Lebanon analysts, speaking to a USIP audience, agreed it was a moment of cautious optimism. “The results of these elections gave hope to civil society groups and to a population that, on the eve of the elections, had almost given up hope,” said Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute.
Nevertheless, this hope should be tempered by the severity of the crises facing the country and the structural obstacles to reform. “Institutional barriers to meaningful change still exist,” said David Schenker, who directs the Arab Politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So I’m not particularly optimistic about the prospects for a general change.”
Lebanon’s Economic Collapse
May’s election was the first since mass protests swept the country in 2019, when Lebanese took to the streets to demand change during an economic crisis – which has only worsened since – and the failure of Lebanese leaders to meaningfully address the challenges besetting the small Mediterranean. nation.
The devastating Beirut port explosion in 2020, which killed more than 200 people and damaged much of the capital’s infrastructure, exposed Lebanon’s dysfunctional governance. The blast led Lebanon’s economic situation “to go from bad to worse”, noted Ambassador Hesham Youssef, a former Egyptian diplomat and USIP senior researcher, who moderated the discussion.
According to the World Bank, Lebanon is facing one of the world’s worst economic and financial crises in the past 150 years. The bank reports that real GDP shrank by 10.5% in 2021, following the 21.4% decline in 2020. Overall, the Lebanese economy has contracted by almost 60% since 2019, which which represents the largest contraction of 193 countries measured during this period. The Lebanese pound has lost 90% in value over the past two years and poverty is skyrocketing.
In the fall of 2021 – before the Ukraine crisis compounded problems in global food supply chains – the United Nations estimated that a quarter of Lebanon’s population was struggling with food insecurity. Estimates now suggest that 75% of the population struggles to put food on the table.
“We have seen the Lebanese middle class disappear before our eyes,” Yacoubian said.
The World Bank has called Lebanon’s economic collapse a “deliberate depression”, due to “continued political inaction” and “persistent and debilitating internal political strife”.
Legacies die hard in Lebanon
Modern Lebanese politics is centered on sectarianism. The highest leadership positions are divided among the main religious sects of the country: the speaker of parliament is reserved for Shia Muslims, the post of prime minister for Sunni Muslims and the presidency for Christians. This has fostered a corrupt and clientelist political system in Lebanon, with political parties focused on providing services and jobs to their sectarian base. Historically, crises in Lebanon have led “citizens…to look to the traditional ruling establishment and their patronage and patronage networks to meet needs, ensuring the survival of the political establishment,” wrote Oussama Gharizi, a senior adviser at USIP shortly after the elections. .
One reason some observers find hope in the election results is that Hezbollah and its allies lost their parliamentary majority. Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite militia-political party, has been an obstacle to change – for example, they have sought to block investigations into the Beirut port explosion – and a source of foreign influence in Lebanon, as it is strongly backed by Iran and widely seen as its proxy. With an electoral system designed to favor those in power in Lebanon, the fact that independents won 10% of seats in parliament is “no joke”, Salem said.
Still, the mainstream parties hold 99 seats in parliament and will likely continue to dominate Lebanese politics. “Hezbollah still exists and, along with its allies in the country, is not known for supporting reform,” Schenker said. One example of old-guard perseverance is Nabih Berri, who heads the Shiite Amal party, which is closely allied with Hezbollah. Berri was re-elected speaker of parliament, a position he has held since 1992.
Major challenges await the newly elected parliament, which must form a cabinet and elect a new president, but has no clear majority bloc. “There’s a good chance we’re heading into a lockdown period with incredible hardships ahead,” Yacoubian said.
The Lebanese authorities and the International Monetary Fund agreed in April on a reform plan to rebuild the economy and strengthen governance and transparency. This will require traditional political parties to abandon their old ways in order to tackle the main pillars of reform needed to secure IMF funds.
Can independent parliamentarians help make this happen?
Questions remain about the ability of independent parliamentarians to unite and push for reform effectively. “Even if you characterize [independent parliamentarians] as Reform-oriented, they are not necessarily unified,” Schenker said.
While the moment remains difficult for Lebanon, an important victory has been won. “One of the real lessons of the so-called Arab Spring has been the inability of Arabs demanding change to translate street protests and demonstrations into viable political action with real resonance. And we saw that in Lebanon,” Yacoubian said.
Regional and global developments impact Lebanon
Regional developments and alignments will play a major role in Lebanon’s trajectory. Russia’s need to divert attention and resources to the front line with Ukraine could lead to the destabilization of Syria neighboring Lebanon, where Moscow has played a central role in supporting the Assad regime. The civil war in Syria has already had major ramifications for Lebanon and further destabilization could lead to more refugee flows and economic hardship. Lebanon already hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.
Iran has also helped the Assad regime maintain its grip on power, extending Tehran’s already considerable influence in the Levant, and will likely seek to fill the vacuum left by Moscow. This would mean a larger and more powerful Iranian threat directly to Israel’s north, and the increased possibility of direct confrontation. “We are seeing a dramatic increase in tension along the border,” Schenker said.
The outcome of the tentative negotiations on a return to the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will also be important to watch. “If there is a return to the JCPOA, it is possible that some backdoor diplomacy… could push [Lebanon] move forward in terms of reform,” Salem said. He noted that in the past, regional diplomatic breakthroughs have led to positive developments in Lebanon.
Two competing regional trends will have major implications for Lebanon, Yacoubian said. On some issues, there is a de-escalation momentum, as evidenced by Israel’s normalization with the Gulf states, efforts by Saudi Arabia and Iran to reduce tensions, and the willingness of the United Arab Emirates and of Bahrain to engage with Assad. Yet in other respects there is an escalating dynamic. Tensions between Israel and Iran are as high as ever and threaten to drag the region into conflict. Lebanon has long been the scene of proxy wars and these developments will no doubt impact its trajectory, for better or for worse.
Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine further accentuates the humanitarian crisis in Lebanon. In 2020, 80% of Lebanon’s wheat imports came from Ukraine and the Beirut port explosion severely damaged grain silos that held 85% of the country’s reserves. The beleaguered nation will need increased aid as the global food crisis deepens.
What is the United States doing to help?
As Lebanon grapples with its many crises, the United States has provided nearly $510 million in assistance since October 2020. Washington is already the largest foreign donor to Lebanon, but it is expected to continue providing much-needed support . “[The United States] did not cause this financial collapse… it was done by Lebanon, but the United States should help feed the Lebanese people,” Schenker said.
Another pillar of US support for Lebanon is Washington’s aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which plays an important role in safeguarding Lebanese sovereignty against Hezbollah’s own military forces. “They remain the backbone of Lebanese stability…and that’s largely due to the strong and continued support of the United States,” Salem said.
What else can Washington do? The United States “needs[s] intensify [its] political assistance and democracy promotion,” said Yacoubian, who called for parliamentary training to help new independent MPs.
Going forward, US diplomacy will also be essential. “Over the next six months, Lebanon needs intensive diplomacy with American engagement or leadership to ensure we get to the end of the year…with an effective government that can meet the needs of the people,” Salem said. Part of that diplomacy should be pushing for the formation of a government capable of putting aside sectarian partisanship and beginning to address Lebanon’s enormous challenges. Washington should “put a lot of pressure on the political powers in Lebanon to form a technocratic government as soon as possible”, Yacoubian said. “The scale and severity of the challenge is so great that we cannot wait for the typical Lebanese horse trade… to unfold.”
Of course, Hezbollah could thwart this effort. But then they will be faced with a choice: Hezbollah can either support a reform process that improves the lives of its Shia constituents and all Lebanese, or watch their country continue to crumble.