Amid persistent economic deterioration and government collapse, Lebanon is increasingly experiencing a disturbing trend of civic unrest and political violence. While the collapse shows no sign of abating, public dismay at the elite leads to riots which are brutally suppressed by the Lebanese authorities. At the same time, we are witnessing a rise in tensions both inside and outside sects. Lebanon has endured fifteen long years of conflict, raising the question of whether the country will see a repeat of the previous misery.
At the end of January, Lebanon suffered four consecutive days of mass riots in its northern city of Tripoli, injuring more than 400, including 40 soldiers. The unrest, sparked by the Lebanese government’s inability to provide aid during a recently extended lockdown, marks another point in Lebanon’s worrying descent into violence.
Since 2019, Lebanon has suffered an economic crisis considered to be its worst crisis since the civil war of 1975-1990. The conflict, centered on long-standing Muslim and Christian tensions, was shaped by a rotating wind of external and internal alliances, ultimately amounting to an eviscerated economy and 150,000 deaths.
30 years later, Lebanon is again on the brink of collapse. After the collision of a bank-led Ponzi scheme and an unsustainable debt-to-GDP ratio in 2019, the state defaulted on its external debt. Inflation has since caused the Lebanese dollar to fall by 80%, devastating savings and livelihoods across the country.
Coupled with the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic and a devastating explosion in the port of Beirut last August, Lebanon’s GDP contracted by 19.2% in 2020 alone. More than 55% of the population today lives in poverty; hunger, unemployment and civic frustration are rampant. At present, Lebanon’s long road to recovery begins with IMF relief, a package currently being held up due to the shortcomings of a fragmented political elite.
Government and its absence
The Lebanese mosaic of religious sects in which none holds a majority has traditionally relied on a system of power sharing centered around the three largest denominations (Sunni, Shiite and Christian Maronite). Within this system of power sharing, ministerial posts are distributed along sectarian lines. This has increasingly institutionalized the conditions under which public resources are privatized by sectarian leaders and traded locally for political support. Such conditions led to a state that was weakened by rampant corruption and crippled by endless sectarian competition for control of the ministry.
Add in external actors such as Saudi Arabia and Iran who interfere in order to see that their sect and their interests are advanced and the result is a Lebanese state torn by conflict, inertia and totally incapable of dealing with crises. current.
The aforementioned Beirut explosion and its aftermath are seen as the embodiment of these shortcomings. Ignited by large amounts of ammonium nitrate improperly stored in the port of Beirut, the explosion was the result of government curse and bureaucratic lethargy. This state failure left 200 dead, 4,500 injured, 100,000 homeless citizens and a cost of 4.6 billion USD to recover from the damage.
Widespread protests against this cataclysmic failure led to the overthrow of Prime Minister Hasan Diab’s government after just 7 months. Shortly after, French President Emmanuel Macron sat down amid the rubble of Beirut to issue an ultimatum: relief would be given in exchange for necessary structural reforms. The IMF echoed this verdict.
For a while, the recovery seemed credible: a broad coalition of Lebanese factions appointed Mustapha Adlib as prime minister and a roadmap for reforms was issued by the French. However, momentum quickly faltered after the Shiite militia and Islamist Hezbollah party faced increased sanctions pressure from the United States and redoubled efforts to secure the lucrative veto position and de facto from the Ministry of Finance. A failure to negotiate led Adlib to resign, wasting the process of forming the government and the prospect of a recovery.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri then took the reins in October, despite his resignation a year earlier due to his inextricable association with many of Lebanon’s woes. The cabinet remains to be formed and the reforms cannot even be discussed.
With the state in trouble and the economy in tatters, Lebanon has overseen a trend of political violence, exacerbating concerns about a return to the bloody days of civil war. The signs of polarization are increasingly apparent.
The dissonance between the elite and the population has skyrocketed. As Tripoli shows, social pressures for which the responsibility lies directly with Lebanese politicians is erupting into civic unrest. Government buildings were set on fire and authorities attacked. Due to its place as the poorest city in Lebanon, Tripoli is arguably a microcosm of what is to come if the economic downturn continues or the state is forced to impose austerity measures.
Growing concern is the increased willingness of the Lebanese authorities to use brute force against both peaceful and violent protesters. Lebanon remains a heavily armed nation, with around 31.9 guns per 100 inhabitants. As these continue to repeat themselves, Lebanon is only a stone’s throw from the protesters’ backlash.
While recent protests have often transcended religion in many ways, bigotry remains an imminent threat. Regional sectarian tensions have erupted in recent years over the IS killings and Saudi-Iranian rivalry. As the civil war of 1975-1990 shows, Lebanon is far from being immune to these reverberations.
Such tensions are increasingly evident. In previous protests, staunch Hezbollah supporters have fought with protesters who they say are specifically seeking to undermine Hezbollah. Although Tripoli is a Sunni stronghold and this behavior has been absent this time around, as protests have spread to other cities, it is likely to spark further outbreaks of sectarian violence.
While no party actively seeks to further destabilize, any sudden shift in the balance of power, especially at the expense of Hezbollah, can lead to clashes. Highly militarized Hezbollah has historically shown its willingness to use violence in response to political maneuvers it does not like.
Additionally, the recent murder of anti-Hezbollah Shia journalist Lokman Slim has signaled to the Shia community that dissent will not be tolerated. An increasingly homogeneous and armed Hezbollah could wreak havoc on the opposition forces if it wanted to.
Inter-sect tensions are also mounting around Christian parties, the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement over the FPM’s continued alliance with Hezbollah. Last September, supporters of the two parties clashed in a parade commemorating the murdered revered Christian leader Bashir Gemayel.
If a conflict were to break out on any of these dimensions, the Lebanese army would find itself forced to balance the sects for fear of repeated massive internal defections, as happened in 1976. In essence, this makes the army largely useless in the face of conflict, as happened in 2008 when tensions between Sunnis and Shiites escalated considerably.
Lebanon is in a precarious situation. With no sign of the government taking decisive action to end this economic catastrophe, political violence appears to be becoming the new normal in Lebanon.