As if the Lebanese haven't suffered enough. For months, they were caught between an economic crisis, crumbling public services and a growing pandemic. Now they must count the dead and watch over the extensive damage to their capital. More than 130 have been killed and 300,000 displaced from their homes, according to UNICEF.
The disaster once again exposes the rot that is destroying the country — a particularly corrosive mixture of corruption, ineptitude and malicious intent.
Protesters claim that the political elite have stolen billions of dollars from public coffers with almost no repercussions. They exploit a system, brokered 31 years ago in the Saudi town of Ta'if to end the Lebanese civil war, that is based on parallel spheres of influence rather than strong national institutions and has delivered reciprocal impunity among party leaders rather than accountability to the population.
It has been easily exploited by warlords turned politicians, skilled at plundering in the midst of a crisis while disinterested in building democratic institutions or a sustainable economy. Principal and most powerful among these factions is, of course, Iran-backed Hezbollah, which has effectively hijacked the Lebanese state.
But now with the country on the brink of collapse, Hezbollah's assimilation into the state apparatus, which had initially aimed to shield the organization from international pressure, could pose a direct threat to the group's future.
Hezbollah's reliance on corrupt politicians — to achieve domination and instrumentalize the state — has tied the credibility of the movement to the failure of the system, at that in the wake of a massive economic crisis.
Traditionally, Hezbollah operatives avoided assuming front-facing government positions in the realm of security or intelligence; its ministers instead held portfolios like agriculture, youth affairs, industry and, more recently, health. Yet barely below the surface the group exerted tremendous influence on the security sector and foreign policy.
The ammonium nitrate that caused the recent devastation was reportedly seized in 2013 from a Moldovan-flagged vessel traveling from Georgia to Mozambique. But someone — who, we don't yet know — brought the vessel to Beirut. Rather than return it, auction it off, or dispose of it, the port management — itself overseen by Hezbollah — allowed it to stay there for seven years.
Monday's resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, whose government depended entirely on political support from Hezbollah and its Maronite Christian allies, appears to have served his backers as a concession to a population demanding radical change.
It is merely a cosmetic move, however and the Lebanese people overwhelmingly understand that. The country is in the midst of a movement of mass protest not seen since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri. But as Hanin Ghaddar observed yesterday, the prior protest movement, which netted the ouster of Syrian troops, enjoyed the support of a focused American-led international coalition.
The Trump administration has lately been focused on applying maximum pressure on Iran; therefore, it would make sense to recognize that the horror and tragedy of the Beirut blast presents an opportunity to trim the sails of Iran's most effective regional proxy, Hezbollah.
An imminent, long-awaited verdict in the trial of Hariri's Hezbollah-affiliated killers — itself a product of international support for change — will not bring them to justice as they are in hiding, but it will propel the protest movement while Hezbollah and its Iranian backer scramble to preserve their dominance.
At this rare moment of opportunity, the international community must come together in standing with the Lebanese majority, which aspires to take back the country from the Iranian puppet militia. Doing so is both a matter of political pragmatism and a matter of conscience. With respect to the former, it comports with the U.S.-led "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran because it has the potential to deliver a serious blow to the Tehran regime's chief proxy.
As to the matter of the world's conscience, there is plenty of work to be done. Over the past decades, while Hezbollah drove the country to ruin and sacrificed countless Lebanese to the assault on Israel, international human rights groups and others in a position of moral leadership largely turned a blind eye to the movement.
Focusing chiefly on infractions by Israel and Arab powers on the receiving end of Hezbollah aggression, these voices of conscience failed to bring the militia's damage to human dignity and rights to the world's attention. In one egregious case, Amnesty International board member Syksy Räsänen went so far as to compare Hezbollah favorably over Israel. Small wonder, given the trust such organizations enjoy, that it is hard to muster broad-based Western public support for a principled stand against the group.
Centuries ago in Iraq, another country dominated by Iranian proxies today, a judge and belle lettrist named Tanukhi pioneered a form of storytelling called "the Dawn After Distress," premised on an optimistic belief that joy can follow sorrow. Lebanon, so long a battleground of rival powers, deserves the kind of support that would enable it at last to emerge as a truly independent and viable country.
Ahmed Charai is a Moroccan Publisher. He sits on the Board of Directors of The Atlantic Council in Washington and International Councillors at The Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's also on the Board of Trustees of the The Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and member of The National Interest’s Advisory Council. Mr. Charai is a Mid-East policy advisor in Washington whose articles have appeared in the major U.S. media. Read Ahmed Charai's reports — More Here.