On the brink of state failure: Lebanon’s continuing crisis

On the brink of state failure: Lebanon’s continuing crisis

After a year of protests at corrupt sectarian rule and a stagnant economy, and following a series of short-term leadership appointments, Lebanon has come full-circle in re-appointing Saad Hariri as Prime Minister. As a state, Lebanon faces multiple existential challenges and Hariri has a gargantuan task to surmount these, as well as overcoming the unpopularity that saw him resign his leadership in late 2019.

Confronting the old guard of Lebanese politics

Hariri’s temporary replacements over the last year, Hassan Diab and Mustapha Adib, were still very much members of Lebanon’s elite class, with close ties to existing power-holders. For many of Lebanon’s protestors, this represented a continuation rather than a change; new faces on an old and exhausted metaphorical body. This old guard of politicians, many of whom are former militia leaders, are largely seen as unqualified, inefficient and self-interested. The political system itself represents an outdated version of confessional power sharing, which maintains religious divisions and sectarian squabbling, to the detriment of effective and accountable governance.

While it’s hard to pin down a universal vision for Lebanon’s future among the protestors, there are clear indications of what they do not want. The reappointment of Hariri is already being met with frustration and scepticism and represents a failure to address Lebanon’s obsolete state architecture. It remains unclear how long Hariri’s fourth term will last, but regardless, as he returns to the helm he faces the colossal task of bringing the state back from the brink of failure.

Lebanon protesters

Lebanese protestors take to the streets [Photo by Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images]

The high risk of state collapse

As well as a political crisis, Lebanon is in the midst of a massive financial disaster. Unemployment is sky high, the economy has stagnated, and basic commodities such as sanitation, water and electricity have been limited. These twin crises, largely attributed to corrupt elites but compounded by the recent explosion in the Port of Beirut and the Covid-19 pandemic, are leading analysts to suggest that Lebanon is facing state failure. A failed state is defined as a situation in which a government can either no longer perform its functions (e.g. to provide public services) or is no longer seen as having legitimate authority. Lebanon passes both of these tests with flying colours.

State failure could have grave consequences, leading to rising crime levels and mass displacement of the population. It also creates the conditions for external intervention. While apparently-benign intervention, such as unilateral aid, is a possibility, it rarely comes without political conditions. At best it would exacerbate the range of diverging public interests Lebanon is already struggling with. At the other end of the scale are more malevolent outcomes. As we have seen in places such as Syria and Iraq, state fragility is a breeding ground for proxy wars, and for non-state actors such as IS to expand their influence by appealing to sectarian insecurity. Absent total collapse, regional and international players may still complicate an already delicate process.

External interests

Lebanon recently ‘celebrated’ its centenary, marking 100 years since western colonial powers carved it out as a political entity. For the first two decades of its existence, Lebanon remained under a French mandate, only gaining independence in 1943. Despite independence, France has remained an active player in the country both economically and politically, most recently facilitating the ascent of Adib to the top leadership position. While true state interests are often camouflaged in international relations, it is certain that France will want to retain influence in Lebanon and will work hard to ensure a friendly government is installed.

Macron Beirut

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures towards residents as he visits a devastated street of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday Aug. 6, 2020 [File/AP]

Closer to home, regional states also have the potential to exert massive influence in Lebanon. Iran in particular has close ideological ties with, and provides military and financial support to, Lebanon’s Hezbollah party. Hezbollah, as one of the most powerful political groups in Lebanon, stands to gain or lose much in Lebanon’s moment of chaos and will look to maintain power among the Shia community. Seeking to counter this will be Turkey, whose foreign policy continues to see it interfere in the region’s crises, looking to expand its sphere of influence with Sunni communities. To further complicate things, both states are currently embroiled in a number of regional hotbeds including Syria, Yemen and Iraq, and Lebanon may find itself in a complicated web of regional instability that it will struggle to extricate itself from for many years to come.

A final source of complication comes from the growing powers of China and Russia. Like Iran and Turkey, each is deeply involved in the region. Russia’s interest is notoriously hard to pin down but likely contains elements of power demonstration, lucrative weapons deals and a desire for stability close to its borders. For China, the MENA region contains large reserves of much-needed energy resources and is fertile ground for implementing their Belt and Road initiative, an infrastructure development strategy that would bring great economic benefits to China. A weakened Lebanon offers ample opportunities for both to seek political and economic gains.


Lebanon is in a dire situation and it is highly likely that things will get a whole lot worse before they get better. Facing so many hurdles to stability leaves the state deeply vulnerable. The next 3-6 months will be critical if Lebanon is to avert catastrophe, the fallout of which could be immense.

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