national anti-corruption authority and improving border controls at ports, the airport and border crossings. Legislative elections would be held within one year.

It is yet to be seen whether they will fulfill promises they made to Macron, starting with forming a new cabinet of experts by early next week. Unlike the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, which resigned Aug. 10 after several ministers stepped down, the new cabinet should not be under the influence of the political parties and Hezbollah.

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Mass protests

Lebanon’s leaders have long resisted any serious attempt to introduce reforms, even as the country plunged further into poverty, with its banking system breaking down, its currency plummeting to record lows, inflation and unemployment skyrocketing.

The ruling elite was shaken when mass anti-government demonstrations began on Oct.17, calling for the ouster of all the top leaders. The leaders turned a deaf ear to all demands and tried to quell the protests.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic to add to the Lebanese misery, making the economic situation worse and forcing the popular demonstrations to slow down.

The port explosion was a turning point.

Now if Lebanon’s leaders refuse to take action, they can be sanctioned and blacklisted by the international community. This time, it is their personal wealth that will be targeted.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted former Lebanese Transport Minister Yousef Finyanus and former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil for engaging in corruption and providing material and financial help to Hezbollah.

“It is a battle between outside powers pushing for reforms to avoid the collapse of Lebanon and a ruling elite resisting and refusing…It is something never seen before,” Tabbarah said.

Replacing the political leadership, who have been controlling the country for more than 40 years, is no easy mission.

Engaging the political leaders in a new process and threatening them with sanctions may be the best approach for now, observers said. But it might also give them cover to stay in power, said Mona Fayad, a politologist and professor in psychology at the Lebanese University.

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Hezbollah’s role

The investigation continues into who is to blame for the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that was stored at the Beirut port for seven years before igniting. Some have accused Iran-backed Hezbollah of stockpiling weapons there.

Macron met Hezbollah officials in Beirut, urging them “to prove” they are Lebanese and ready to focus on their country and help end the crisis, according to published reports. But he disregarded the weapons issue.

“Macron acted in good faith but provided a cover to Hezbollah by presenting the problem in Lebanon as if it is about economic mismanagement and corruption and not Hezbollah’s weapons,” said Fayad, adding that the militant group appeared more conciliatory, promising to facilitate the formation of a new cabinet and supporting reform, only to win time to maneuver until the U.S. elections.

Still, Lebanon needs billions of U.S. dollars to rebuild and a $ 20 billion-$ 25 billion bailout, including IMF support, to emerge from its financial crisis. If the Lebanese Central Bank finds itself obliged to stop subsidizing wheat, fuel and medicine within the coming three months, the result will be catastrophic, according to economic experts.

“There will be chaos…If the French and Americans did not interfere to prevent the collapse of the country, we would have faced a civil war,” Tabbarah said.

Fayad warned of an “Iraq-like scenario if chaos, violence and social unrest spread.”

At this stage, it does not matter if France and the United States are acting to protect their own interests amid a struggle in eastern Mediterranean over the control of ports, water passageways, gas and oil.

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“France will not leave Lebanon until it regains a kind of a role in this region,” Walid Arbid, a professor of international relations at the Lebanese University and president of the Association of Lebanese University Graduates from French Universities, told UPI, referring to Paris’ interest in rebuilding war-damaged Syria and helping resolve Iraq’s crisis, as well as its efforts to stop Turkey’s expansion in the eastern Mediterranean.

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