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Lebanon’s Self-Defeating Survival Strategies
Lebanon’s Self-Defeating Survival Strategies
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Lebanon Needs Help to Revive its Waning Welcome to Syrian Refugees
Lebanon Needs Help to Revive its Waning Welcome to Syrian Refugees
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

Lebanon Needs Help to Revive its Waning Welcome to Syrian Refugees

Eight members of International Crisis Group’s Council and Ambassador Council joined a trip to Lebanon alongside Crisis Group staff in November 2017 to examine the consequences of the Syrian war since 2011. In this op-ed and an accompanying video, Crisis Group supporters from the Council reflect on the Syrian refugees they met and Lebanon’s increased fragility as a result of its enormous new burdens.

Syrian accents are now omnipresent in Lebanon. Busy streets are choked with an influx of Syrian cars. At least 1,700 informal Syrian refugee settlements crowd the landscape from Beirut to the Bekaa Valley.

Everywhere we went in Lebanon this month, the impact of the Syrian war was immediately evident, as were tensions rippling out from the escalating Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the region. It is a tribute to Lebanon’s generosity that this country of 4.5 million people is hosting an estimated 1.5 million refugees. That’s the most, on a per capita basis, of any country in the world – akin to the United States taking in over 80 million refugees.

Travelling across Lebanon as part of a delegation from International Crisis Group, an independent conflict prevention organisation, and meeting more than 50 Lebanese and Syrian actors in the crisis, we were impressed by how Lebanon has managed to cope so far, in spite of the immense challenges it has faced. But we also heard that limits are being reached in what Lebanon can do, and in what Lebanese are ready to do. Lebanon needs help.

Regional War, Local Victims: Lebanon and its Syrian Refugees

In November 2017, a team of International Crisis Group senior staff visited Lebanon, accompanied by members of its Council and Ambassador Council. CRISIS GROUP

The outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011 and the huge influx of Syrian refugees since then have exacerbated the deep structural challenges already faced by Lebanon. Poor public services are worsened by a government paralysed by sectarian divisions, amplified by external interference. Since 2011, economic growth has dropped from 8 to 2 per cent. Job creation, insufficient before the crisis, is now stagnant. 76 per cent of Syrian refugees and 29 per cent of Lebanese live in poverty.

It is a tribute to Lebanon’s generosity that this country of 4.5 million people is hosting an estimated 1.5 million refugees.

The country is in no state to withstand a new external shock, and is vulnerable to internal political turmoil and outside proxy maneuvers. We heard that 300,000 Lebanese are working in the Gulf sending up to $7 billion home annually. Lebanon’s strong foreign currency reserves – $50 billion, or three years of imports – mask the fact that any economic disruption will quickly strain the country’s public debt, 156 per cent of GDP in 2016. Any loss of or remittance income alongside a lagging international community’s commitment and donor fatigue could bring down the Lebanese economy. U.S., French and other international assistance is critical to calm regional tensions and forestall this threat.

Yet we also saw signs of hope, as we met enterprising and resourceful Lebanese and Syrians who are working to address the challenge. For example, Lebanese academic Rabih Shibli of American University in Beirut’s Center for Civic Innovation is building excellent schools for deprived Syrian refugee children in Shtoura in the Bekaa valley. These temporary structures can actually be dismantled and moved back to Syria when the conflict burns out, refugees return and the country starts being rebuilt. At one of these schools, cheek by jowl with an informal settlement, we met Syrian schoolchildren, and were moved by the sight of Syrian children being given what is the best hope for the future, an education.

In a women’s support centre nearby, we met Syrian women being trained to deal with the harassment and challenging circumstances that they deal with every day. Beyond basic language, vocational and computer training, they also offer leadership courses so women can be empowered to broker peace and participate in politics in their home communities.

And Lebanon’s Makhzoumi Foundation, which briefed us on the range of medical care, vocational training and microloans they are making available for vulnerable Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi populations, estimates that at least 1,700 informal settlements set up by Syrians are now scattered around the country.

However, these inspirational examples could not hide the difficult reality that though many  Lebanese initially opened their arms to the fleeing Syrians – 80 per cent of whom are women and children – the welcome has worn off. 90 per cent of the Syrian refugees are concentrated in the most impoverished areas of Lebanon. Vulnerable Lebanese feel abandoned by the international community, seeing an influx of funds supporting newcomers while they suffer alone.

Since 2011, the Middle East has seen millions of people dragged into destructive wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen. The Lebanese fear their turn is next, and they need support to avoid falling victim to forces beyond their control.

Senior Lebanese foreign ministry officials warned us that Lebanon was being pushed too far. Scarred by the destabilising influx of Palestinian refugees that led to civil war in the 1970s, officials insisted on calling Syrians “displaced persons” rather than refugees, warning against permanent stays that could cripple the fragile country.

At a “Tension Mapping” exercise of the UN Refugee Agency, we heard of Lebanese mayors setting up curfews and hanging banners telling refugees to leave. Case workers noted hostile inter-community relations doubling in recent months while indicators of community isolation rose from 22 to 55 per cent. Such frictions have been a recipe for civic unrest throughout history.

Since 2011, the Middle East has seen millions of people dragged into destructive wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen. The Lebanese fear their turn is next, and they need support to avoid falling victim to forces beyond their control.

Though these challenges seemed distant to us in California, we are now more conscious that the consequences could stretch far. The U.S. government should urge regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Israel to refrain from escalating the situation, enhance funding to UN and entities supporting the Syrian refugees, and sustain its military and civil assistance to the Lebanese government.

Amy Benziger and Theodore Waddelow are Co-chairs of Crisis Group’s Ambassador Council chapter in San Francisco. Benziger leads Partnerships and Engagement for Refugees Welcome, a lab structured to incubate and spin out innovative approaches to inspire the public to take action in support of refugees around the world. Waddelow is a Director of Global Public Policy at Visa. Opinions expressed are of the individuals and do not express the views or opinions of their employers or of International Crisis Group.


Amy Benziger
Co-chair of Crisis Group’s Ambassador Council chapter in San Francisco
Theodore Waddelow
Co-chair of Crisis Group’s Ambassador Council chapter in San Francisco