Lebanon has a history of taking in refugees: Armenian survivors of the genocide, Palestinians driven from their homes in 1948, Syrians fleeing the horrors of Assad and Islamic State. But on 30 December a different kind of fugitive arrived, a wealthy native son facing charges of financial wrongdoing abroad. At a press conference this afternoon, Carlos Ghosn protested his innocence and compared his arrest in Japan to the attack on Pearl Harbor. He wouldn’t say how he escaped (according to one of the more fanciful rumours, he was hidden in a musical instrument case). He entered Lebanon on his French passport, one of three he carries.
Ghosn is a representative, in some ways, of the neoliberalism that has turned Lebanon into a laboratory of unregulated capitalism marked by cruel income inequalities and little in the way of basic services, and driven it to the edge of financial collapse. But such is the despair over the economy – especially the severe limits on bank withdrawals – that Ghosn has been seen by some as a hero, even a potential saviour. After all, he turned around Nissan; maybe he can fix the Lebanese economy.
The anti-corruption protests that began in mid-October, and drew considerable support across sectarian divides, have dwindled: people are said to be tired, or anxious about their finances, or upset that compromised political parties have tried to co-opt ‘the Lebanese revolution’ (as some still call it, with more hope than conviction), or frightened by the thuggish defenders of the established order. The most thuggish is Amal, a Shia party that is more or less a patronage network and gang run by the former militia leader Nabih Berri. Amal sympathisers have staged a series of violent counter-demonstrations.
Amal, one of the most corrupt Lebanese political parties, is an ally of Hizbullah, which may be the least corrupt, but has acquired such vast power – it controls the airport and is militarily stronger than the Lebanese army – that it, too, has an interest in maintaining the status quo, including the confessional system that it once denounced. Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s secretary general, has claimed that the demonstrations were organised by foreign embassies.
Nasrallah spoke on Sunday about the death of Qasem Soleimani. The speech, via videolink from his bunker to a gathering of thousands of supporters, was broadcast on al-Manar, Hizbullah’s TV channel. It was an emotional topic for Nasrallah – and a politically sensitive one, since Hizbullah’s relationship to Soleimani underscores the tensions between the party’s Lebanese identity and its role as a pro-Iranian military organisation.
When I interviewed Nasrallah in 2004 for the New York Review of Books, he was keen to stress the party’s Lebanese credentials. But Hizbullah is also a cherished ally of the Islamic Republic, which helped to create the movement in 1982, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Nasrallah, who studied in Iran, was personally close to Soleimani, who was in Lebanon for much of the 2006 war with Israel, a campaign he helped direct. Hizbullah’s popularity soared among Lebanese and other Arabs during that war, but it lost much of its cachet outside its Shia constituency as a result of its participation in the war in Syria – a battle it joined in alliance with (if not at the explicit behest of) Soleimani and the Iranians. On Friday, Hizbullah lost one of its fiercest allies, but he was not Lebanese, or even Arab.
Nasrallah finessed this tension by projecting his party as a defender of the people and of the region’s natural resources. (He said the word ‘Lebanon’ only once.) The killing of Soleimani, whom he had met the night before he died, was not an isolated incident but part of an imperialist American-Israeli campaign. The Iranians, Nasrallah said, don’t need Hizbullah to defend themselves. Still, he reminded his audience that their movement belonged to the same ‘resistance axis’ and had duties to defend it. He warned against attacking American citizens: that would be exactly what Trump wanted. Instead, the killing of Soleimani should be an occasion to accomplish his objective of expelling all American military forces from the region. (The Iraqi parliament voted to do just that later that day.) Lebanon, however, would remain outside the zone of reprisals, since there are no American bases here. Nasrallah paid extensive tribute to Soleimani, who had finally found peace after a lifetime of service. The retaliation could never be ‘proportionate’ to his loss, Nasrallah said, since ‘his shoes are worth more than Trump’s head.’
‘I’m at your service,’ Nasrallah’s audience cried. Few outside the Shia community, however, will be rallying to his call. Many in Lebanon, especially Sunni Arabs who loathe Hizbullah, and supporters of the Syrian uprising against Assad, welcomed Soleimani’s killing. A Lebanese human rights worker wrote on Facebook:
‘I woke up to the delightful news that Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was no longer of this world. I immediately thought of the tens of thousands of innocents brutally murdered because of him in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. For those who don’t know who he is, Soleimani recently orchestrated the killing and assassination of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in Iraq. He was also one of the architects of the most horrific crimes committed against the Syrian population. He was spreading violence and instability across the region. His killing may trigger a violent reaction from Iran but the impunity he enjoyed for years and the inaction of the international community when confronted with Soleimani’s actions only emboldened him and the Iranian regime, and solely contributed to increased violence, atrocities and instability in our region. May he rot in hell.’
When someone commented that he sounded like Trump, he replied:
‘Proudly in the company of millions of Syrians and Iraqis who have been victimised by Qasem Soleimani but these don’t seem to count much to tri-state-based liberals.’
It isn’t immediately clear what Nasrallah intends to do in response to Soleimani’s assassination, but he left no doubt that he is at least privy to discussions about the retaliation being planned in Tehran. The question here is whether Hizbullah, by taking part in the retaliation, could plunge Lebanon once again into violent conflagration. Memories of the 2006 war, in which more than a thousand Lebanese were killed and much of Beirut’s southern suburbs flattened by Israeli airstrikes, are still fresh. Most people supported Hizbullah in 2006 because they were defending Lebanon against Israeli airstrikes; defending Iran and the ‘resistance axis’, at the risk of provoking yet another Israeli invasion, is a different matter – even for Shia supporters of Hizbullah, who lost thousands of young men in Syria.
At the moment, few people in Lebanon think that the US-Iran war will spread here. Retaliation, they say, is more likely to focus on the American presence in Iraq, where the Revolutionary Guard fired ballistic missiles on two US bases last night; and Ayatollah Khamenei has clearly stated that retaliation is a job for Iran’s military, not for its proxies. Hizbullah also has to be mindful of its position in Lebanon: the party is taking part in the formation of a new government under Hassan Diab, the recently appointed prime minister. Any return to the battlefield could place this in jeopardy – especially if Hizbullah is blamed for an Israeli attack on the country. But these are extraordinary times, and potentially apocalyptic ones, and it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between informed speculation and anxiety-management.