Lebanon: State Paralysis is Fomenting Political Violence

Lebanon: State Paralysis is Fomenting Political Violence

Amidst persistent economic deterioration and governmental breakdown, Lebanon has increasingly seen a worrying trend towards civic unrest and political violence. As the breakdown sees no sign of abating, public dismay at the elite is leading to riots which are being brutally repressed by the Lebanese authorities. Concurrently, one can witness a rise in tensions both within and outwith the sects. Lebanon suffered fifteen long years of conflict, raising the question of whether the country will see a repeat of previous misery.

At the end of January Lebanon endured four consecutive days of mass rioting in its northern city of Tripoli, leading to over 400 injured including 40 soldiers. The unrest, triggered by the Lebanese government’s inability to provide aid during a recently extended lockdown, marks another point in Lebanon’s worrying descent into violence.

Economic Catastrophe

Since 2019, Lebanon has endured an economic meltdown believed to be its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. The conflict, centred around longstanding Muslim and Christian tensions was contoured by a shifting wind of external and internal alliances, ultimately amounting to an eviscerated economy and 150,000 dead.

30 years later, Lebanon is now once again on the brink of collapse. After a bank-led Ponzi-scheme and an unsustainable debt-to-GDP ratio collided in 2019, the state defaulted on its foreign debt. Inflation has since caused the Lebanese dollar to decline by 80% leading to savings and livelihoods being ravaged countrywide.

Coupled with the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic and a devastating explosion in Beirut’s port last August, Lebanon’s GDP has contracted by 19.2% over 2020 alone. Over 55% of the population are now in poverty; hunger, unemployment and civic frustration are rampant. At present, Lebanon’s long road to recovery begins with IMF relief, a package currently withheld due to the shortcomings of a fragmented political elite.

Government and Lack Thereof

Lebanon’s mosaic of religious sects in which none hold a majority have traditionally relied on a power-sharing system centred around the three largest denominations (Sunni, Shi’a and Maronite Christian). Within this power-sharing system, ministry positions are distributed along sectarian lines. This has increasingly institutionalised conditions in which public resources are privatised by sectarian leaders and traded at the local level for political support. Such conditions have led to a state that has been weakened by endemic corruption and paralysed by endless sectarian competition for ministry control.

Add in external actors such as Saudi Arabia and Iran who interfere in order to see that their sect and interests are advanced and the result is a Lebanese state riven with conflict, inertia and wholly incapable of dealing with the present crises.

The previously mentioned Beirut blast and its aftermath are viewed as the embodiment of such shortcomings. Ignited by large quantities of ammonium nitrate improperly stored within Beirut’s port, the blast was the result of government buck-passing and bureaucratic lethargy. This failure of the state led to 200 dead, 4500 injured, 100,000 citizens homeless and a price tag of 4.6 billion USD to recover from the damage.

Widespread protests towards this cataclysmic failure led to the government of Prime Minister Hasan Diab being toppled after only 7 months. Swiftly after, French President Emmanuel Macron touched down amidst Beirut’s rubble to issue an ultimatum: relief would be granted in return for necessary structural reforms. The IMF echoed this verdict.

For a while, recovery seemed believable: a broad coalition of Lebanon’s factions nominated Mustapha Adlib as Prime Minister and a roadmap for reforms was delivered by the French. However, soon momentum faltered after the Shi’a militia and Islamist party Hezbollah faced increased sanction pressure from the United States and doubled down on its efforts to attain the lucrative and de facto veto position of the finance ministry. A failure to negotiate led Adlib to resign, squandering the government formation process and the prospect of recovery.

Ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri later took up the reigns in October, despite resigning a year prior due to his inextricable association with many of Lebanon’s woes. The cabinet remains yet to be formed, and so reforms cannot even be discussed.

Domestic Defiance

With the state in knots and the economy in tatters, Lebanon has overseen a trend in political violence, heightening anxieties about a return to the bloody days of the civil war. Signs of polarisation are increasingly apparent.

Dissonance between the elite and the population has soared. As Tripoli shows, social pressures with the blame squarely on Lebanon’s politicians are erupting in civic unrest. Government buildings have been torched and authorities attacked. Due to its place as Lebanon’s poorest city, Tripoli is arguably a microcosm of what is to come if the economic descent continues or the state is forced to impose austerity measures.

Compounding concern is the increased willingness of Lebanese authorities to use brutal force against protestors both peaceful and violent. Lebanon remains a highly armed nation, with an estimated 31.9 guns per 100 people.  As these continue to repeat themselves, Lebanon is only a stone’s throw away from protestors firing back.

Sectarian Backsliding

Whilst recent demonstrations have often transcended religion in many respects, sectarianism remains a looming threat. Regional sectarian tensions have flared in recent years stemming from ISIS killings and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. As the 1975-1990 civil war shows, Lebanon is far from immune to these reverberations.

Such tensions are increasingly evident. During previous protests, loyal Hezbollah supporters have fought with protestors they believe are seeking to specifically undermine Hezbollah. Whilst Tripoli is a Sunni stronghold and this behaviour was absent this time, as protests spread to other cities, this risks further outbreaks of sectarian violence.

Whilst no party actively seeks further destabilisation, any sudden shifts in the balance of power, particularly to the detriment of Hezbollah may result in clashes. The highly militarised Hezbollah has historically shown its willingness to use violence in a response to political manoeuvres it does not like.

Further, the recent murder of anti-Hezbollah Shi’a journalist Lokman Slim has signalled to the Shi’a community that dissidence will not be tolerated. An increasingly homogenous and armed Hezbollah could wreak havoc on opposition forces if it chose to.

Inter-sect tensions are also mounting around the 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 at a parade to commemorate the revered assassinated Christian leader Bashir Gemayel.

If conflict were to erupt on any of these dimensions, the Lebanese Army would find itself having to balance between sects out of fear of repeated internal mass-defections, as happened in 1976. In essence, this renders the army largely useless in the face of conflict, as occurred in 2008 when tensions between Sunnis and Shi’as escalated considerably.

Lebanon is in a precarious position. With no sign of the government acting decisively to end this economic catastrophe, political violence looks to become Lebanon’s new norm.



About Author