On 15 May, amid a continuing economic meltdown, Lebanese voters chose a new parliament. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert David Wood parses the results and assesses the implications for efforts to resolve the country’s deepening crisis.
Originally published in New Lines Institute
Tensions rose between Hizbollah and Israel over maritime border dispute, while PM Mikati and President Aoun haggled over cabinet formation. Following arrival early June of floating production, storage and offloading facility operated by London-based company Energean in preparation to extract gas from Karish offshore natural gas field some 90km off Lebanon’s and Israel’s coast, Shiite armed group Hizbollah 2 July launched three unarmed drones toward Karish; Israeli army intercepted all three drones. Israeli Army 6 July claimed to have shot down another Hizbollah drone en route to Israel’s maritime areas. Israeli Defence Minister Gantz 7 July said Hizbollah’s threats were putting Lebanon at risk. Israel 11 July submitted official complaint to UN Security Council about Hizbollah’s drone launches, blaming Hizbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah for continuing to threaten and provoke Israel. Nasrallah 13 July vowed that Hizbollah would prevent gas exploitation by Israel even “beyond Karish” if Lebanon is prevented from exploiting its own maritime resources; Nasrallah described war with Israel over maritime boundaries as more “respectable option” than submitting to U.S., which it accuses of threatening international companies with sanctions to deter them from exploring for gas in Lebanese waters. Washington’s envoy Amos Hochstein 31 July visited Beirut to push for diplomatic solution between govt and Israel. Following President Aoun’s decision last month (with parliamentary support) to charge caretaker PM Najib Mikati to form next govt, Mikati and Aoun remained in discussions about potential cabinet formation, reportedly disagreeing over allocation of various ministries to different sectarian communities; observers during month raised prospect of no new govt being formed before presidential elections that are to be held within final two months of Aoun’s term, which ends on 31 Oct. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri 29 July said “miracle” was required for govt to be formed soon and next day asserted: “I will not call for a presidential election session until after the reform laws required by the [International Monetary Fund] have been adopted”.
Lebanon is suffering economic meltdown while its politicians dither. Reform – and fiscal relief – is unlikely before 2022 elections. While pushing for timely polls, international partners should send humanitarian assistance to ease the public’s pain, keep key infrastructure running and avert security breakdowns.
As it tries to pull out of its economic tailspin, Lebanon badly needs a functional cabinet able to make reforms. Such a government must have broad support, including from Hizbollah. The party’s domestic and external foes should accordingly stop attempting to curtail its role.
Lebanon’s reeling economy badly needs outside aid. Yet the political class, which largely created the problems, is resisting necessary change. The European Union should keep limiting its assistance to humanitarian relief until Lebanese politicians make reforms that benefit all citizens, not just the privileged few.
An uprising of unprecedented scope has rocked Lebanon as the country’s economy tumbles deeper into recession. Poverty and unemployment could lead to violent unrest. Donors should put together an emergency package but condition further aid upon reforms to tackle corruption, a major grievance driving protest.
Most Syrian refugees in Lebanon have thought many times about going home but in the end deemed the risks too great. Donors should increase aid allowing the Lebanese government to continue hosting the Syrians, so that any decision they make to leave is truly voluntary.
Four years after plunging into Syria’s civil war, Hizbollah has achieved its core aim of preserving the Assad regime. Yet with no clear exit strategy, the Lebanese “Party of God” faces ever greater costs unless it can lower the sectarian flames, open dialogue with non-jihadist rebel groups and help pave the way for a negotiated settlement.
It is in Hezbollah’s interest to have at least the outward appearance of a functioning political system [in Lebanon] where everyone is involved, including the Sunnis.
For a large part of the population [in Lebanon], electricity will become a luxury. Driving your car will become a luxury, too. Transportation will become a luxury.
Turkey is also one of the candidates to rebuild Beirut harbour. There is also a section within Lebanese society – amongst Sunni Muslims – who have some sympathy for Turkey’s neo-Ottoman project.
The Lebanese state has been hollowed out by decades of corruption and patronage, and this has undermined due process and any sense of accountability.
[The Trump administration] is content allowing Israel to take the lead in pushing back against Iranian and Hezbollah influence in Syria.
The real risk [for Israel and Lebanon] is that of a miscommunication or accident being a trigger of a conflict across their border.
Crisis Group’s Watch List identifies ten countries or regions at risk of deadly conflict or escalation thereof in 2022. In these places, early action, driven or supported by the EU and its member states, could enhance prospects for peace and stability.
Lebanon’s imploding economy is deepening instability in the country. Public safety is further imperilled as state institutions weaken and regional tensions play out in Lebanese domestic politics. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to provide financial support to the Lebanese state, press for elections to be held on schedule and intensify efforts to reduce tension in the region.
While warning signs of Lebanon’s economic meltdown have been apparent for some time, as Crisis Group expert Heiko Wimmen writes, it is still shocking just how close things are to falling apart.
Read the full alert here: Violence Threatens Fraying Rule of Law in Lebanon.