Four days of violent unrest in Tripoli on Lebanon’s northern coast could presage more to come, as a new coronavirus outbreak deepens the country’s severe socio-economic crisis. Humanitarian aid is urgently needed to keep the worst-case scenarios at bay.
Currency slide triggered fresh wave of protests, while government formation remained stalled despite international pressure. Lebanese pound 2 March fell to low of 10,000 to $1, triggering five consecutive days of protest in response to prolonged govt inaction over economic crisis; 50 demonstrators 7 March burned tyres and protested in front of banking association in capital Beirut demanding access to deposits, while protesters in northern city Tripoli blocked roads and staged sit-in. Market dealers 16 March said Lebanese pound was trading at 15,000 to dollar, representing loss of 90% value since late 2019 financial crisis began; downturn same day triggered further protests and roadblocks in Beirut. Armed forces Commander-in-Chief Joseph Aoun 8 March affirmed people’s right to peaceful protest in meeting with military commanders, warning govt that army should not be relied upon to repress popular discontent. Meanwhile, govt formation efforts faced continued deadlock. PM-designate Saad al-Hariri 17 March met President Aoun to discuss cabinet; Hariri same day agreed to additional meeting to discuss his proposed cabinet candidates, indicating Aoun should call early presidential elections if candidates are not approved. Hizbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah next day pledged support to new cabinet if announced, but cautioned against reliance on technocrats and specialist appointees. Hariri 22 March publicly rebuked Aoun over latter’s demands for veto powers in govt and continued rejection of proposed cabinet line-up. French diplomat 17 March reportedly indicated France and international partners were set to increase political pressure on Lebanon’s leadership in coming months; UN special coordinator for Lebanon next day urged Lebanese authorities to facilitate cabinet formation during address to UN Security Council. NGO Amnesty International 23 March published report documenting alleged abuses committed by Lebanese military intelligence against Syrian detainees, including fair trial violations and torture; prosecutor general 29 March ordered probe. NGO Human Rights Watch 30 March said security forces “forcibly disappeared and allegedly tortured” detained protesters in Tripoli.
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.
The fate of the border town Arsal mirrors Lebanon’s many policy failures. The government applies heavy-handed security at the expense of basic services and fair economic opportunities. It should change its policies to become more flexible, accountable and supportive of Syrian refugees – and receive more international help in return.
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.
[The return of Assad’s forces to the border] has the potential of creating a more united front of resistance between Lebanon and Syria against Israel.
Hezbollah thrives on its position of being a state within a state, an alternative provider for all kinds of things [when Lebanon's political institutions are weakened].
Lebanon’s socio-economic and financial crisis accelerated greatly in the first half of 2020. The government resigned after the Beirut port blast, compounding the disarray. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 – Autumn Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to coordinate continued emergency assistance and revitalisation of key infrastructure, create reforms roadmap, boost civil society, and pool and coordinate emergency funds.
The catastrophic explosion in Beirut’s port is a manifestation of the Lebanese political elite’s predation and dysfunction. Among the country’s long-suffering citizens, shock is quickly yielding to fury. It may be the last chance for those in power to effect long-overdue structural reforms.
The accumulation of crises is driving ever greater numbers of Lebanese into absolute poverty. While the COVID-19 lockdown is gradually easing, the loss of jobs and purchasing power triggered new protests that are turning violent and may prefigure the disintegration of state capacity and institutions.
A new wave of popular protests has jolted an already deeply unsettled Arab world. Nine years ago, uprisings across the region signalled a rejection of corrupt autocratic rule that failed to deliver jobs, basic services and reliable infrastructure. Yet regime repression and the protests’ lack of organisation, leadership and unified vision thwarted hopes of a new order. As suddenly as the uprisings erupted, as quickly they descended into violence. What followed was either brutal civil war or regime retrenchment. Tunisia stands as the sole, still fragile, exception.
Originally published in Valdai Club