Amidst the chaos of its surrounding region, Lebanon has been an anchor of relative stability in the Middle East over the past few years. However, recent developments suggest the upheaval is finally beginning to take its toll on a state which is showing increasing signs of fragility under the strain of overwhelming internal and external pressures. The devastating civil war in neighbouring Syria has worsened the existing political deadlock in Lebanon, which has left the country of 4.5 million people without a President for more than two years. More worrying than the lack of an elected government figurehead, is that the political vacuum is leading to economic stagnation, and contributing to a rise in sectarian tensions 26 years after the end of Lebanon’s own civil war.
The current political situation has been steadily worsening since President Suleiman’s term in office came to an end in May 2014. Since then, political paralysis has gripped the country as Lebanon’s power-brokers have failed to reach consensus or find a way forward. In a nation of more than 18 predominant religious groups, it may come as little surprise that a collective agreement has been difficult to reach. The political system put in place in Lebanon after the end of the civil war is based on the principle of power-sharing, and dictates that the President must be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim, whilst the Parliament Speaker must be Shia.
Sectarian divisions have played a prominent role in the political stagnation, with the parliament being unable to elect a president – despite attempting to do so on more than 40 occasions – primarily due to resistance from Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanese politics. To fill the void, Prime Minister Tammam Salam has operated as the country’s de-facto leader for the last two years, taking up the role of ‘Acting President’ whilst the current situation remains unresolved. Over that period, Lebanon’s infrastructure and public services have rapidly deteriorated, with the government unable to provide basic services such as refuge collection for 6 months up until March this year. Economic activity has also suffered greatly: exports have decreased, whilst national debt and the government deficit have risen sharply, with the situation unlikely to improve as long as there remains no new national election on the horizon.
The current crisis is not just a result of divisions within the current legislature, but also a product of Lebanon’s complex historical domestic politics and the wider regional context. For decades, Lebanon has been viewed as the site of a ‘proxy war’ between two regional powerhouses: Saudi Arabia (which along with the other Gulf States, has been a supporter of Lebanon’s Sunni political movement); and Iran (a supporter of Hezbollah and the wider Shia population). Whilst this divide has long been a feature of Lebanon’s domestic politics, tensions were heightened significantly after the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in a bomb attack in the capital, Beirut, which has repeatedly been blamed on Hezbollah.
Hariri’s death led to mass street demonstrations across Lebanon which became known as the ‘Cedar Revolution’. The protests resulted in the complete withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanese territory, and the establishment of an international tribunal to investigate Hariri’s assassination. In the immediate aftermath, Lebanon’s political parties effectively split into two competing camps: the 8th March Coalition, which is largely Shia and pro-Iranian; and the 14th March Coalition, which is predominantly Sunni and has the support of Saudi Arabia. The upheaval after Hariri’s death retains a lasting legacy today, visible in the partial polarization of Lebanese society and the division which still characterizes its domestic politics.
The ongoing five-year-old civil war in neighbouring Syria has further complicated the situation. Hezbollah – which can be labelled as both a political party and militant organization, and is also designated as a terrorist group by the United States – has become deeply involved in the conflict, supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. More than 1,200 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria since the start of the conflict, including their commander Mustafa Badreddine who was killed in an explosion in Damascus earlier this year. Hezbollah’s involvement, along with Russian air support for the Assad regime, may have helped push the threat from ISIS further away from Lebanon’s border; however there have also been negative consequences in the form of retaliatory terrorist attacks on Lebanon’s soil. The deadliest atrocity came on 12th November 2015, when ISIS launched a double suicide bomb attack in Beirut, killing 43 civilians and injuring more than 200 people.
Lebanon is also struggling to cope with the unprecedented number of refugees crossing its borders. In addition to 500,000 Palestinian refugees, an additional 1.6 million refugees from Syria have streamed across the border over the last five years, fleeing the violence of ISIS and numerous other militant groups. The overwhelming number of new arrivals – which now make-up more than 1/3 of Lebanon’s total population – has put significant strain on Lebanon’s crippling infrastructure, whilst adding to the existing problems of high unemployment, poverty and limited service provision. Amidst division in Europe over how to handle the refugee crisis, Lebanon, along with Jordan, is struggling under the burden of accommodating the highest per-capita concentration of refugees anywhere in the world.
In light of the upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa over the past few years – particularly in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Egypt – Lebanon has served as an example of stability and relative peace. Despite the recent strain from unprecedented internal and external pressures, Lebanon is still remarkably managing to hold itself together as a functioning sovereign state, amidst nations which appear to be splintering into pieces. However, facing the pressures of an expanded population and sectarian divisions whilst still experiencing continuing political deadlock, the country may not be able to cope for much longer. The United Nations Security Council recently expressed concerns over the ‘’security, economic, social and humanitarian challenges’’ facing Lebanon, and called on all Lebanese political leaders to put ‘’stability and national interests ahead of partisan politics.’’ If the political impasse can soon be ended and a new President put in place to unite the country, there remains a chance for Lebanon to avoid the large-scale violence which has engulfed its neighbours, and continue to serve as an example of stability and pluralism at the heart of the Middle East.