The news that Hezbollah was officially launching its own chain of supermarkets in Lebanon was greeted with derision on social media. Photos showed shelves packed with what looked to be Iranian-sourced goods, provoking enormous, and often furious, online debate as to why the supermarkets appeared to be reserved for Hezbollah supporters only.
The militant group’s continued push into supermarkets is part of its wider strategy of creating a parallel economy across the south of the country. But it is also part of a broader trend that the economic collapse of the country is accelerating: the retreat from the briefly flourishing idea of national consensus and the return of power to individual political parties.
Already the national government cannot keep the lights on nor the banks open. Pharmacies went on strike in March, and some gas stations and supermarkets have had to close because of a lack of supplies. Even the Lebanese army, traditionally one of the most apolitical and respected state institutions, is feeling the pressure: just last month, the army chief took the unusual step of issuing public criticism, warning that the military was “getting hungry like the rest of the people.” The pillars of the state are weakening.
There is some national assistance – a small loan from the World Bank was approved in March, with the money going to some of the poorest in the country. But nothing on the scale required: one politician suggested that three-quarters of Lebanese need financial aid.
To fill the gap, political and private groups have stepped in to ensure their supporters, at least, are looked after. In addition to a social security assistance card distributed by Hezbollah, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement has solicited donations to help its members – even as it holds up the formation of a government that could start helping the majority of Lebanese.
The shift of focus from the national to the local is happening at the exact time the country is trying to form a technocratic government – responding, recall, to pre-pandemic street protests that demanded an end to the sectarian carve-up.
Lebanon’s economic crisis and the pandemic may have created difficult conditions, but the political class benefits from it. It is not only Hezbollah that sees opportunity in the crisis. In fact, the scale of the crisis has actually provided political parties with a bit of breathing room from the – from their perspective – far larger threat of street protests and international pressure to curb their privileges.
Street protests have claimed two governments in as many years, forcing Saad Hariri to resign in late 2019 and pushing his successor Hassan Diab out the following August. Those street protests continue to this day, although much dampened by Covid-prevention restrictions.
Internationally, the pressure is being led by France, which, since the explosion in Beirut port in August, has led efforts to bring in a new government. France is supporting Saad Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister – and current prime minister-designate, if only he could form a cabinet to govern – in his attempts to form a technocratic administration.
Such a government would hopefully gain the confidence of those behind the street protests and, crucially, unlock international aid.
But, of course, such a technocratic government would also weaken the power base of individual political parties, which is why the Free Patriotic Movement is opposing it if there aren’t measures to preserve its privileges.
So exasperated has France become with the lack of movement toward the formation of a government that it has mooted the possibility of sanctions on individual Lebanese officials – likely to be a reference to Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of the Lebanese president and head of the Free Patriotic Movement. One of the last acts of the Trump administration was to sanction Bassil.
Such horse-trading is unfortunately part of Lebanon’s politics – it was precisely this sort of endless, greasy, backroom politicking that first pushed the Lebanese into street protests – but crucially the prolonged period of crisis will dampen any hope for genuine change to the sectarian system.
For a period after the Beirut port explosion last summer, there was momentum for something new, and France’s involvement – whatever the criticisms of the former colonial power wading into Lebanon’s domestic politics – was crucial to making the political parties sit up and take notice. But as ever, delay erodes that momentum.
The longer the crisis continues, the more political parties cater exclusively to their supporters and not to the general public, the more the idea of a national consensus fragments.
Eventually, there will be a return to business as usual, either because the pressure to simply survive becomes too much or because the international community gets exhausted and moves on. Either way, the beneficiaries will be the political parties that thrive on the status quo. It is their inertia that is holding the Lebanese people hostage.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.