By Arab News
By Baria Alamuddin*
Evidence of Lebanon’s impending collapse piles up by the day: About 230,000 citizens emigrated in the first four months of this year alone, a disproportionate number of whom are Christians. About 40 percent of Lebanon’s doctors and 30 percent of its nurses have departed; with comparable levels among teachers, lawyers, entrepreneurs and other professionals. More are looking to flee as the nation totters on the threshold of civil war, relinquishing all hopes of meaningful, rewarding futures in their beloved homeland.
The UN estimates that 82 percent of citizens cannot afford essential services like healthcare and education. With routine operations costing more than a year’s salary, children unable to afford treatment are dying outside hospitals. With the international airport under threat of closure, taxi drivers, lecturers and other segments of society are threatening civil disobedience in response to their desperate situations. Soldiers and policemen on unsurvivable salaries have simply withdrawn from their positions.
As soaring sectarian and factional tensions risk triggering war, the duty of conscientious leaders is to calm the situation. Instead, we got Hassan Nasrallah frenziedly pouring gasoline on the flames, boasting that Hezbollah has 100,000 fighters ready to hurl themselves into battle.
One analysis estimated that if Hezbollah actually possesses 100,000 fighters, its annual budget likely far exceeds $2 billion. Given that this is about three times what Hezbollah reportedly receives from Tehran, this either indicates that Nasrallah was grotesquely exaggerating, or was making a tacit admission that Hezbollah has been reaping billions of dollars from illegal activities, like drugs, arms and people smuggling.
Nasrallah’s ugly, confrontational speech last Monday was sectarian warmongering personified: He accused Christian leaders of lying to their communities that Hezbollah has an aggressive sectarian agenda, then spent an hour aggressively threatening these communities in the most sectarian language conceivable! Anybody who previously doubted that Lebanon was on the brink of civil war now comprehends exactly which way the wind is blowing. Hidden deep underground, Nasrallah forgets that Lebanon’s population is on the brink of starvation: Hence, his threats simply bestow upon citizens the option of dying slowly, or with a quick, merciful bullet to the head.
Nasrallah always claimed that Hezbollah purely existed for the purpose of fighting Israel, or perhaps Daesh — or maybe innocent Syrian citizens. This time the fig leaf dropped altogether: If other factions act in a manner which Hezbollah does not like, Hezbollah will unleash war against them and to hell with the consequences. During a second speech, Nasrallah was so consumed by divisive pronouncements about Bahrain, Yemen and Palestine that he apparently did not have time to comment on the catastrophic situation facing Lebanon’s citizenry.
Everybody knows that Hezbollah has by far the strongest war machine. But in the last Lebanese conflict, Israel and other regional players were drawn into the conflagration. Israel already regrets not cutting Hezbollah down to size when previous opportunities presented themselves. There is no way in hell that Israel, the US or even Putin’s Russia would allow Hezbollah to emerge from this impending war as Lebanon’s supreme power. And does Hezbollah expect the basket case Iranian economy to bankroll Lebanon’s post-war reconstruction; or perhaps the GCC states, which long since wrote off Beirut as Hezbollah-land?
Super-rich businessmen from Lebanon’s West African diaspora and elsewhere for decades have pumped (and laundered) billions of dollars of investments into Lebanon, and into Hezbollah itself. But this preferential relationship was always premised on seeing returns on investments. Matters look very different after Hezbollah and its allies shipwrecked the Lebanese economy, bankrupted the banks, and now are determined to shatter the nation altogether through a senseless and indefinite conflict.
And where are Lebanon’s political leaders, and the government itself? The president makes vague and confused pronouncements, as if these events are occurring a million miles away; while other faction leaders are busy feathering nests overseas, having sequestered families in gold-plated palaces in Paris and London, far from the impending inferno. They failed to step in to address the financial crisis, then the political crisis. Now we are facing a military crisis; do they seriously still believe they will escape unscathed? Bring on the day when European governments get round to seizing and repatriating all this ill-gotten wealth!
Nasrallah’s nakedly sectarian language stands out because Lebanon’s upcoming generations largely came of age in a post-sectarian milieu, caring nothing about each other’s confessional origins. During the 2019 protests, demonstrators stood united against Lebanon’s discredited leaders in their entirety: Kullun yaani kullun!
This post-sectarian spirit terrifies Nasrallah: When politics functions according to the old sectarian logic, Hezbollah’s position remains relatively secure. But when activists and voters from across the social spectrum successfully vote together against this outdated and corrupt model, Hezbollah hopefully does not stand a chance!
Nasrallah is tossing hand grenades into the current explosive status quo because the upcoming elections are fated to be disastrous for his allies. The FPM has gone from occupying one of the largest niches of the Christian community to shedding its entire support — even more so after recent events. No surprise then that the only issue which animates President Aoun is obstructing the holding of early elections. And if this devolves into a wide-scale Shiite-Christian conflict, what side will Hezbollah’s Christian lackeys Aoun and Jibran Baseel stand on? These are dirty, ugly equations, but such are the sordid calculations of sectarian conflict.
Hence, this is a moment when Lebanese society as a whole must speak with one voice: Rejecting sectarianism and rejecting Hezbollah and other parties’ attempts to steamroll the nation into war. Hezbollah’s 100,000 fighters count for nothing when 5 million Lebanese stand peacefully but determinedly against them, with millions more behind them from Lebanon’s vast diaspora.
The international community must likewise stop pretending that Lebanon’s predicament has nothing to do with it: Lebanon’s fragmentation means a new influx of refugees pouring into Europe, just when Belarus has decided to weaponize the refugee crisis by flooding Europe with displaced Syrians. It means a confrontation which will suck in Israel and the wider region. And it entails Hezbollah becoming even more nakedly criminal and terrorist in its orientation.
And where is the Arab world as the Lebanese volcano is poised to erupt in their midst? Lebanon is the beating heart of the Arab world. Is there a single family throughout the Gulf which does not have familial, emotional or material ties to Lebanon? A Lebanese crisis is never simply a Lebanese crisis — such disputes have always been internationalized in nature. Even parties which desire to remain neutral will rapidly be sucked into the conflagration.
Better that Lebanon’s closest friends act now, before Nasrallah and Tehran’s miscalculations blow up in everybody’s faces.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.