Over a month has now passed since the Beirut explosion that shook Lebanon to its core and captured global attention. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, made 2 visits within 4 weeks, putting his political capital on the line in what he admits is a "risky bet." But even his ability to stabilize Lebanon’s already-fragile domestic political scene remains unclear.
A few days following the blast, interim Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned, but he does not hold any place in the country’s real political power structure. So here are 5 possible scenarios for what might come next.
- Status Quo
- Political Chaos
- Military Escalation
- Foreign Intervention
- Positive Change
Should the country not hit rock bottom as described in options 3 and 4, accountability and progress could happen if the stars align. While elections appear very unlikely at present, a significant escalation by protesters could give pause to the political class.
In any case, a new election is not a referendum, but a choice between candidates. So for change to happen at the ballot box, credible new faces from the emerging popular opposition would need to put their egos aside and consolidate their strengths to take advantage of the provisions of the current electoral law. Under pre-explosion conditions, odds would be against the ability of civil society to get properly structured, raise enough money, and run a disciplined campaign to pull off a major upset. But the wrath in the wake of the blast puts significant wind in their sails if they can effectively channel their anger into political organization.
Establishment figures have had the audacity to shirk responsibility, arrogantly claiming that they didn’t know about the dangerous stockpile of ammonium nitrate being blamed for the blast. The Lebanese political elite, which has survived and prospered for decades despite myriad instances of corruption and malfeasance, will dig in its heels.
While they won’t go so far as to propose yet another unity government led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the consensus Prime Minster emerging, a diplomat named Mustapha Adib, is just another Hassan Diab. (The anagram works in Arabic too.) This game of musical chairs may provoke the rage of protesters, but absent aggressive and sustainably violent methods that force a reckoning, the political elites will seek to preserve their chairs with impunity.
If street action does become violent and leads to clashes, the establishment’s grip may loosen. Faced with relentless and increasingly aggressive protests, security forces might lose control over key government buildings. In that case, a stalemate could develop, with the establishment unable to nominate and swear in a new cabinet but also unwilling to accommodate the demands of protesters for a government of technocrats backed by the popular opposition.
A similar 2008 stalemate required Qatari diplomacy of resolve. In 2020, France seems the most likely candidate to help resolve such an impasse, given the claim already staked by Macron. In this scenario, the anti-establishment forces would have to need the sophistication of an international lobby to earn the confidence of stakeholders abroad.
Parliament has declared a State of Emergency to empower the Army to crack down on protests, but this is a sword that can ultimately cut both ways. If public exasperation with the political elite becomes too much to bare and the popular opposition cannot get organized, a savior in military fatigues might be welcomed to break the cycle, as the Army remains the most popular institution in the country.
Predicting the evolution of such a scenario cannot be easily done because the personalities in the army are not as well known, nor are the allegiances of the officers to the current President Michael Aoun, himself a former Army commander. Additionally, the delicate sectarian balance within the army always carries the risk of splintering and dissolving into civil war.
The increased clout of Hezbollah’s arms in the case of disintegration further complicates this scenario. Thus far, their rhetoric has been a combination of veiled threats to their domestic enemies and support of the army’s role. We might expect them to relish a potential power grab, but such a move could just as easily lead to their demise. For now, it’s in Hezbollah’s interest to maintain the political status quo.
Lebanon has been no stranger over the decades to opportune encroachments and messy occupations by its neighbors, Syria and Israel. Each has violated writ large Lebanon’s sovereignty in the past and could make a case in the post-explosion chaos and desperation to "save" Lebanon through the barrel of a gun: Syria under the guise of "brotherly concern" and Israel to settle scores with Hezbollah.
The visits of Macron, however, probably preclude this worst-of-all cases from happening, at least in the short term. By placing the hand of France on its former mandate, Macron has effectively declared Lebanon hands off to any regional players with axes to grind. Israel and Syria will have to be content to observe and plan their moves depending on which of the other 4 scenarios is ultimately realized.
George Ajjan is an international political strategist. Carol Malouf Khattab (@carolmalouf) is a journalist specialized in Middle East Affairs.