Lebanese gov't resignation: In Hezbollah's shadow, does it even matter?

On the one hand, the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab and other, such as the Hezbollah-backed Health minister, appears to show the government is being held to account.

A demonstrator holds the Lebanese flag in Martyrs' Square where protests are held following Tuesday's blast in Beirut, Lebanon August 9, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANI)
A demonstrator holds the Lebanese flag in Martyrs' Square where protests are held following Tuesday's blast in Beirut, Lebanon August 9, 2020
Lebanon’s government resigned in the wake of a massive explosion that has killed more than 160 people and wounded thousands, leaving another 90,000 or so with ruined homes. It is a massive disaster that comes after other problems Lebanon was already facing, such as an economic crisis, COVID-19 and the stranglehold Hezbollah has on the country.
On the one hand, the resignations of Prime Minister Hassan Diab and others, such as the Hezbollah-backed health minister, appear to show the government is being held to account. It is, after all, the government that failed to do anything about a warehouse full of dangerous chemicals.
Reports now indicate they were warned as recently as July. They were also warned by the US four years ago, and they’ve known about this problem since the ammonium nitrate arrived in 2013. Judges had even looked into the warehouse where the chemicals were stored, most recently this January.
Diab has only been in charge since January. He was tapped by President Michel Aoun last year after former prime minister Saad Hariri resigned in October. He had backing from Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Amal Movement, the Free Patriotic Movement and others. He was opposed by the anti-Hezbollah parties.
But what has changed? Hariri’s resignation last year was unimportant. He had already resigned once in November 2017 while allegedly being coerced in Saudi Arabia to leave the government. What real effect does the prime minister have? Hariri accomplished little in his years in office.
Aoun is an aging former general from the civil-war era. He is a Christian, and in Lebanon’s sectarian political order, one’s religion matters entirely in terms of who gets what offices. For instance, the Shi’ite speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, has been speaker since 1992 and is part of the Amal Movement.
Berri and Aoun, born in 1938 and 1935, respectively, are the old faces who run Lebanon. Aoun came to power in 2016 after Hezbollah successfully held the appointment of a new president hostage. The last president of Lebanon was Michel Suleiman, who served until 2014. But the president is not as powerful as the office once was prior to the Taif Accords that ended the civil war in 1990.
For instance, the system shifted from one that is more similar to former colonial power France, with a strong president appointing a prime minister, to a more-powerful prime minister. The more-powerful prime minister is Sunni, and this is supposed to reflect demographic realities in which the Christians are believed to be less than 50% of the population. Lebanon doesn’t conduct a census because it would tip over the careful sectarian balance written into these agreements.
But all the gerrymandering and careful sectarian logic, which has almost no parallel in the world, means that Lebanon is largely ungovernable. That is one reason a warehouse full of chemicals was kept at the capital’s port. It is why a massive extralegal terrorist group like Hezbollah is able to control southern Lebanon de facto, stockpile 150,000 missiles, conduct Lebanon’s foreign and military policy and has a role at the port and airport.
So why would it matter if the Hezbollah-picked prime minister leaves? He is the fall guy, the scapegoat, and he will be replaced with some other boring technocrat who will do Hezbollah’s bidding.
There are many young voices in Lebanon who are tired of the aging leadership, the rule by clans and the presence of Hezbollah. But like in other countries, they don’t have much say.
For instance, in Iraq, a young movement also rose up against a similar paradigm. Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned last year after protesters were killed on his watch. But he was ineffectual, and no one will remember him.
The power behind the throne in Iraq is Hadi al-Amiri, the Shi’ite Badr organization leader. Besides him there is the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah Sistani. And then, like Lebanon, there are sectarian politics, such as a Sunni speaker of parliament, a Kurdish president and the various Kurdish parties.
Diab is out. Hezbollah is still there. The protesters may be angry, but they won’t have much influence. The region is still led by these men who came of age in the 1950s, men like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Aoun and Berri.
Consider the fact that the formative years of these men were the 1950s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser ruled Egypt and spoke via radio to the region. Most of them are placeholders, clinging to office but with no real vision or desire to do anything.
There’s no evidence that a new prime minister or a new health minister supported by Hezbollah will do more than the last one. Given the realities of Lebanese politics – where sectarian parties, many run by powerful families, control everything – the chance of change is slim.