Dangerous Narratives

On Tuesday afternoon 4 August 2020 a huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut. With over hundred people killed, several thousand wounded and approximately 300’000 left without a home, the explosion marks a watershed moment in Lebanese politics.

Suffering under an economic recession and skyrocketing inflation, the explosion was the last drop in the bucket for many. People took the streets directing their anger at a corrupt political elite running the country to the ground since the end of the civil war in 1990. Rather than an isolated incident, the explosion of 2’750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the Beiruti port since 2013 exemplified the leaders disinterest in a well functioning state and people’s welfare: The storage of the explosive cargo was an open secret.

Under the slogan „كلن يعني كلن“ (all of them means all of them), Lebanese have been demanding for a along time the resignation of the government and the small clique of former warlords-cum-politicians – the so-called zu’ama – who have been running the country for the past 30 years.

Appealing as it might be to blame the zu’ama for the current situation, the idea of „draining the swamp“ and get rid of the old guard is shortsighted and at best fails to take the into account the broader geopolitical realities in the region. And at worst, it opens the door for populists of all couleur to exploit the people’s discontent.

Nadim Shehadi, executive director of the Lebanese American University, cautioned in his Twitter thread that calls for the governments resignation and the toppling of the zu’ama need to take into account the outside influence of the two regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as the undermining role of international aid tha has repeatedly cushioned the government’s economic mismanagement. Tellingly, when French president Emmanuel Macron toured the devastated areas of Mar Mikhael in the center of Beirut, protesters urged him not to bail out the government with aid packages this time.

Yet while awareness of these external factors is present among citizens and experts likewise, the broader narrative in mainstream media still paints the picture of a corrupt elite responsible for the Lebanese quagmire but fails to adequately address the underlying factors that sustain their hold on power.

In light of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the region, Lebanon has always been a battleground for influence. On the one side, the Saudi monarchy has been a financial backer of the Sunni Future Movement founded by the late prime minister Rafiq Hariri and currently headed by his son Saad Hariri. Albeit with the inauguration of Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman MBS, their willingness to get involved in Lebanese politics and counter Iranian influence has diminished. Still, gulf money in 2020 helps fund Hariri’s political machine and patronage networks.

On the other side, the Iranian regime has been implicated in Lebanese politics ever since the creation of the Shiite party of god, Hezbollah, in 1985. And although US sanctions against the Iranian regime has also affected financial support for Hezbollah, its unmatched military capabilities and other revenue streams render the party-cum-militia the real power in Lebanon. In the words of Emile Hokayem: ‚“كلن يعني كلن“ does not and should [not] create false equivalences‘. Hezbollah bears a unique responsibility for the current crisis in the country. Not only has it repeatedly blocked the formation of a Lebanese government between 2014 and 2016 until its preferred candidate Michele Aoun was elected, it also employed key personnel in the Beiruti port administration.

While popular anger against a corrupt elite and calls to „drain the swamp“ are understandable, mainstream media and experts should beware of perpetuating it. Because as long as the regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia and recurrent aid packages sustain the status quo, an effective political transition is unlikely. Instead, demands for replacing the zu’ama will likely promote a new set of populists crying out empty slogans. Rather than draining the swamp, Lebanon’s political system needs to be disconnected from the regional dynamics and rewired. How to achieve this is a discussion for another day.

This was post was originally written in August 2020.