In Lebanon’s Elections, More of the Same is Mostly Good News
In Lebanon’s Elections, More of the Same is Mostly Good News
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
Government election officials carry a ballot box into polling stations ahead of the country's May 6 parliamentary election, in Beirut, Lebanon, on 5 May 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

In Lebanon’s Elections, More of the Same is Mostly Good News

Lebanon’s elections yielded few surprises, says Crisis Group’s Lebanon, Syria and Iraq Project Director Heiko Wimmen in this Q&A. Hizbollah is slightly stronger and its main rival weaker. But the polls do represent a return to normalcy.

Who won and who lost in the Lebanese elections?

The 6 May elections readjusted the political balance but brought no fundamental change. As before, no government can be formed without Hizbollah. To be effective in government the Shiite Islamist movement, as always, will have to reach out to partners that oppose much of its agenda. Hizbollah is not about to take formal control of the next government, however, because that move would put Lebanon at risk of losing crucial foreign support or even becoming a pariah state.

The main feature of the polls was not the Shiite movement’s triumph but significant losses for Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, which saw its parliamentary bloc dwindle by a third to twenty seats of the 128-seat parliament. That result, however, was expected: unlike in the last polls in 2009, Hariri was unable to unite Sunnis behind him, and faced stiff competition in areas he had previously won with ease. He suffered further disadvantages: a lack of campaign cash and a new electoral law that made it more difficult to dominate communally mixed districts.

Hizbollah and its partner Amal once again monopolised the Shiite vote to win 28 seats, and they can count on the support of about a dozen MPs from smaller parties. That success means they were able to improve their own parliamentary representation by two seats (both won by Amal), and to get a few more of their allies elected. But it does not amount to a sweeping victory.

The main feature of the polls was not the Shiite movement’s triumph but significant losses for Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement.

The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Christian party led by President Michel Aoun, has been allied to Hizbollah for more than a decade. It garnered just below twenty seats, as it did in 2009, while helping to elect six or seven formally independent MPs through local electoral alliances, not all of which will necessarily endure long beyond election day.

As for opponents of Hizbollah other than Hariri, the Christian Lebanese Forces emerged as the surprise winner, jumping from eight to fifteen MPs, while the Phalange (another Christian movement) and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party both shrank by two seats, from five to three and eleven to nine MPs, respectively.

So the new parliament will likely look not too different from the old.

Who will comprise the next Lebanese government?

The new government will likely resemble the old as well. Hariri lacks the numbers to form a government without Hizbollah’s support. For its part, Hizbollah has expressed its intention to cooperate with Hariri, and has every reason to do so: while the prime minister lost ground, he still heads one of the strongest blocs in parliament, and remains the protagonist of the Sunni community, from which the new prime minister has to be recruited under the Lebanese power-sharing formula.

To suggest, as news reports have done, that Hizbollah and its allies have won a majority in the new Lebanese parliament and will now run Lebanon by themselves wrongly assumes that these “allies” amount to a coherent parliamentary bloc. Who exactly from among the gaggle of smaller parties would enter such a pro-Hizbollah bloc is not clear, but the total is unlikely to amount to many more than 40 MPs. To get anywhere near a majority, Hizbollah’s long-time Christian ally, the FPM of President Aoun, would also have to join; yet no love is lost between Aoun and Amal, whose supporters nearly came to blows during the campaign. Even if the FPM would ultimately come on board, it is simply impossible to rule Lebanon with a slim majority comprising 67 or even 70 of the 128 seats. Previous attempts to do so have led to gridlock and conflict.

This is not just a matter of constitutional conventions, but of very recent experience: for the better part of the past decade and a half, Lebanon was teetering on the brink of serious conflict, or even a new civil war, between allies of Saudi Arabia (supported vehemently, at least initially, by the U.S.), and partisans of Iran and Syria. Just over ten years ago, on 7 May 2008, the protagonists in this struggle – the Future Movement and Hizbollah – faced off in bloody street battles in the heart of the capital, Beirut. When, by 2012, the popular uprising in neighbouring Syria morphed into armed conflict and then became a regional proxy war, the political system broke down, and the country appeared to be heading straight for the abyss.

Beirut, Lebanon, in November 2017. CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

Instead, in 2016, Hariri reached an understanding with Hizbollah and some of its key allies, reportedly with the blessing of the U.S. and France. A bizarre episode occurred in November 2017, when the prime minister, on a visit to Riyadh as the regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran was heating up, resigned under apparent duress, citing Hizbollah’s involvement in regional conflict and threats to his life. But Hariri withdrew his resignation the next month after he had returned to Beirut, and since then Lebanon’s unlikely political cohabitation has worked relatively well for everybody.

More important still, forming a government where Hizbollah is too obviously in the driver’s seat would expose Lebanon to external pressure. The party is considered a terrorist organisation by the U.S., the UK and the Gulf states. Already, hardliners in Israel are exploiting the election results to denounce Lebanon as a “Hizbollah” state – an ominous sign, as risks of an Israeli confrontation with Iran and Hizbollah grow.

How many Lebanese voted and why?

The turnout on 6 May was less than what many had hoped for, even though Lebanese had been waiting a long time for elections (polls were due in 2013, but sharp polarisation between rival camps made holding them impossible). Roughly 50 per cent of an electorate of 3.7 million, among them 800,000 first-timers, made it to the polls.

In some ways, this rather lacklustre response is actually a return to normalcy. Despite a rhetorical escalation between Hizbollah and the Future Movement during the campaign’s last phase, and unlike the last round in 2009, there was little to suggest to voters that these polls were of existential importance for the future of the country or the survival of their communities.

The impulse to change leadership seemed lacking.

Some thought the electorate would punish the government for its failures: waste collection, sewage disposal and electricity supply remain woefully inadequate, public health and education are in a shambles, the economy is sluggish and public debt is spiralling out of control. Yet the impulse to change leadership seemed lacking. Those who turned out overwhelmingly re-elected incumbents, and in some cases, voted in the next generation of long-established political dynasties.

In Lebanon, this hardly surprises. Many people appear hooked on a form of identity politics centred on leaders who claim to embody the interest of this or that sectarian community and region. Perhaps even more people also know, often from personal experience, that their wellbeing – in terms of access to state services, jobs and public tenders or the ability to bend rules to their favour – depends on political leaders who have all but captured and divvied up state institutions, using them for patronage.

That said, and thanks to the new electoral law, which for the first time adopted proportional representation, the new parliament will also include at least one representative of those political and civil society activists who have made it their life mission to confront these elites and their way of ruling. It is a very small beginning, but a significant precedent all the same.

How should international actors react to the elections?

Lebanon sits on a major regional fault line rife with conflict trigger points and devoid of diplomacy. Tensions between Iran and the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel are at a critical point after Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. A direct Israel-Iran/Hizbollah confrontation may be only a single mistake or misinterpreted signal away. Outside actors should deal cautiously with Lebanese affairs, encourage the parties to pursue a stability-oriented approach, and support the formation of a government not essentially different from the previous one.

Yet there is one sector where “more of the same” would not serve stability, but rather court social and economic disaster: the governments that pledged $11 billion at the April 2018 donor conference in Paris should insist that Lebanon finally get serious on reform and fighting corruption. As a Lebanese businessman said: “Previous donor conferences in 2002 and 2007 were called Paris II and Paris III – don’t you wonder why they called this one “CEDRE”? I tell you why: had they called it Paris IV, someone could have asked what happened to all the reform commitments Lebanon made at Paris III”.  

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