For much of the last several decades, Lebanon has been wracked by instability and tangled up in the affairs of larger or more powerful neighbours. Its confessional political system, based on power sharing among its eighteen officially recognised ethno-religious groups, is arguably both the cause and the effect of recurrent strife, notably the 1975-1990 civil war. Today the elites who run the system are also implicated in ever-deepening state dysfunction and economic recession. Meanwhile, Lebanon is at risk of spillover from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian war and regional turmoil, due partly to the rise of Hizbollah, the Shiite Islamist movement opposed to Israel and allied with Iran and the Syrian regime, as a political force. The country hosts hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees as well as nearly 1.5 million Syrians. Pending changes that would allow resolution of the outside conflicts, Crisis Group works to keep Lebanon insulated from their flare-ups, to seek durable solutions for refugees and to encourage structural reform that might alleviate the country's internal problems.
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
President Aoun invited PM Mikati to form next govt, while tensions rose with Israel over disputed maritime border. President Aoun 23 June tasked incumbent PM Najib Mikati to form new govt after Mikati secured support of 54 out of 128 members of parliament – lowest level of support for any PM-designate since end of civil war in 1990; Mikati will likely face challenges to form govt that can rely on sufficiently strong parliamentary support to move forward with substantial reform, while most observers expect that no new govt can be formed before compromise is found over successor of Aoun, whose term expires on 31 Oct. Meanwhile, floating production storage and offloading facility operated by energy company Energean 5 June arrived at position near maritime border between Israel and Lebanon to prepare commercial extraction scheduled for Sept 2022 of gas from Karish gas field, which company acquired in 2016 with authorisation of Israeli govt; field is located some 90km off both countries’ coastline and has been area of dispute between govts. In response, Hizbollah Sec Gen Hassan Nasrallah 9 June called upon all Lebanese political forces to unite in defence of country’s maritime resources, warned Energean against extraction activities and threatened group may take matter into its own hands. At invitation of govt, U.S. mediator Amos Hochstein 13 June arrived in capital Beirut seeking compromise to dispute following previous failed attempts this year; uncertainty persists around whether govt will adhere to official 2010 position of maritime border known as “line 23” or adopt expanded claim presented in 2020 known as “line 29” that claims part of Karish field. 13 MPs elected last month on platforms of opposition to established parties 16 June voiced support for “line 29”; despite heated public debate and many casting support of “line 29” as patriotic duty, Aoun resisted signing decree to officially modify govt’s 2010 position. Govt, UN and over 100 humanitarian partners 20 June announced $3.2bn appeal for 2022 Lebanon Crisis Response Plan aimed at providing support for 1.5mn Lebanese, 1.5mn displaced Syrians and more than 209,000 Palestinian refugees.
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.