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Lebanon’s Self-Defeating Survival Strategies
Lebanon’s Self-Defeating Survival Strategies
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
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
A Lebanese flag, placed by anti-government protesters, is seen on barbed wire securing the area in front of the government palace in downtown Beirut, October 2012. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

Lebanon’s Self-Defeating Survival Strategies

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.

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Executive Summary

Lebanon survives against all odds in a troubled environment thanks to a remarkable immune system, but that resilience has become an excuse for a dysfunctionality and laissez-faire attitude by its political class that could ultimately prove the country’s undoing. Its Syrian neighbour, conjoined as if a Siamese twin, is drowning in blood, pushing waves of refugees across the border. Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political party and armed movement, has been drawn into an increasingly vicious, costly and desperate regional sectarian struggle. Internally, stakeholders, fearing collapse of a flimsy political equilibrium, have failed to elect a president or empower the prime minister, preferring paralysis to anything they believe might rock the boat. Syria’s conflict is bringing out all kinds of problems, old and new, which in the long term have every chance of proving destabilising. Despite the urgency, expecting bold measures is unrealistic, but politicians could and should take a small number of concrete steps that together would help reduce tensions while waiting the years it may take for the Syrian conflict to abate.

The country “functions” by containing a slowly unfolding crisis through increasingly polarising security measures and informal arrangements between political rivals. These must compensate for the absence of a president, an efficient executive, a parliament that actively upholds the constitution, an independent judiciary, an economic vision and a refugee policy. While still holding up to external threats and pressures, Lebanon is so absorbed by this strenuous challenge that it is allowing itself, slowly but surely, to decay.

A number of factors play to its advantage. It has ceased to be a primary arena where attempts to shift the regional balance of forces play out; Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya have replaced it (as well as Palestine) in that unhappy role. Massive military and organisational strength has discouraged or quelled any attempt to challenge Hizbollah. And the bitter memories of the 1975-1990 civil war continue to inoculate polity and society against a recurrence of serious domestic strife.

That said, today’s dynamics bear an uncanny similarity to those that preceded the civil war. The militia culture of old, which on the face of it dissipated as armed groups were partially absorbed into the state, is resurgent. Longstanding socio-economic disparities are deepening. A large Syrian refugee influx evokes the earlier wave of Palestinian refugees, whose rejection by wide segments of society and subsequent politicisation gradually turned what started as a concern into a major security threat. Hizbollah has added a highly divisive sectarian regional role to its original raison d’être as a resistance movement against Israel, for which it used to enjoy wide support. The army, a cross-sectarian institution considered the backbone of what remains of the state, is increasingly polarising.

A new concern is the unprecedented disarray among Sunnis, one of the country’s three dominant communities along with Shiites and Christians. Their presumptive leadership, the Future Current party, echoes the growing frustrations of its base while failing to address them effectively; aloof and disinvested, it has opened space for competing claims, some radical or even violent, to represent this disoriented, fragmented and angry community, bewildered by Hizbollah’s assertiveness, the evolving U.S. attitude toward Iran and the relentless violence used against Sunnis by the regimes in Syria and Iraq. In turn, its gradual radicalisation, by stirring existential fears of Sunni fundamentalism among other groups, is contributing to growing Shiite support for Hizbollah and its involvement in Syria, regardless of the cost of that escalating conflict. The army’s reluctance to challenge Shiite militancy while suppressing its more immediately threatening Sunni counterpart is deepening the divide.

The political class, which has emerged from and lived off conflict for several decades, is intent on limiting itself to containing crisis, preferring to avoid a bloody showdown it knows would be unwinnable and costly to all over attempting to address its underlying causes. While the informal domestic agreements it has struck are relatively effective stopgaps, they merely help preserve the status quo, while enabling its gradual erosion. Social and sectarian tensions are rising, as the quality of public services declines dramatically for ordinary Lebanese, and opportunities for jobs and personal fulfilment are available for a decreasing few. Instead of exhorting its politicians to represent their interests via established institutions, a weary population has lowered its expectations, circumventing the state apparatus and resorting to survival strategies. These further invigorate informal networks, relationships based on patronage and corruption and rules of the game that ensure the political class remains entrenched, unaccountable and detrimental to what is left of the state.

Poor governance, along with undemocratic, unconstitutional politics, is likely to make the problems fester to the point at which radical change will be the only means to tackle them. A cynical political class has a vested interest in putting off that moment, but, paradoxically, this is also a motivation that can be turned to the country’s advantage, as long as time and regional circumstances permit. While continuing to dither is a dead-end strategy for fixing the political system, any extensive alternative would be far worse in today’s dangerous environment.

The kinds of small but constructive steps that are feasible, however, include holding long-overdue parliamentary and presidential elections without waiting for an outside intervention to determine their outcomes, as has historically been the case and the excuse for postponement; adopting a policy toward Syrian refugees that both minimises security threats and ensures respect of their dignity and rights; implementing a fair judicial process for Islamist and other prisoners; and holding security personnel accountable for abuses against prisoners, refugees and other vulnerable groups. Moreover, Lebanon is a country where popular activism is still tolerated; its non-profit organisations involved in promoting common good and public reforms must do more to enhance governance and democratic values, to include fighting corruption and promoting rule of law.

If the political class and others who can influence Lebanon’s course fail to take such basic, self-evident steps, the country will succeed in little more than surviving present-day contingencies by mortgaging its future.

Beirut/Brussels, 20 July 2015

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