The socioeconomic and political crises gripping Lebanon today are unprecedented in the country’s 100-year history, one that has witnessed intercommunal unrest and civil strife, social upheaval, and the devastating impact of regional interference and wars. So far, the country has avoided sliding again into armed violence that, between 1975 and 1990, killed and maimed hundreds of thousands, laid waste to Lebanon’s physical infrastructure and economy, and forced a modified rethinking of its political system. Indeed, much of the refrain from serious violence shown today––demonstrations and limited acts of disruption notwithstanding––has its origin in lessons learned from that civil war, when political factions believed that change and its antithesis could be achieved through the barrel of the gun. But there should be no illusion that the present social and economic calamity may indeed rend whatever wisdom there is left in Lebanon’s collective memory and force some serious challenges to law and order, especially in urban centers.
This time around, potential violence is unlikely to be fully intercommunal, however. The impact of collapsed economic and social conditions is widespread and has not spared any community. Those responsible for these conditions are the leaders of the different confessions who are in control of patronage and clientelism networks that emanated from the archaic confessional system of the country, in coordination and cooperation with a class of finance capitalists and merchants. All are equally guilty of precipitating a corrupt takeover of Lebanon’s resources and benefiting from legislation that a confessionally divided parliament enacted and a state and its institutions protected. To be sure, if violence is to erupt, it will likely take on the character of a revolution of the disaffected and downtrodden against those in control of political and economic power. Today, those in the latter group are risking Lebanon’s civic peace to perpetuate their privileges and control.
If violence is to erupt, it will likely take on the character of a revolution of the disaffected and downtrodden against those in control of political and economic power.
What remains worrisome is the fact that Hezbollah and its allies, such as the Amal Movement of Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, have previously allowed their Shia supporters and partisans to attack protesters in Beirut and other cities, proving that the Party of God is acting as protector of a corrupt political class. If this behavior returns, there is a distinct and unfortunate possibility that clashes between these supporters and anti-government protesters will become confessional in nature, leading to dreaded armed conflict. If that comes to pass, a civil war will most assuredly erupt in the absence of elite cooperation and compromise, with no end in sight.
Gradual Social Collapse
On March 17, Lebanon’s thoughtful and well-grounded newspaper An-Nahar published a report using information from the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other sources about the country’s painful and dangerous socioeconomic conditions. In any context and under any political circumstances, these conditions would usually be indicators of a creeping round of social upheaval that threatens to cause bi-directional violence between people unable to secure their livelihood and state security forces ordered to maintain law and order at any cost.
The report listed extremely disturbing conditions. Briefly, 55 percent of Lebanese live below the poverty line, with 23 percent living in extreme poverty. Overall inflation in 2020 hit 146 percent; prices of food rose by over 400 percent. The unemployment rate is almost 40 percent while those employed barely make ends meet with the national currency (the lira, or pound) losing 90 percent of its value over the last year; it was telling that trading on March 17—the day of the report—was at 15,000 lira to the dollar, after the rate had been 1,500 to the dollar at the beginning of 2020. The public debt is almost $96 billion, which represents 171 percent of GDP, and 40 percent of that debt is owed by Electricité du Liban, the country’s power company.
Central Bank reserves have dropped precipitously from $30.3 billion in February 2020 to $17.5 billion in mid-March, which means that the country soon may not be able to cover the importation of food stuffs, medicine, and fuel, among other things. A better picture for the national currency emerged on the afternoon of March 19 when the pound appreciated against the dollar to about 10,000––a still unmanageable level––upon news that President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri would meet again to discuss the formation of a government.
In response to dwindling reserves, Ghazi Wazni—the finance minister in the caretaker cabinet of resigned Prime Minister Hassan Diab—announced that the government will begin scaling back food subsidies and raise gasoline prices because the country’s reserves are dwindling fast. He also warned that the funds available are enough for two months at most. Drivers began queuing at gas stations before the price of gasoline goes up. Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar cautioned that fuel oil for electricity generation will run out by the end of March if the parliament could not find emergency financing to keep the lights on (and that is under current rationing procedures of 4-6 hours per day). Lawmakers were able to secure $200 million, one-fifth of the $1 billion request.
Signs of strain and possible collapse are also showing on the country’s health care system, reeling as it is from an uncontrolled coronavirus pandemic that a weak government is ill-prepared to address.
Signs of strain and possible collapse are also showing on the country’s health care system, reeling as it is from an uncontrolled coronavirus pandemic that a weak government is ill-prepared to address. As of this writing, Lebanon has over 440,000 cases of infection and 5,808 deaths. For years, successive governments have neglected public health and instead supported private institutions, a situation that helped exacerbate the current pandemic when these hospitals began turning away poor COVID-19 patients. An early, $34 million World Bank-funded vaccination program fell victim to corrupt politicians who jumped the queue and had themselves inoculated, prompting a threat from the bank’s representative in Beirut, Saroj Kumar Jha, to suspend the effort. As of the beginning of March, about half of Lebanon’s frontline health care workers were yet to be fully vaccinated.
Added to the mix is the presence of close to 900,000 Syrian refugees in the country, although unofficial estimates put the number at 1.5 million. Plans to repatriate them are delayed by the difficult resolution of the Syrian crisis, now beginning its 11th year. These refugees are poor––89 percent of them were below the poverty line in 2020––and suffer from discrimination; they are limited in what they can do to ameliorate their situation except to work as laborers in the construction sector. As Syria continues to be inhospitable to their return––and millions like them in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and other states––the refugees’ presence only adds to the socioeconomic and political complexities besetting Lebanon today. In fact, it is hard to imagine how Lebanon’s problems could be addressed, if at all, if the resolution of this refugee situation remains unknown.
A Deepening Political Stalemate
If the socioeconomic situation sends warning signals about the state of social peace in Lebanon, the complicated political stalemate between the country’s forces only exacerbates it. More than seven months after the resignation of the government of Hassan Diab, following the August 4th explosion at the Port of Beirut, Lebanon still has no new cabinet. Sunni politician and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri was chosen by a majority of the members of parliament and, in October 2020, was designated by President Michel Aoun to form a new cabinet. Hariri has promised and continues to want to form a government of technocrats with no obvious political affiliation, but his wish has so far not come true.
The delay appears to be caused by disagreements between Aoun and Hariri on portfolios, including the president’s share of ministries and insistence on controlling one-third plus one of all portfolios. According to the Lebanese constitution, a government collapses if the prime minister or one-third plus one of the members of the cabinet resign. The constitutional provision was applied at the insistence of Hezbollah in previous governments–– since the 2008 political arrangement, to end a presidential vacuum at the time; it is often used when the premier-designate is not one of the party’s allies. In essence, government formation in Lebanon has become hostage to the Party of God’s political considerations, both domestic and regional. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah is indicating that Hariri’s cabinet should include both technocrats and politicians, perhaps because he thinks he will have more leverage on the latter.
Hariri does not seem eager to give the Hezbollah-backed Aoun the means to decide how he forms his cabinet or what reform agenda he might enact.
Now, Aoun, Hezbollah’s powerful Christian ally, and his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM)––led in the parliament by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil––is using the same tactic to control Hariri’s agenda. But the latter does not seem eager to give the Hezbollah-backed Aoun the means to decide how he forms his cabinet or what reform agenda he might enact. In the meantime, the country approaches the point of no return, with outside donors and lenders unwilling to commit themselves to providing more aid—funds that they think will go down the same corruption hole that was the fate of other assistance Lebanon received over the years.
Indeed, Arab governments, especially in the Gulf, have asserted that they will not provide any assistance to Lebanon as long as Hezbollah continues to have the power it does in the body politic. When Arab states sent aid after the Port of Beirut explosion, they avoided the Lebanese government’s channels. International lenders have also curtailed their assistance, partly because Lebanon defaulted in March 2020 on its Eurobonds debt. An emergency World Bank loan of $246 million is the only one forthcoming, in direct cash monthly payments to poor Lebanese and their families. Worries about rampant corruption in the country and lack of accountability and transparency keep international donors and lenders away as well.
The socioeconomic and political crisis has also impacted the Lebanese Armed Forces. Army commander General Joseph Aoun recently cautioned politicians to form a government to stem a dreaded chaos which, he said, his troops will not be able to control because they themselves and their families are suffering. In fact, the army command rejected an order on March 8 by President Aoun to clear the streets of some protests, in the process complicating civil-military relations in the country. It is unlikely that the army will interfere in politics; it considers itself only a state institution that has no political ambitions. Army leaders also fear splintering and worry about Hezbollah as a strong armed militia. But the mere fact that General Aoun felt emboldened enough to issue a warning and refused to obey an order from the commander-in-chief are indications that yet another state institution is gradually withdrawing from protecting the political order.
Regional and International Influences
Lebanon is hostage to regional conditions that exacerbate its confessional and political divisions. There are those who believe that its continued troubles are at least partly an outcome of the sectarian schism between the Middle East’s Sunni and Shia communities, with similar manifestations in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. There are those who are convinced that Hezbollah’s decisive role in the country’s politics delays desperately needed solutions on the altar of improving Iran’s negotiating stance on its nuclear program with the United States. Then there are many who combine these two considerations with what is to become of Lebanon’s dormant but easily combustible border with Israel. In all of these perspectives, Lebanon is a victim of outsiders’ machinations––Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Israel, and others––with each trying to hold its relief aid hostage to its own wishes and agenda.
Patriarch Rai’s call for internationalization met with widespread approval from a spectrum of social and political forces, but not from Shia Hezbollah, which considered it a threat to the country.
Such was the reason for a call for an international conference under United Nations auspices, one that would guarantee Lebanon’s neutrality, by Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai at a gathering of thousands in February at Bkerki, the seat of his patriarchate. Rai’s call met with widespread approval from a spectrum of social and political forces, but not from Shia Hezbollah, which considered the internationalization call a threat to the country. Indeed, the party organized a media campaign against the patriarch, who on the Lebanese scene represents a red line. Earlier in the month, President Aoun’s FPM visited the patriarch to urge him not to make his call, insisting that the Lebanese are capable of forming a government without outside interference.
But considering the international community’s preoccupation with the coronavirus pandemic and the instability of the international economy, Lebanon’s problems do not appear to be on many states’ urgent affairs agenda; thus, Patriarch al-Rai’s call for internationalization will likely fall on deaf ears. Only French President Emmanuel Macron has shown an interest in trying to force Lebanon’s politicians to show enough commitment to fighting corruption and correcting the country’s politics. He has been intimately involved in Lebanon’s affairs since the Port of Beirut explosion last August––as a former French protectorate, Lebanon remains a unique concern in Paris––but his latest exhortation simply sounded like a mere entreaty that is unlikely to bear fruit.
Neither does the United States appear to want to prioritize Lebanon as one of the Middle East’s many challenges. Washington was noticeably noncommittal in February when it avoided any mention of Hezbollah in the State Department’s condemnation of the killing of anti-Hezbollah Lebanese activist Lokman Slim. But aside from the American strike on Iran-supported militias in Syria, what has transpired from the Biden Administration thus far is a cautious approach toward Lebanon and Syria that looks at both countries as part of a region-wide policy that combines lessening involvement in Middle East affairs and emphasizing future talks with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Lebanon, individually, does not represent a priority for American interests in the region today.
It again remains up to the Lebanese to chart their way out of an impending social explosion that cannot be different from a revolution against an established order. So far, Hezbollah and its allies and supporters appear intent on opposing open protests, considering them harmful to social peace. This position may soon put them in direct confrontation with the overwhelming majority of Lebanese, some of whom are poor Shia who suffer greatly from the prevailing conditions in the country. Street confrontations between supporters of change and defenders of the established order may quickly become violent, opening the country up to another calamitous civil war.
Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here