This truly represents “a dangerous moment” for Lebanon, as Sky News reports today, but it’s not the first this country has faced. In the wake of the massive blast in Beirut — which almost everyone now blames on ruling-class negligence and incompetence — the government resigned en masse today. Current PM Hassan Diab will stay on as a caretaker leader while a new government forms, but the political leadership faces new pressure to discard the “sectarianism” that has defined government since the end of the civil war.
Will Iranian proxy Hezbollah stand by while Lebanon goes secular? “That’s not very realistic,” Sky News’ reporter admits:
Lebanon’s Cabinet has resigned over last week’s devastating blast at the Beirut port, the health minister said, a decision that was made under pressure as several ministers quit or expressed their intention to step down.
The minister, Hamad Hassan, spoke with reporters at the end of a Cabinet meeting on Monday, which came after two days of demonstrations over the weekend that saw clashes with security forces firing tear gas at protesters.
“The whole government resigned,” Hamad said. He added that Prime Minister Hassan Diab will head to the presidential palace to “hand over the resignation in the name of all the ministers.”
The massive blast on Aug. 4 which decimated Beirut port and devastated large parts of the city has brought a new wave of public outrage at the government and Lebanon’s long entrenched ruling class. Protests were planned outside the government headquarters to coincide with the Cabinet meeting after large demonstrations over the weekend that saw clashes with security forces firing tear gas at protesters.
The odds of Hezbollah and its shadow army standing by quietly as Lebanon transitions to secular governance is somewhere between slim and none. And that problem gets very granular in Lebanon, as Israeli political leader Benny Gantz pointed out today:
“While Nasrallah is our greatest enemy to the north, he is Lebanon’s biggest problem from within Lebanon,” he said. “We see the tragedy that happened in Lebanon… just think about what would happen if that would be repeated with Iranian weapons in Lebanese villages. We are dealing with enemies who are operating and storing weapons in a civilian environment. If we have no choice but to fight, it might have harsh implications.”
In his first briefing to the committee as defense minister and the first address by a defense minister to the committee since November, Gantz said the Lebanon blast, which left at least 158 people dead, dozens missing and thousands injured and homeless, could have been worse because Hezbollah keeps explosives in the homes of civilians.
“The fact is that in Lebanon there are homes with a guest room and a missile room,” he said. “And when that missile explodes, the guest room won’t stay intact, and Lebanese society will pay a heavy price.”
In one aspect, the broad anger against the entire political establishment might help Hezbollah. French outlet I24 News’ Emily Rose notes that the Hezbollah-friendly nature of the government hasn’t focused anger on the group, but Jotam Confino says that won’t last. When the investigations start producing results, it will stoke suspicions and disgust with Hezbollah’s performance. “In general,” he says, “Hezbollah has been running this country into the ground”:
There is a good reason for that disgust, Bloomberg reports:
It’s not clear how long it will take to form a new government in a nation where political divisions mean talks can drag out for months, and or whether a caretaker government could conclude any deal with the International Monetary Fund over a bailout, or secure international aid.
Even before the explosion, the government was barely functioning, not even able to regularly collect trash or keep electricity flowing, let alone haul the country out of its deepest political and financial crisis since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
Politics remains riven along sectarian lines, increasingly influenced by the Iran-backed Hezbollah that’s classified by the U.S. and Gulf Arab states as a terrorist group. Decades of mismanagement, nepotism and cronyism, meanwhile, had left state coffers pillaged and the country gasping under mountains of debt.
This indeed sets up a dangerous moment, and not just for Lebanon. If Lebanon’s people act to eject Hezbollah from governance, will Hezbollah start a new civil war to tighten its grip on the country? If they do, what will France and its Western allies do — and how will Israel respond? In fact, one big question will be whether Hezbollah tries to wag the dog by provoking a war with Israel as a distraction. That strategy has worked before in Lebanon, but this time around it looks like it might be a very risky proposition — and Israel might not take the bait, either.