Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town
Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Lebanon’s Elections Portend Protracted Political Vacuum
Lebanon’s Elections Portend Protracted Political Vacuum
People gather amid damage and the remains of tents for Syrian refugees that were burnt in the fighting between Lebanese army soldiers and Islamist militants in the Sunni Muslim border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa, 9 August 2014. REUTERS/Ahmad Shalha
People gather amid damage and the remains of tents for Syrian refugees that were burnt in the fighting between Lebanese army soldiers and Islamist militants in the Sunni Muslim border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa, 9 August 2014. REUTERS/Ahmad Shalha

Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town

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.

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I. Overview

Weakened by deepening inter- and intra-communal rifts, the Lebanese state has gradually abandoned its primary role in governance and as manager of representative politics and relies increasingly on security measures to maintain stability and the political status quo. The remote border town of Arsal in the north east is emblematic of this security-centric method of tackling unrest. The approach, which escalated after the Syrian war began next door, is short-sighted and dangerous, as it fights symptoms while inadvertently reinforcing underlying factors that drive instability. If the government were to address Arsal’s plight in a more balanced manner that takes those factors into account by folding its security component into an overall political strategy, it could yet turn a vicious circle into a virtuous one, preventing the town’s downward spiral and providing a model for tackling such problems in the country overall.

Arsal combines many of Lebanon’s woes: economic erosion and poor governance at its fringes; sectarian fault lines shaping the fate of a Sunni enclave within a majority-Shiite governorate (Baalbek-Hermel) in the Beqaa Valley; the weakening of Sunni national leadership and growing assertiveness of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement whose militia is actively fighting in Syria; and the spillover of the Syrian conflict. The latter has turned the town into a rear base for anti-regime fighters, a trans-shipment point for explosive devices, and – for both these reasons – a threat for Hizbollah and Lebanon’s security apparatus. It has also turned the town into an initial haven for waves of refugees, adding to severe pressures on both the Lebanese state and individual localities throughout Lebanon.

A five-day battle between Syrian jihadis and the Lebanese army in August 2014 put Arsal on the map as a national threat in the minds of many Lebanese. The army then cordoned off the town, its checkpoints making it extremely difficult for ordinary Arsalis to travel, outsiders to visit, aid to reach tens of thousands of refugees hunkered down in the area and even local peasants to access their lands. The economy collapsed, while Syrian armed groups stayed put, seemingly enjoying a modus vivendi with the army provided they kept a low profile. In this festering stalemate of social disruption and popular resentment, radical Syrian groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra benefit the most, as they can mobilise local anger and harness it to their worldview.

Violence in and around Arsal has decreased as a result of the army’s cordon but not ended. Lebanon’s military response might be understandable. The country’s brittle stability does not leave room for much leniency or political risk taking, especially in today’s highly dangerous regional environment. The state’s dysfunction gives carte blanche to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) by default, because it is one of the country’s rare functioning institutions. Moreover, the massive refugee influx, amounting to more than one quarter of Lebanon’s population, has aggravated pre-existing problems and strained already scarce resources, making it very difficult for even an effective government to cope with socio-economic needs.

Nevertheless, the state’s heavy reliance on security to solve all manner of political and social ills offers no durable solution. If anything can explain more specifically how the situation in Arsal spun out of control, it is a long track record of central authority neglect; and if there is anything its inhabitants truly want, it is a greater presence of the state’s non-security parts: improved basic services, economic opportunities, better political representation, a solution to, or at least mitigation of, the refugee crisis and effective policing instead of collective punishment.

Beyond the Arsal case, which is troubling in its own right, lies the bigger story of the state’s gradual abdication of its duties. As its performance on governance and representative politics grows more dismal by the day, it increasingly falls back on security measures devoid of any serious political, humanitarian or developmental component. This approach has proven dangerously seductive, by maintaining an appearance of stability while catalysing the state’s further decay in a self-reinforcing loop in which the measures the government takes to compensate for its shortcomings make matters worse. Over the years, such behaviour has become a pattern in Lebanon; beyond its borders, the same logic has been taken even further in Iraq, the progressive disintegration of whose state should be a cautionary lesson. Rather than suppressing the symptoms wherever instability metastasises, Lebanese authorities should be treating the causes.

Arsal would be a good place to start. To arrest the downward spiral, the authorities should reduce army security measures in and around it in ways that would still be security-effective. For instance, nothing prevents them from either abolishing the permit required for outsiders to visit, or granting it by default, except when there is clear evidence of ill-intent. Allegations of human rights abuse by security officers should be promptly and vigorously investigated and proven offences punished. Procedures are needed that would enable local farmers to cultivate their land. Authorities should facilitate adequate humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and relieve Arsal by relocating some of them to other areas in Lebanon, an idea discussed by the government but not acted upon.

If this comprehensive approach can succeed in Arsal, perhaps the government and donors could then apply the lessons to the country’s other multiplying trouble spots. In that case, donor countries would have to significantly increase their support to Lebanon to help it address the refugee crisis and its impact on host communities. The Lebanese government would then need in turn to allocate adequate funds to other areas like Arsal that are hosting high numbers of refugees, with the aim to set up viable and sustainable economic and infrastructure projects.

Beirut/Brussels, 23 February 2016

Election officials carry ballot boxes and election material to be distributed to polling centres, ahead of the parliamentary election, in Beirut, Lebanon. REUTERS / Mohamed Azakir

Lebanon’s Elections Portend Protracted Political Vacuum

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.

What happened in the parliamentary elections?

Lebanon’s national elections on 15 May saw the Shiite Islamist movement Hizbollah and its allies lose their parliamentary majority. New parties drawn from civil society and the 2019 protest movement made significant inroads. But, in the end, the established political forces – encompassing both Hizbollah’s bloc and its long-time foes – remained in control of 90 per cent of the legislative seats.

The balance of power in parliament has nonetheless shifted, with no clear majority coalition or easy path to forming a government. Hizbollah and its partner Amal – the “Shiite duo” – won all the seats reserved for Shiite MPs. Their Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), held seventeen of the eighteen seats it won in the 2018 polls, after which it was the party with the largest share. It was the nominal independents once aligned with Hizbollah, Amal and the FPM, who cost the bloc its majority. All were either voted out or quit the coalition before the polls. Women candidates secured eight seats – the highest number to date in Lebanese electoral history – with affiliations ranging from traditional political parties without progressive agendas to civil society groups.

The biggest surprise was the performance of the civil society and protest movement activists.

The biggest surprise was the performance of the civil society and protest movement activists, most of whom are fresh faces in formal politics. They scored thirteen seats, some of them representing districts far beyond Beirut, the capital city. In several instances, their gains came at the expense of high-profile establishment politicians associated with Hizbollah’s bloc, such as Faisal Karami, scion of a major family in the northern city of Tripoli, prominent Druze leader Talal Arslan in the Mount Lebanon town of Aley, and Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party head Assaad Hardan in the south. These new forces oppose Lebanon’s sectarian or “confessional” system, which parcels out parliamentary seats (and some other positions) among the Catholic, Sunni, Shiite, Orthodox, Druze, Alawite and Evangelical communities.

Yet the candidates with non-traditional affiliations were not the only net winners. The Lebanese Forces, a Christian party led by Samir Geagea, also achieved substantial gains, becoming the largest party in parliament. The party now has nineteen MPs and has pulled ahead of its main Christian rival, the FPM. It is deeply opposed to Hizbollah, whose forces under arms it views as undermining Lebanon’s national security, sovereignty and economic development. This issue divides Lebanon’s two main establishment blocs, with the parties that demand Hizbollah’s disarmament opposing those that do not. All these results make for a murky overall picture, though competition between the two main blocs – that led by Hizbollah and that comprising its adversaries – will continue to be a major dynamic.

Do the electoral gains for alternative political forces usher in a new era for Lebanese politics?

Not right now and not any time soon. To be sure, the new political forces’ showing reflects the growing rejection of Lebanon’s ruling elite since the 2018 elections. In October 2019, when large protests erupted across Lebanon, demonstrators blamed the country’s leaders for decades of neglect and corruption. These long-term failures of governance had culminated in a crushing economic crisis, which the World Bank considers one of the world’s biggest financial collapses since the 1850s, and which continues to worsen. At the outset, the protest movement stayed largely free of the country’s notorious sectarian and political fault lines, which the established parties habitually use to divide and rule the population. The protesters forged a broad alliance around the demand to eject the political class wholesale – irrespective of sectarian or political identity – under the rallying cry “all of them means all of them” (must go).

The 15 May polls seem to have revived something of this unifying spirit, which until then appeared to have disintegrated. Mass demonstrations became rare after October 2019, with the notable exception of protests concerning the disastrous Beirut port explosion in August 2020. In the election campaign, parties claiming the 2019 movement’s mantle often competed against one another rather than presenting unified lists. It seemed that the competition among different opposition lists might weaken their chances, but this turned out not to be the case. In most districts, voters rooting for change converged on a single party slate, producing results that exceeded most observers’ expectations for electoral success.

Yet that success needs to be viewed in context. Despite their dismal record in public office, Lebanon’s established political forces still control 90 per cent of the parliament. This enduring popularity suggests that when it comes to elections, time-tested mobilising methods, such as leveraging patronage and instigating sectarian fears, still have traction.

Patronage is arguably a more useful political tool than ever.

Patronage is arguably a more useful political tool than ever. The economic collapse’s sheer depth has made many Lebanese even more dependent than before on the various material favours, from jobs to cash handouts, that the established political leaders have been doling out for decades. Living standards have deteriorated dramatically across the country since October 2019. Heavily dependent on imports, Lebanon burned through the dwindling foreign currency reserves needed to buy essential goods. Lack of foreign exchange means that the state is no longer able to cover the cost of fuel and other subsidies. The electricity grid provides just two hours of power per day and many households can no longer afford skyrocketing bills for backup diesel generators.

The Lebanese lira’s massive devaluation has pushed up the price of imported goods, triggering runaway inflation, at a rate of 84.9 per cent in 2020 and 145 per cent in 2021. While 150,000 Lebanese lira bought $100 in early 2019, the same amount is worth around $5 today. The currency collapse has disproportionately affected low-income Lebanese, who struggle to pay for food, medication and other necessities. The UN Economic and Social Council for Western Asia estimates that over 80 per cent of the population now lives in multidimensional poverty.

Amid this chaos, Lebanon’s political elites are well positioned to purchase the support of desperate constituents. Ahead of the elections, reports abounded of parties offering citizens money and other material incentives in exchange for their support at the ballot box. In Lebanon’s most impoverished regions, some parties allegedly offered voters up-front cash payments of just one million lira – less than $35 – for their vote. In other cases, candidates allegedly promised to reward voters with improved individual access to basic services, like electricity, fuel and health care. In the coming years, unless the gloomy economic outlook brightens, needy constituents will be even more tempted to avail themselves of the patronage networks that the established leaders control.

Fear of violence also helped the ruling elites deter voters from straying toward recently formed opposition groups. In October 2021, violent conflict broke out between rival groups in Tayyouneh, a residential suburb of Beirut. Rhetoric from the parties linked to the incident – including Hizbollah and Amal, as well as their opponents, the Lebanese Forces – emphasised their capacity to protect the communities they represent, even as the country disintegrated. These appeals carry special weight in Lebanon, where memories of the nation’s brutal civil war (1975-1990) are still fresh. With the state’s security forces struggling to pay and feed soldiers and policemen, many Lebanese feel that, in such perilous times, it is a bad idea to upend the political status quo. This apprehension, which future violent incidents would likely deepen, could continue to limit the new opposition’s political reach.

Runaway inflation has left many Lebanese struggling to pay for food, medication and other necessities. CRISIS GROUP / Michelle Malaney

How long will it take for a new government to be formed?

Government formation is likely to be complicated and time-consuming. Clear procedures apply under the constitution. The president appoints the new prime minister in consultation with parliament. The prime minister then selects the new council of ministers or cabinet. The present government led by Najib Mikati will continue in caretaker mode until the country’s political forces agree on their replacements.

In recent years, making these appointments has been arduous, with political players vetoing candidates to maximise their share of executive authority. Past governments have taken shape only after the country’s establishment leaders – each claiming to speak for a particular confessional group – agreed on a specified balance of power, which divided influence among the various competing factions. The leaders have justified these tactics with rhetoric about securing the interests of the group they purport to represent. Crisis-hit Lebanon would benefit from speedy government formation this time around. Yet it appears more likely that the bargaining will be lengthy, as parties jostle to adjust the balance of power in their favour after the election results.

The stakes are high for the forthcoming negotiations. First, established political leaders face looming decisions about far-reaching reforms, which could fundamentally transform the economy. In April, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced a staff-level agreement with the Lebanese government, by which it promised to supply Lebanon with $3 billion in stabilisation support over four years. The IMF conditioned this pledge on legislative and fiscal reforms, which need to be under way before the IMF’s management and executive board can approve the package. The agreement’s conditions – such as restructuring the financial sector, lifting banking secrecy laws and reforming state-owned enterprises – could have serious repercussions for Lebanon’s political and financial elites. Established political leaders will want to secure direct influence over the new government to make sure that any reforms will not affect their interests.

The wrangling could be all the more intense because the new government may have a full four-year parliamentary mandate to carry out the reforms. In September 2021, established leaders consented to the Mikati government’s formation, in part because it would serve only until the next May’s parliamentary elections – a mere nine months. During this period, Mikati’s administration could do little harm to vested interests – especially since everyone knew the big reform issues would be faced after the election. Lebanon’s political elites will be invested in enshrining a new balance of power that will safeguard their commercial interests and patronage networks vis-à-vis other communities.

A further complicating factor is the need for political elites to agree on a new president by 31 October.

A further complicating factor is the need for political elites to agree on a new president by 31 October, when the six-year term of the incumbent, Michel Aoun, expires. The most powerful role reserved for Maronite Christians, the president signs all legislation and, at least nominally, serves as the Lebanese army’s commander-in-chief. Aoun has been angling to anoint his son-in-law Gebran Bassil as his successor. Bassil is chair of the FPM, which Aoun founded. Yet Bassil faces stiff and potentially insurmountable opposition to his presidential candidacy. He has alienated key figures across Lebanon’s political spectrum and in November 2020 became subject to U.S. sanctions on corruption allegations. Should he feel compelled to abandon Bassil’s candidacy, Aoun may well demand political concessions – such as a certain level of FPM representation in the new cabinet – in return. Since the president must sign off on any new government, Aoun can block cabinet formation until his demands are met.

The presidential appointment process presents other issues as well. Parliament elects the president – who requires the support of at least two thirds of sitting legislators. Following the recent election results, it is highly unlikely that any political camp will be able to muster this number without the consent of its main rivals. For this reason, there is a strong chance that politicians will not compromise on a presidential candidate without a larger agreement about the country’s overall balance of power for the coming years.

In the likely event that no new president has been chosen by 1 November, the constitution delegates the president’s powers to the council of ministers. The parties are aware that the new government they are trying to form may, within less than six months, be arrogated all executive power, which further raises the stakes. Should cabinet formation remain stalled until that point, the Mikati cabinet will still be in place. But it remains unclear if, constitutionally, a caretaker government can assume these additional executive powers, which would inevitably prompt further political bickering. If the answer is no, the country could be staring at a political vacuum. The absence of leadership would place reforms, and the arrival of substantial external support, even farther out of reach.

Given the election outcome, protracted negotiations over the new balance of power appear all but inevitable. The FPM in particular will fight hard to retain as much as possible of the leverage it obtained in 2018. The Lebanese Forces, for their part, have made clear that, as the new largest party in parliament, they intend to take an assertive stand. On election night, party leader Geagea wasted no time in intimating the Lebanese Forces’ opposition to re-electing powerful Amal leader Nabih Berri, a staunch Hizbollah ally, as house speaker – a position echoed by other key anti-Hizbollah parliamentarians. Returning fire, the head of Hizbollah’s parliamentary group, Mohammad Raad, evoked the spectre of “civil war” if opposing political forces fail to approve a consensus government. Such bombast aside, both main establishment blocs have indicated that they will not accept just any power redistribution, making the prospect of timely government formation even more remote.

What would an extended political vacuum mean for Lebanon?

In short, nothing good.

A political vacuum in the form of protracted negotiations and an extended stalemate over who governs the country will mean that Lebanon’s economic meltdown continues and perhaps accelerates. Before the elections, Lebanon’s leaders expended considerable resources on maintaining a semblance of financial stability, notably by releasing hundreds of millions in U.S. dollars to arrest the lira’s freefall. With foreign exchange reserves now reportedly below $10 billion, this policy is unsustainable. The currency is liable to crash again.

If the economic decline picks up pace, security risks will almost surely continue to mount. State security agencies have prevented large-scale conflict to date, but these underfunded institutions are now approaching their breaking point. Clashes between rival armed groups – like the tussle in Tayyouneh – may become more regular. A political vacuum could also stoke these dangerous tensions, as sectarian leaders use political polarisation among communities to incite violence. Meanwhile, overstretched soldiers and police will increasingly struggle to contain crime; robberies and kidnappings for ransom are already on the rise across Lebanon.

As Lebanon's economic crisis worsens, underfunded state security agencies are approaching their breaking point. CRISIS GROUP / Michelle Malaney

So, what now?

Ideally, Lebanon’s establishment leaders would form a new government quickly so that it could immediately start working on urgently needed legislation. Heading the list of priorities would be complying with all the conditions necessary to unlock IMF funding, as outlined in the April agreement, which Lebanese politicians hope will encourage other donors to make their own contributions. In this highly optimistic scenario, the leaders would also hold an efficient presidential election during the allotted window, from 1 September to 21 November, rather than allowing it to slip because of a failure to reach agreement. Even if they do pull off these tasks, it is still unlikely that Lebanon would receive significant financial aid before early 2023 – such is the wholesale nature of reforms required. But even though the need for progress is urgent, the reality is that political leaders will probably drag their heels on difficult decisions in the post-election period and forward movement will be sluggish.

On a parallel track, in parliament, Lebanon’s thirteen civil society MPs could form a new opposition bloc capable of disrupting the country’s usual legislative workings in the service of reform. This alliance could help defeat draft laws it deems unacceptable, such as a capital control law that would unfairly favour Lebanon’s banking elites. It could drive the adoption of required legislation, both on economic and social issues, and critically review establishment politicians’ performance. But there are practical impediments to keeping such a bloc together. While the civil society MPs appear united in their disdain for Lebanon’s ruling class, ideological differences may emerge. For instance, they have varying opinions on how to resolve the economic crisis. Another issue concerns each politician’s willingness to cooperate with groups like Kataib – which campaigned with opposition groups but has a history as a civil war militia – and independent MPs who worked with establishment parties until recently. What position to take toward a government that may include representatives or supporters of Hizbollah will likely be another point of controversy among new opposition MPs.

Still, it appears possible that political actors could overcome such divisions by organising the bloc of civil society MPs around a set of guiding principles that allows for a margin of internal differences on some issues and unity on others. For instance, coalition members might agree to oppose the introduction of new regressive taxes, while leaving more divisive matters – like Hizbollah’s weapons – to one side.

In the meantime, Lebanon needs urgent, targeted humanitarian aid – independent of the long-term assistance pledged by the IMF – to stave off total social collapse. Donors should contribute to maintaining essential services, including hospitals, schools and infrastructure for safe drinking water. Where possible, they should provide funding to tamp down the rise in food prices, lest widespread hunger emerge. At the same time, they should keep making any large-scale development aid packages contingent on significant legislative reforms. If donors were to give such funding with no strings attached, they would risk entrenching Lebanon’s political class and rewarding their inaction with yet another get-out-of-jail-free card.