Chaos in Lebanon: How much longer can the military maintain law and order?

Chaos in Lebanon: How much longer can the military maintain law and order?

Last month, June 2021, I recorded a total of 97 Security Incidents happening across Lebanon. The vast majority of these were roadblocks set up by angry protesters over the rapidly deteriorating socio-economic conditions. There were, however, 15 occasions of violence, in security operations, militancy, crime and personal disputes. Towards the end of the month, this figure was quickly rising and has continued to increase into July. This begs the question: For how long can the un-paid and deeply suffering Lebanese military remain deployed to maintain law and order?

The roadblocks were distributed around the country from Tyre and Sidon in the south, to Tripoli in the north, and Zahlé in the Bekaa valley. Fuel shortages, announcements by the banks and fluctuations in the Lebanese Lira black-market dollar exchange rate have been the main protest triggers leading to roadblocks and, at times, riots and violence. 

On the last day of the month, armed protesters took to the streets of Tripoli. They were outraged by the power outages and the story of a child on life support who died due to the failure of the hospital’s backup generator. The protesters fired their guns in the air and threw stones at soldiers until the Lebanese army was deployed to contain the situation. Protesters then stormed the building of the Kadisha Electricity Company, and forced its employees to redirect electricity supplies. Whilst this was happening, the military also had to respond to eight roadblocks in different locations around the country and an armed dispute over the long queue at a petrol station in Deir al-Zahrani, resulting in the injury of 12 people.

Fighting over fuel

 Since the beginning of May, many petrol stations have continued to close, with those remaining having put in place fuel limits, as low as LBP 20,000 worth of petrol. Road congestion is not only attributable to the aforementioned roadblocks, but also the immensely long queues at petrol stations, which have forced people to queue overnight. Alarmingly, the shortage of fuel is now linked to daily reports of shooting and fights over whose turn it is to fill up their tank 

Over June, even private generators have been rationed due to the lack of diesel fuel, with 4 hours/day of electricity suspended. The smuggling of subsidized goods from Lebanon to Syria, which is already reportedly costing the Lebanese economy USD 15 million per day, is a large contributor to these shortages. Attempts to curb smuggling have led to gunfights between the military and heavily armed smugglers such as in Ras Baalbek on the 12th June.

Escalation between protesters and security forces

The failure of political leaders to resolve these issues has pushed the people to target the political class directly. During the last week of June, protesters tried to break into the homes of Representative Faisal Karami and MP Muhammad Kabara in Tripoli. In Beirut, protesters were also stopped by security forces after reaching the door of Raoul Nehme’s house, the Minister of Economy and Trade in the caretaker government. 

Seen as symbols of the country’s fiscal deterioration, the banks have also been targeted. The Association of Banks in Lebanon went on a countrywide shutdown on June 30, following an attack against the staff of the Lebanese Swiss Bank’s headquarters in Beirut. This came after the Lebanese Lira exchange rate plummeted to LBP 18,000/USD, on June 28, a loss of 90% of its value to the Dollar. According to the Lebanese Swiss Bank, about a hundred men broke into its headquarters. In Tripoli and Sidon protesters also tried to storm branches of the central bank only to be pushed back by security. 

A deteriorating military

The military is stretched dangerously thin, having to protect Lebanon’s despised politicians and banks, diffusing fights at petrol stations and clamping down on smuggling. The leadership is worried that it will no longer be able to deploy in the necessary areas because its soldiers haven’t received wages. As a result, the soldiers also suffer – alongside their people – from the deteriorating socio-economic conditions

A few weeks ago, the extent of the problem was exemplified by the agreement of 20 nations to provide emergency aid to the ailing Lebanese military. This consisted of basic supplies such as milk, flour, medicine and fuel. The United States remains the biggest financial backer of the Lebanese military. This year it has increased funding from $15 million a year to $120 million. However, this still falls dramatically short of the aid needed. 

 As the situation becomes more violent in the country, Hezbollah may seek to enforce law and order itself.  For the time being, however, Nasrallah stated in his speech on Friday, June 25, that Hezbollah supports the bolstering of the Lebanese military in its job to secure the country. If the “resistance” paramilitary group were to step in for the military – possibly the only respected institution in Lebanon – it would most likely provoke violent sectarian sentiment and uproar amongst the international community. 

The military, nevertheless, endeavors to persevere. A few days ago, they resorted to offering helicopter rides at USD 150 to help pay the salaries of its soldiers – many of whom are currently on food rations and struggling to afford transport to locations where they are meant to be stationed. Often soldiers can be seen taking public buses, the cheapest and often ridiculed option in Lebanon. 

Looking ahead

From fighting over food in Bab al-Tabbaneh & Jabal Mohsen neighbourhoods of Tripoli to the incursion of militants in Arsal, the military’s ability to protect Lebanon’s borders, let alone to ease internal strife, is decreasing day-by-day.

The country’s population, which includes civilians with high levels of weapon ownership, a plethora of militant groups, and warlords from the days of the civil war, could further erupt into violence as actors compete for influence and control of the dwindling resources. Currently, political actors in Palestinian refugee camps, for example, such as Fatah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Rashidieh camp, still have the authority as power brokers and peacekeepers. That said, any shortage of aid, such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), could tip the scales as desperation stirs violence. The same balance could also be tipped in the wider population with now more than half living below the poverty line, and with no end to the crisis in sight, further instability is to be expected throughout July and August.

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