The canary in the coalmine of Lebanon’s seething popular discontent with the corrupt ruling political class was audible this fall in the form of startling results from successive student council elections at several of the country’s leading private universities. Normally, student affiliates of the traditional established parties across the political spectrum would garner the most votes at such elections, dividing the spoils among them more or less proportionally. But nothing is normal in Lebanon these days. For the first time, at the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese American University (where this author taught until retiring last spring), and the Université Saint Joseph—Lebanon’s three flagship institutions of higher learning—the various “secular clubs” and other hitherto obscure civil-society groupings swept up the ballots, leaving scraps if anything for the familiar political parties.
Young people across the sectarian divides have been the demographic most affected by the multiple uncertainties about the future brought on by Lebanon’s cascade of crises over the past year—precipitous currency collapse, economic downward spiral, hardships endured by both the previously robust educational and health sectors, the coronavirus pandemic, and the massive August 4 Beirut port blast. Many with means are seriously contemplating emigrating, and some have already embarked on this drastic step. More striking, they almost unanimously blame the decrepit and thieving political class in Lebanon for these calamities. The only outlet for them to express their mounting frustrations has been the student council elections in their universities. If their views reflect, with any degree of accuracy, the broader opinions of their parents and households, this development becomes the most tangible indicator that Lebanon’s popular uprisings in the fall of 2019 are continuing and only took an extended break from open daily street protests because of the pandemic. A healthy majority of people in Lebanon continue to reject the sectarian, clannish, and quasi-tribal order of Lebanese politics, which warlord families and their networks of cronies dominate. In clearer terms, the mafia-militia cartel of politician looters protected by Iran’s paramilitary proxy Hezbollah has little and dwindling support among the Lebanese population at large.
Yet before euphoria sets in, it is crucial to emphasize this entrenched political order’s resilience in Lebanon. For decades the various political parties and those leading families that run them have created among their followers a vast system of dependents. That political class is now counting on measly handouts to strengthen the exhausted constituencies’ reliance on their leaders. This self-perpetuating form of parasitism is not easily dislodged, but if ever there was an opportunity to do so, it is now. With the youth visibly angry and out for blood, and with the scales of subservience having fallen off the eyes of more people across all communities, the political vampires and their armed protectors face mounting odds and cannot pull off their ruses as easily as before.
However cautiously one assesses it, the situation on the ground in Lebanon seems ripe for positive change. But Lebanon’s friends abroad need to give a supportive push in the form of that potent soft-power tool: sanctions, with a focus on retrieving stolen funds. The Americans and, to a lesser degree, some of their European allies like France possess this weapon. For its part, Washington has already begun to deploy sanctions in earnest against targeted individuals who make up Lebanon’s corrupt class of ruling looters. This bipartisan instrument, regardless of which party controls the White House, goes under the name of the Global Magnitsky Act. The beauty of this option is that it is virtually cost-free and does not involve boots on the ground, yet if used cleverly based on the vast and detailed financial and intelligence information at the disposal of the US government, it stands an excellent chance of netting back for Lebanon much of the stolen money. Concurrently, such a move would pull the rug from underneath Hezbollah’s feet by weakening their cartel and plunging it into disarray. It would also place the US in the driver’s seat to refashion a future Lebanon pretty much the way it pleases while using Lebanon’s own reclaimed funds. Most significantly, the desperate and suffering Lebanese would unanimously cheer on the US and its allies for this rescue initiative, remaining eternally grateful for the timely gesture. As one after the other in the incorrigible ruling class begins to stumble and squirm under the weight of Magnitsky’s sledgehammer, the downtrodden people of Lebanon would rise up with renewed hope to resume their open defiance directed against the crumbling putrid order. The mafia, a major supportive scaffolding for Hezbollah, would be in terminal trouble, thereby diminishing the militia’s ability to continue its hijacking of the Lebanese. The whole nefarious setup of Iran would begin to unravel.
Then the coup de grâce—early elections for a new parliament—would follow. Some intrepid individuals and groups in Lebanon have already begun preparing for this decisive election. Any support they receive along the way through targeted sanctions that further diminish the political cartel would be welcomed news and an incentive to press forward. The goal is nothing short of wrenching the legislative chamber away from the clutches of the mega-thieves who have ruined the country. When one grasps how decisive this juncture is for Lebanon in the region’s history, success of this ambitious strategy becomes a matter of life and death. The Iranians—good chess players that they are—have been hyping up the Yemen conflict to use it as a “concession” in any future negotiations with the US, the West, and their Gulf Arab allies in return for the real prize they have always coveted: Lebanon. They must not be permitted to achieve this goal. The on-again, off-again demarcation talks between Lebanon and Israel over the maritime border are another attempt to prolong the life of the mafia dons by painting them as “useful” in American eyes. This too is a transparent ruse that won’t fly.
A solid majority of Lebanese rejects the huge Gaza-like prison under Iranian tutelage to which Lebanon is fast being reduced, and they wish instead to join the twenty-first-century Middle East of peace, prosperity, innovation, and openness that is steadily coalescing around them. The team members in this emerging Middle East, along with their supporters in the wider world, would be much better served were Lebanon to be brought into the team as a modest player.