Lebanon is currently under complete lockdown after the Lebanese government declared total mobilization measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus that include a nationwide shutdown, periodic curfew, and the closure of its borders, including Beirut's Rafik al-Hariri international airport.
These drastic measures, and perhaps some divine intervention, has thus far helped Lebanon avoid a wider outbreak of the virus; there are only 438 recorded cases and 11 fatalities. However this might change with Hezbollah and its allies forcefully demanding a temporary lifting of the airport lockdown to allow for the return of the Lebanese expats currently stranded abroad.
The three main pro-Iranian parties and their leaders, Gebran Bassil (President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law), Speaker of Parliament Nabeh Berri, and Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah vocally demanded that these Lebanese expats be allowed to come home immediately, going as far – at least from Berri’s side – to threaten his bloc’s suspending their participation in the meetings of Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government.
For a brief moment, one is led to believe that these “Lebanese” politicians are indeed mindful and considerate of the plight of hundreds, if not thousands, of Lebanese who are stranded abroad – some of whom are students kicked out of their dormitories and left penniless after their parents' money has been appropriated by the Lebanese banks. In reality, however, each of the above, and the Lebanese political elite by extension, have ulterior motives for wanting these Lebanese to come home. Their motives are politically driven, yes, but they are primarily financial.
Nearly all of Lebanon’s political groups are reliant on the vast fortunes of the Lebanese diaspora, whose financial contributions and votes are instrumental for the propagation of the country’s clientelist system. Berri and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah have wealthy businessmen, mainly in Africa and South America, who have considerable sway on policy and thus they are pushing their patrons to expedite their return. Equally, Bassil over the last few years has appointed himself as a champion of diaspora rights and has exploited the Lebanese state’s resources to establish a network of personal connections with many affluent diaspora figures who bankrolled his rise to power and now simply have asked him to return the favor.
At the start of this pandemic, most of these rich expats underestimated the situation and believed that their financial resources would allow them to weather this storm. However, as the virus spread to countries where the Lebanese diaspora are hosted, and even the health care systems of the most advanced countries were overwhelmed, and with the risk of violence looming, many have decided that it was time to return home.
While these expats are fully entitled to come back home, the current government simply does not have the ability, nor the resources, to accommodate these returnees, who have to be quarantined for at least 14 days once they step foot in Lebanon. The returnees who test positive and are sick will need hospitalization.
While the lobbyists for these returnees affirm that the expats will adhere to these severe measures, prior experience has shown that the wealthier amongst these expats can and will twist the law and will end up exposing their communities.
Hezbollah, on the other hand, would benefit heavily from lobbying for and securing the return of these expats. First, with the resumption of flights into Beirut, many of these returnees will certainly carry back with them their most valued possessions, including the much-needed US dollars that Hezbollah is scrambling to acquire. Second, with many flights landing, Hezbollah will not be forced to explain why flights are coming in an out of Iran, like they had to do recently with the suspicious Qatar Airways flight that landed last week. While the ludicrous justification was that this flight, which made a pit stop before continuing to Beirut, was carrying livestock, it is believed that it was transporting weapons and money to Hezbollah.
In his recent televised speech, Nasrallah confirmed a number of issues that he wants the Lebanese to acknowledge, by force if necessary. Primarily, that Hezbollah is the one that decides when to lift and when to impose a lockdown, and more importantly that Nasrallah and those who control him in Iran are the only protectors of the Shia everywhere and, by extension, the Lebanese.
The diaspora has always been one of Lebanon’s strengths, fielding many personalities who have assimilated within their host countries and contributed to their progress and development, while still cherishing their native land and investing in it. However, the collapse of Lebanon politically and economically has now affected its diaspora whose insistence on returning to Lebanon under these conditions will only end up hurting them and their families and making the whole current lockdown futile.
The Lebanese political parties, across the board, have seized on the chance of the coronavirus pandemic to portray themselves as the only real protectors of their communities by launching relief efforts and hygiene campaigns, all with the intention of undermining the Lebanese state that they ironically control. The reality remains is that if the Lebanese, both in country and abroad, wish to survive this doomsday situation, their only wager should be on a truly independent and capable cabinet, one that will refuse to heed to politicians who prove time and again that they are more dangerous than any virus known to man.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History.