In 2006, friends directed a cab driver to where we were staying: “Next to where Elie Hobeika was assassinated.” Suddenly, I understood how Lebanese people had come to treat their chaotic political scene as banal. Hobeika was accused of war crimes during Lebanon’s civil war, but he continued serving in Lebanese politics for a decade afterward, until a car bomb took his life.
Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended with the Taif Agreement in 1989. The resultant national pact outlined the principle of mutual coexistence between Lebanon’s different religious sects but established no accountability or truth-and-reconciliation commissions. The agreement transferred some of the Maronite Christians’ political power to Sunni and Shi’a communities but it simultaneously entrenched sectarian divisions and transformed warlords into mainstream politicians.
Thirty years later, Lebanon’s “zu’ama” or “bosses” remain at the top levels of government, and the same mafia of families controls Lebanon’s government, people, economy and service sectors. Corruption has flourished. Electricity supply has faltered, and garbage has piled up uncollected. And, from time to time, someone has been assassinated. Both the endemic corruption and the political violence stemmed from a lack of accountability for the war and its progeny: the zu’ama.
For years, many feared that Lebanon’s divisions would erupt once again. Today, the divisions that have erupted are not between Lebanon’s sects but between the people and the zu’ama.
The seeds were planted in 2015, when government negligence and corruption combined to leave trash uncollected for months. Stench filled the air, and people took to the streets in protest. Calls for governmental reform have been ongoing since, with protests reaching an apex in the fall of 2019. COVID-19 forbade public gatherings of opposition, but a drastic fall in the value of the Lebanese pound further incited anger and despair.
With the Lebanese lira at 20 percent of its former value, people were barely keeping their heads above water when, at 6:08 p.m. on Aug. 4, a fire at the Beirut port set off a much larger and destructive blast which penetrated the heart of the capital. City blocks were flattened and hundreds buried under rubble. For more than six years, 2,750 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate were left sitting at the port. Documents show that high level government officials had known about its presence for years but did not act to move or dispose of it.
It should not be surprising then that protesters have demanded the resignation of government figures. Perhaps, it also is not surprising that banners saying “‘alaqu al minashiq” and “hang up the nooses” have gone up in the streets and gone viral on social media, calling for the end of the zu’ama. Undoubtedly, most of those broadcasting the message mean it symbolically — but with more than 200 dead, thousands wounded and tens of thousands homeless, the desire for revenge is palpable.
Of course, political violence has never done Lebanon any good. Those who have suffered the most have been the people in the streets, traumatized by years of conflict, neglect and, now, an explosion larger than any seen in 15 years of war.
Lebanon’s system — its old guard government, their cronies and Hezbollah — has endured scandal and catastrophe for good reason. The zu’ama are able to distribute benefits to millions of Lebanese for their support. Resignations and assassinations will change some of the faces, but they will not fix a broken system. Lebanon needs more.
Those who have long been held unaccountable should be subject to a legitimate, impartial investigation and trial, not just for the seeming negligence leading up to this horrifying blast but for all the other humiliations and suffering endured by Lebanese, from garbage in the streets to war crimes of the past 45 years. At the same time, the Lebanese people need to plan for the day after, ignoring the calls of sectarian politicians who will seek to divide the population in order to secure their own futures. New non-sectarian political movements like Beirut Madinati need to redouble their efforts to reach across sectarian communities and encourage them to abandon their bosses.
In good times this would be hard; in crisis, it feels almost impossible. The international community must help build a new order from the ashes, not prolong the status quo or return Lebanon to a period of foreign supervision. Such assistance should include diplomatic and economic assistance to civil society and non-governmental affiliated organizations, impartial independent investigations, capacity-building at every level of governance, and the development of financial and governmental regulatory bodies to ensure that the new government, whichever shape it takes, cannot hold the country hostage again.
It is tempting to allow civil society and the sheer determination and gusto of the Lebanese people to get the country through, but this is not sustainable. A new social compact needs to be forged, which acknowledges the sins of the past, mends dormant divisions and finally creates a government that works for everyone living in Lebanon.
Natasha Hall is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. She has worked on conflict and humanitarian crises for over 15 years with NGOs, think tanks, and previously worked with the Refugee Affairs Division of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.