What a difference a few months make. Back in the summer when I mentioned having second thoughts about visiting Beirut, Prime Minister Saad Hariri insisted that I come, stressing that the security situation was good. He appeared relaxed and somewhat optimistic — unaware that within weeks he would be expressing fears for his life.
I am astonished how easily people buy into Hezbollah’s conspiracy theories about Hariri’s resignation. Saad’s father, Rafiq Hariri, was just one of more than a dozen politicians whose assassinations bore Hezbollah’s fingerprints — so why do commentators struggle to grasp the threats against Hariri and those around him? Hariri lived all his life in Saudi Arabia and his family are based there, so why the astonishment that he returns there when his life is threatened?
Saad was never a politician. He was thrust reluctantly from the comfortable world of business into the brutal world of Lebanese politics, feeling a sense of duty after his father’s murder. Lebanese popular pressure compelled him to take up this mantle, and he remains by far the most prominent and popular Sunni figure, making it highly unlikely that Hezbollah could simply edge someone else into his place.
We can forgive Hariri’s reluctance to risk his life as the frontman for a government that had become a farce, under the malignant dominance of Hezbollah. Senior figures within this administration abused their positions to wage undeclared war against the Arab world; while Hezbollah’s copious media outlets apparently forgot that Israel was supposed to be their primary enemy, turning their propaganda weapons instead on Lebanon’s closest allies.
Hassan Nasrallah’s latest speech exemplifies the delusions of a man who regards himself as the real center of power in Lebanon, dictating matters of war and peace. We are right to see the firing of an Iranian missile at Riyadh airport as an act of war by Hezbollah and Iran against the Arab world. Nasrallah’s rantings against Arab states are astonishing — such as the deranged accusation that the Gulf Cooperation Council is bribing Israel to attack Lebanon. These are the same GCC states that poured billions into rebuilding Lebanon the last time Israel and Hezbollah destroyed it. As if Israel needs any encouragement to attack Hezbollah!
In 2006, Hezbollah’s rockets were something of a joke, only occasionally getting anywhere near their targets. Hezbollah today has a massively expanded armory, thanks to generous Uncle Khamenei. It has become a question not of if, but when Israel will cut Hezbollah down to size. Both sides would be equally to blame for the appalling consequences for Lebanon.
Hezbollah bought into its own propaganda; Lebanese people are sick of being told that Hezbollah entered Syria to prevent Daesh from reaching Beirut, and that out of gratitude they should bestow the most lucrative posts and powers upon Nasrallah’s subordinates. In reality, Hezbollah’s blood-letting in Syria wreaked chaos upon Lebanon — and the political turmoil is just getting started. Safe down his bolthole, Nasrallah appears oblivious to the fact that thousands of his devoted foot-soldiers are still coming home in body-bags from a senseless conflict. His detachment from reality allows him to belittle prospects of war with Israel, while his rhetoric and actions simultaneously provoke such an eventuality.
Hezbollah has an octopus-like hold over the Lebanese state; the panic in the banking system resulting from US sanctions against Hezbollah highlighted the movement’s massive penetration of the economy, and Hezbollah’s dominance of the intelligence infrastructure gives Hariri credible grounds to believe that Iran could eliminate him on a whim.
We shouldn’t forget how reliant Lebanon is upon the Arab world; global remittances entering Lebanon ($7.2 billion, two thirds of which are from the Gulf states) represent nearly 20 percent of the total economy. Thus, measures by the GCC could represent a devastating double whammy: Firstly representing a huge decrease in investment and financial inflows, but also a crunch in GCC tourism, the mainstay of the Lebanese economy that brings in nearly $10 billion a year. The centrality of tourism also highlights the need for Lebanon to remain stable and diverse. Hezbollah goons boast about enforcing Islamic clothing and laws — their ideal social model is the Islamic Republic, where meaningful tourism is inconceivable. Hezbollah’s actions are systematically strangling the Lebanese economy: A kiss from Tehran is the kiss of death!
The former Lebanese prime minister is right to throw a spanner in the works and insist that there cannot be business as usual — that normal politics is impossible when dominated by belligerent paramilitaries armed to the teeth and provoking conflicts on many fronts.
We should do everything in our power to avoid relapse into conflict. My most traumatic memory was carrying my infant children on board an American frigate to Cyprus in 1982 as Israel shelled my homeland. I will never forget seeing the despair on the faces of loved ones around me. Our world had ended, and this was just one of so many devastating Israeli incursions into our homeland.
Lebanese people are unbelievably resilient, carrying on through interminable wars and crises. However, with the current escalation of tensions, citizens are panic-buying or considering fleeing overseas. With Lebanon’s ominous return to the global headlines, is history about to repeat itself?
Hezbollah’s pre-eminence in Lebanon is a castle built on sand, sustained only by $800 billion of funding a year from Tehran and an endless supply of military hardware. Lebanon has always been culturally, politically and economically rooted in its Arab heritage. Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad will be proud Arab cities in a thousand years’ time. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic is an erroneous historical blip that external and internal pressures will shortly extinguish. Those who have grown fat on Iranian munificence shouldn’t get too comfortable.
Hariri has good reasons to fear for his life, but his other motives for resignation are more compelling: Hezbollah’s growing dominance as a state within a state; incitement against friendly Arab nations; and Hezbollah’s refusal to disarm and allow Lebanon to become a normalized, peace-loving state. Hariri is right to throw a spanner in the works and insist that there cannot be business as usual — that normal politics is impossible when dominated by belligerent paramilitaries armed to the teeth and provoking conflicts on many fronts.
Hezbollah ceased being a Lebanese entity when it entered Syria and began training militants in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and beyond; becoming a core segment of Iran’s transnational paramilitary forces. When Iran’s proxies and Israel finally goad each other into war, Lebanon will be trampled under their feet. Nasrallah will hardly even notice or care, knowing that Tehran will compensate for his losses — leaving others to pick up the tab for Lebanon’s devastation.
Having perceived these threats to Lebanon, Hariri felt he had no choice but to try and prevent us from sleep-walking toward war. The question now is whether pressures can be brought to bear upon Hezbollah to disarm and step back from its confrontational posture. Given the unlikelihood of this, one can see why Lebanese are preparing for the worst.
• 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 a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.