Lebanon was already in crisis. But the world took notice when a devastating explosion at Beirut's port killed over 200 people, wounded more than 6,000 and left 300,000 homeless this month. An international relief effort is underway to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe; the detonation of ammonium nitrate in the blast not only rendered most of the port unusable but also destroyed or contaminated stored wheat meant to feed the Lebanese people.
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi once told me as his own country was enmeshed in violence and struggling to implement reform: "Sectarianism and corruption go together."
In just the past few years, the country has also been buffeted by an influx of 1.5 million refugees from the Syrian civil war, an electricity crisis caused by dilapidated power infrastructure and garbage and pollution crises due to the collapse of essential services. The country's currency has lost 80 percent of its value since October. The country's middle class is sinking, while the poverty rate is rising from 45 percent in 2019 to a projected 75 percent by the end of this year. And COVID-19 has only highlighted the inadequacy of the health care system.
What connects all these crises is the cause: a corrupt political elite who have looted the country for decades while their people paid the price. Indeed, the Lebanese people have suffered far more from that slow-moving and devious affliction than from this month's sudden and dramatic explosion. It is clear that treating the symptoms of Lebanon's corrupt oligarchy will prove insufficient to arrest the devolution of the country into chaos.
President Emmanuel Macron of France, the country that administered Lebanon after the partition of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, has rightly vowed not to provide "blank checks" and to make aid to Lebanon conditional on reforms. It is past time for all responsible nations to support that reform effort, with any assistance to Lebanon contingent on three essential actions: new elections that allow citizens to eject the elites who have been looting the country, the dismantlement of Hezbollah's military capabilities and an end to a system of government in which seats and positions are apportioned to religious factions.
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi once told me as his own country was enmeshed in violence and struggling to implement reform: "Sectarianism and corruption go together." This is particularly true in Lebanon, where laws and districting largely predetermine election results by allocating set numbers of its 128 seats in Parliament to specific sectarian parties.
By essentially guaranteeing that parties will keep their proportion of seats, the system discourages accountability or responsiveness to citizens' needs. And with lines drawn according to religious divides — Lebanon has 18 different sects — there are no incentives for these fractious groups to find middle ground and join forces. Thus, the sectarian regime in Lebanon perpetuates failed governance and impunity for even the most egregious corruption.
This desperate situation has impelled a movement to oust the corrupt ruling class since well before the port disaster. In October, protests resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, but he was replaced by a weak prime minister and Cabinet who perpetuated the corrupt political class under the cover story of transitioning to a government of technocrats. That leadership came to an abrupt end last week, when Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned in response to a movement that has come to blame the entire system rather than a specific party.
Lebanon now has the opportunity to hold parliamentary elections under new electoral rules. But forming a civil system that prioritizes the rights of individuals over those of religious sects — and allows citizens a direct say in how they are governed rather than suffocates their voices through layers of corrupt sectarian bosses — faces daunting challenges. Foremost among those challenges is Hezbollah, which benefits from the current system.
Reform will be impossible unless the Lebanese people, with international support, reduce the political and military power of Hezbollah. Designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the United Kingdom and several other countries, as well as the Arab League, it uses the corrupt sectarian system to block reforms that threaten its influence over Lebanon's government, financial system and illicit economy.
More and more Lebanese see Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, as the main stumbling block facing international relief; they scoffed at Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's denial that the organization holds any responsibility for the explosion. The suffering that Hezbollah has inflicted on the Syrian population during the civil war and the costs the Lebanese people have borne fighting on behalf of the Iranian regime there compounds anti-Hezbollah sentiment.
Now is the time for potential international donors to Lebanon to magnify the voices of the Lebanese people and make it clear that there can be no bailout of a government and financial system controlled by a terrorist proxy for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although Hezbollah is weakened politically and financially, because of the country's poor economic state and banking woes that limit its ability to receive money from Iran, its militia controls parts of Lebanon crucial to threatening its southern neighbor, Israel.
As it did in 2006, it is possible that Iran will incite a war with Israel via Hezbollah to distract from growing dissension at home and arrest Hezbollah's plummeting reputation in Lebanon. The United States, France and like-minded countries can place conditions on aid designed to prevent war and reduce Hezbollah's ability to hold the Lebanese and Israeli people hostage.
There can be no bailout of a government and financial system controlled by a terrorist proxy for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Conditions could include a declaration of a state of emergency in Lebanon and the use of the U.S.-trained Lebanese Armed Forces to restrain Hezbollah and begin reducing its arsenal, with priority on its Iranian-supplied precision guided munitions. The United Nations should also direct its force of 10,000 peacekeepers to support the Lebanese Armed Forces as they deploy throughout the south of Lebanon and position U.N. forces along the Syrian border to help disrupt arms and munitions trafficking. Tight international monitoring of Lebanon's airport and the port, as well as a reformed banking system, would further keep Hezbollah from receiving Iranian support.
As France and the United States help organize an international relief effort for Lebanon, it is worth remembering the explosions of Oct. 23, 1983, in the midst of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, targeting American and French service members. The casualties included 241 U.S. service members, 58 French paratroopers and six civilians all there to keep the peace.
Macron's ambition that the explosion of Aug. 4 might mark the "start of a new era" is worthy of support. But calls for reforms to the banking, electricity and customs sectors will not work unless sustained popular and international pressure forces the corrupt political class out of power, dismantles the sectarian patronage system and loosens Hezbollah's political and military grip on power. Otherwise, today's reform effort, like the peacekeeping effort in the early 1980s, will end in profound disappointment and more human suffering.