A Year after the Beirut Explosion, a Dreaded Civil War in Lebanon

Events over the last few days in Lebanon portended a serious escalation in sectarian tensions and a possible widespread resort to arms that could quickly lead to a civil war. Coming as the country suffers from socioeconomic collapse and commemorates the one-year observance of the catastrophic explosion at the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, the limited skirmishes were a clear reminder that the Lebanese state is truly hanging on by a thread. What is making the situation even more dire is the continued absence of a sitting government capable of convincing the Lebanese that some sort of help from state institutions is on the way or that the international community will finally do something about arresting Lebanon’s slide toward catastrophe.

The latest violence in Khaldeh, once a tony suburb astride the coastal highway south of Beirut, began on August 1st when gunmen attacked the funeral procession of a partisan from Hezbollah, Ali Chebli, who had been killed a day earlier due to a vendetta by the brother of a youth he had allegedly murdered last year. The attack on the funeral procession killed five people, including three from Hezbollah, as skirmishes with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades lasted for a few hours until the Lebanese army was able to deploy in the area and restore an uneasy calm. The highway was closed temporarily and traffic to and from the south of the country was diverted to other routes.

While the dynamics of Lebanese politics have not changed markedly since 1975, despite the Taif Accords of 1989, circumstances today are in many respects harder than they were at the start of the civil war. The Lebanese state today is flat-out broke and the politicians who could previously horse-trade by using state resources have no recourse to satisfy the demands of their constituents. While sectarian elites still control their respective confessions’ shares of the country’s institutions and nominal largesse, patron-client relations in the form of the distribution of services and resources have practically stopped.

Concomitantly, political, social, and economic conditions weigh heavily on the Lebanese. Prices and inflation are high, the national currency has collapsed, subsidies on food, fuel, and medicine are gradually being phased out, and whatever remains of an already poor safety net is eroding. To be sure, public agitation and ferment have become very hard to control by traditional political compromises and maneuvers. In such a situation of unbounded frustration and despair, a civil war would likely be even more devastating than the one that lasted for 15 years (1975-1990) and killed and maimed hundreds of thousands, displaced innumerable others, and destroyed the physical infrastructure of the country.

One thing is sure about the Khaldeh skirmishes, however: they could have been a spark of a civil war that would be markedly different, at least in the beginning, from the one that began in 1975 with an ambush by the Christian Kataeb Party of a bus of Palestinian civilians. The Shia protagonists on August 1st were allied with well-armed Hezbollah and Sunni Arab clans with extensions in many areas of the country. Had the situation not been contained, their fighting could credibly have widened to other neighborhoods in the cities and the countryside where Shia and Sunnis reside. With entrenched political divisions and the absence of serious attempts at compromise, it is not hard to fathom a long and drawn-out war that would have the potential of involving participants from additional sectarian groups allied with one side or the other. Needless to say, politicians have already issued their condemnations of what happened in Khaldeh and warned about repercussions; but with emotions running high and the reconciliation mechanisms absent, no one can be sure that the situation could truly be put to rest.

As the army continues to control the situation on the ground, Lebanon remains in desperate need of a government. Following the withdrawal of Saad Hariri from his failed nine-month mission to cobble together a cabinet, Najib Miqati—a millionaire member of parliament and a former prime minister—was chosen by a legislative majority as the new prime minister-designate to try his luck. So far, he seems to be running into the same obstacles Hariri faced as he tried to cooperate with President Michel Aoun on ministers of the putative government. After a meeting with Aoun on August 2nd, Miqati told reporters that he had hoped to have the government formed before the somber August 4 anniversary and warned of an open-ended timetable to have that done. In other words, Lebanon will have to wait even longer to get a cabinet in place, one that can start the urgent work of reform that is a prerequisite for economic recovery, social peace, and international financial assistance. This situation prompted the European Union to adopt a framework for imposing sanctions such as instituting travel bans and freezing assets of Lebanese politicians who continue to hinder the formation of the government.

Finally, on this infamous anniversary of the Port of Beirut explosion, the Lebanese appear to have finally lost all confidence that a proper investigation into the blast will result in assigning responsibility and having accountability. Over 200 people died on that day, some 6,500 others were injured, 300,000 were made homeless, and 70,000 lost their jobs. Protests by victims’ relatives demanding answers have not produced much; indeed, one demonstration in July was met with tear gas from riot police protecting Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmi’s house in Beirut. Investigating Judge Tarek Bitar’s mission to probe the blast has been obstructed by officials unwilling to lift the immunity on former security commanders who were responsible for the port as well as by parliament, which rejected calls to make some of its members who are former ministers available for questioning.

This culture of official impunity and obstructionism, in addition to the prevalent unwillingness to allow for the restoration of state institutions, have added fuel to the fire of popular frustration and despair. In this atmosphere, security breaches and skirmishes—whether coordinated or uncoordinated—could easily expand from hot spots such as Khaldeh to other areas of the country. With the Lebanese army spread thin, acts of violence may precipitate intra-sectarian conflict that could quickly become inter-sectarian and involve others from the many confessional groups that are equally aggrieved by the same socioeconomic conditions. Lebanon is indeed sitting on a powder keg and both domestic and international efforts are needed to keep it away from a dreaded civil war.