It is usually a sign of an economy in crisis, government dysfunction or political turmoil, when garbage starts to pile up on the streets of Beirut, the Lebanese capital. These days, it is all three. And it would almost be asking for too much to expect the present crises not to reignite sectarian divides between Christians, Muslim Sunnis and Shiites, that pushed the country into a 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
A financial crisis that started in 2019, has today led the country’s currency to lose 90 percent of its value, completely eroded the savings of millions of people, plunging millions into poverty. There are acute fuel shortages, forcing long queues at petrol stations and power outages that last 20 hours every day. As if that is not bad enough, basic commodities, which are still subsidised by the government have become luxuries for the average Lebanese. Medicine, flour and sugar have all become scarce. There are, also, reports of people queuing up at bakeries from as early as 3am just to buy bread.
According to the World Bank, it is the worst economic crisis faced by any country in 150 years. Recently though, the violence on the streets threatening to drag the country into another civil war has been over the inability of the government to investigate the August 4, 2020 Port of Beirut explosion that killed more than 200 people, mostly Christians, injuring 7000 and leaving more than 300,000 people homeless. The explosion, which was felt in neighbouring countries and in Europe, was presumably caused by a large amount of ammonium nitrate warehoused at the port without proper safety measures. Hezbolllah, a dominant political party and armed group designated a terrorist organisation by the United States of America, is vehemently opposed to an investigation headed by a well-known judge, Tarek Bitar.
Both the United States and Saudi Arabia, rightly or wrongly, view Hezbollah as a proxy of Iran. The armed group has accused Samir Geagea, the head of a Christian militia, Lebanese Front, pushing for the investigation and with support from the Saudis, of trying to instigate another civil war. It need not be said that the Iranians and the Saudis are not on the best of terms.
Added to all these is the political paralysis that left the country unable to form a government for one whole year until early September when billionaire Najib Mikati managed to cobble together a ruling coalition. The previous government resigned after the port explosion.
Constitutionally, the president has to be a Christian, the prime minister Sunni and the speaker of parliament Shiite with half the seats in parliament reserved for the Christian bloc. To underscore how fractious the country’s politics is and why it took so long to form a government, Azm Movement, the party of the prime minster, Najib Mikati, has only three seats in the 128-member parliament and in his 24-member cabinet, his party has only three representatives. Basically, Mikati was a choice of President Michel Aoun, whose Free Patriotic Movement and Strong Lebanon bloc have the most seats in parliament. But Aoun also has the support of the two main Shiite political parties, Amal Movement and Hezbollah.
In our considered opinion, it is not that sectarian groups and political parties in Lebanon cannot get along. The problem is that outside players, foreign forces and many of their neighbours don’t want them to. Everybody, especially Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, France and the United States of America feel a need to dictate what can and cannot happen in Lebanese politics.
With this as background, and following what it sees as an insulting commentary from the information minister of Lebanon, George Kordahi, Saudi Arabia has expelled the Lebanese ambassador, placed a ban on imports from Lebanon and stopped its citizens from visiting the country. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwiat have followed suit in solidarity with Saudi Arabia. The Gulf states have effectively imposed a trade embargo on Lebanon.
It needs to be pointed out that the country has a service economy with tourism playing a key role. According to that country’s central bank, 60 percent of foreign currency remittances come from the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia is also the biggest importer of agricultural produce from Lebanon. So, the embargo and diplomatic spat with the Gulf will further cripple an already battered economy. As Prime Minister Mikati has said, the Saudis should opt for dialogue rather than starve six million people.
It is the position of this newspaper that foreign interference in Lebanese politics, whether from Iran, United States of America or Saudi Arabia, is pushing the country to the edge. Its sovereignty must be respected by all regional players. Considering the stakes foreign powers believe they have in the country, a second civil war will likely spill over into other countries, and maybe consume the entire region.