Socialist Review (September 2020)

The deadly blast in the Port of Beirut highlighted the criminal negligence of a ruling class that is seeing its hegemony, and grip on power, melt away. Popular anger is shaking the foundations of Lebanon’s sectarian system. Yet there are dangers ahead, and imperialism, like a vulture, is circling over the ruined city. The first to arrive was French president Emmanuel Macron, who paraded around like the disappointed CEO of French imperialism.

Macron came to declare how the “world” lost confidence in the local ruling class, now maybe direct intervention can deliver what Lebanese rulers could not. Imperialism sees opportunity in disaster. The British navy is planning to “secure the port”. Against what, we ask? What history teaches us is that for imperialism the “temporary” always means “permanent”. That the ruling class is riddled with corruption, avoid taxes and profit off working people is self-evident. But this behaviour is not unique to the Lebanese rich. It is not corruption that bankrupted the country.

That was the work of neoliberalism that opened the economy to the ravages of the global institutions such as the IMF and the World Trade Organisation. Reforms that stripped the already threadbare social security system, imposed VAT, decimated public services and pumped billions into useless infrastructure projects. The country was already reeling from Covid-19 and the crash of the Lebanese pound. Now some 300,000 people have lost their homes.

If Macron were so concerned over the fate of the Lebanese, he would cancel the massive debt that the country is supposed to pay, currently standing at 152 percent of GDP. Every question on the fate of Lebanon hinges on its geostrategic position, and the inability of imperial powers to suppress or dominate the country. Despite various conspiracy theories, the blast was not part of some plot. It was the result of an unregulated global system that puts profit above the safety of people and the environment. Now imperialism is presented with opportunity to practice its brand of disaster capitalism, and the blast has brought into focus the dangers that lay ahead, notably, the survival of the sectarian system and the fate of the resistance.

The popular street slogan “all means all” includes Hezbollah along with the established sectarian parties. This may surprise many people who associate Hizbollah with the successful resistance to Israel. Hizbollah grew out of the Israeli occupation (1978-2000), and was primarily responsible for ending it. Israel’s 2006 war proved that it was difficult to dislodge. Carried to victory by popular support, the resistance quickly squandered its credibility.

The donor conferences to rebuild infrastructure after 2006 became yet another tranche of neoliberalism repackaged as aid. But rather than galvanise the popular goodwill, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared, “We will not hide behind a loaf of bread”. Hizbollah would not oppose the neoliberal reforms. The party’s strategy became not the abolition of the confessional state, but to secure a greater share of the sectarian pie. The abandonment of the popular movement gave it ministerial portfolios and dodgy electoral alliances in the sectarian merry-go round.

This transformation was sealed by Nasrallah, who turned resistance fighters into mercenaries to suppress the popular uprising in Syria. Nasrallah recently stated that Lebanon should look to China rather than the West for its future economic stability, notwithstanding China’s murderous suppression of its Muslim population. But if its credibility has sunk in the eyes of the mass of population, it remains a target of imperialism. The question of resistance and revolution is one for our movement.

We oppose Hizbollah for its concessions to sectarianism, its role in Syria, and that it has become a vehicle for an aspirant Shia middle class, not because it is the resistance. It is not equal to the myriad of other parties that serve the interests of one or other faction of the ruling class. These parties must be broken because they are the tools for the enforcement of sectarian division. Hizbollah must be replaced as organiser of the resistance because it has failed the people. To understand this is to accept that the sectarian system is not an aberration; it is not the task of the movement to impose a more honest secular capitalism.

The movement that first emerged during the Arab Spring and the “garbage crisis” of 2015, became broader and deeper with 17 October revolution in 2019. The demonstrations and street meetings reached every corner of the country, even in districts ruled by sectarian thugs. The main division inside the ruling class is a sectarian one, but the division inside the country is one of class. Since the end of the civil war in 1990 the working class has become more integrated and has forged alliances that has begun to undermine the foundations of sectarianism.

Yet the movement has yet to build the institutions of revolution (workers’ councils, neighbourhood committees, popular resistance organisations) that can displace the confessionalist system. The biggest danger is that it will be drawn into yet another round of reforms, or elect new “honest” politicians, or harbour illusions in benevolent foreign powers. To end the nightmare means overthrowing capitalism, facing down imperialism, and making alliances with the revolutionary movements across the region, even if at the moment, they are heavily repressed. The immediate danger is foreign interference, whose primary concern is not the welfare of the people, but to turn Lebanon, once again, into a vassal state.