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.
New PM-designate resigned after failing to form govt amid deepening political polarisation, increased U.S. pressure on Hizbollah and clashes in capital Beirut. Following govt’s resignation last month, French President Emmanuel Macron 1 Sept arrived in Beirut to pressure political elite to kickstart reforms to counter deteriorating economic crisis and secure commitment from new PM-designate Adib – former ambassador to Germany appointed PM-designate 31 Aug – to form govt within 15 days. However, by mid-Sept deadline Adib failed to form new govt due to dispute over allocation of finance portfolio and U.S.-France disagreement over role of Hizbollah. Adib 26 Sept resigned citing govt formation gridlock; Macron next day said there would be “serious consequences” for politicians who failed to uphold deal. Meanwhile, U.S. increased financial pressure on companies and individuals linked to Hizbollah: U.S. Treasury 9 Sept sanctioned Hizbollah allies, former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and Youssef Finianos of the Christian Marada Movement; 17 Sept sanctioned two Lebanese companies and one individual for allegedly funneling funds to Hizbollah. President Macron expressed concern over sanctions, warning that confrontation with Hizbollah could further hamper reform efforts. In sign of worsening security across country, violence between rival political groups broke out in Beirut: in Tariq al-Jdide neighbourhood, clashes involving rifles and rocket-propelled grenades 7 Sept erupted between Sunni groups affiliated with former PM Saad Hariri and followers of his brother Bahaa, killing one and injuring two; in eastern suburb, clashes 14 Sept broke out between Christian party Free Patriotic Movement and Lebanese Forces. Four Lebanese soldiers 14 Sept killed in operation to apprehend alleged jihadist militant suspected of planning late Aug attack in Kaftoun village that killed three people; shootout between army and jihadist militants 27 Sept killed three near Miniyeh. Daily COVID-19 cases 14 Sept surged past 1,000 for the first time since outbreak. Accidental explosion at suspected Hizbollah arms depot 22 Sept rocked southern town of Ain Qana, reportedly causing four casualties.
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.
Lebanon is surviving internal and regional strains remarkably well, but this resilience has become an excuse for tolerating political dysfunction. If the Lebanese political class does not take immediate steps like holding long-overdue elections, fighting corruption and promoting the rule of law, its complacency will only make an eventual fall harder and costlier.
Hizbollah’s intervention in Syria strengthens the Assad regime but transforms the Shiite movement as it redefines the enemy and itself within the confines of an increasingly sectarian struggle.
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].
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
After months of mass protests, a new Lebanese government may take office soon. Yet it must make reforms that strike at the very vested interests that appointed it. Outsiders should give the cabinet a chance to succeed but plan for emergency aid if it fails.
Austerity measures have triggered countrywide unrest in Lebanon. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Heiko Wimmen says the prime minister’s emergency measures may be too little, too late. Most protesters appear bent on the government’s resignation if not the political system‘s complete overhaul.
After 13 years of maintaining the status quo, Israel and Hezbollah are now negotiating new rules of engagement.
Originally published in Middle East Eye