Lebanon in crisis: Doomed with a shared future?

GPG MENA Manager Nayla Zein recently returned from a visit to Lebanon, her home country. Two years on since the October 2019 protests were ignited by what came to be known as the “Whatsapp tax” in response to an economic crisis, during which demonstrators called for greater accountability from the country’s leadership, she reflects on the successive conflicts that came to shape the fragile state of Lebanon, and the ongoing competition over the future of the country.

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”
― Antonio Gramsci, cited by Emmanuel Macron on his visit to Lebanon 2 days after the tragic explosion of August 4th 2020.

On the eve of the commemoration of the unprecedented October 2019 protest movement in Lebanon, the country is far from the optimism and euphoria that once prevailed in the streets. Lebanon was on a tightrope, balancing a fragile order: looking at all objective indicators, one could sense it was never doing well. The landscape is completely different today. Experts, journalists, politicians and ad-hoc commentators repeat the same gloomy diagnosis every day, but for the Lebanese people this experience is a daily struggle: the currency lost over 90% of its value within two years, prices are soaring, and basic necessities such as medicine have become very hard to find. Following the 4 August 2020 Beirut port blast which killed over 200 people and destroyed half of the capital, there was anger, but then there was a feeling of popular resignation.

The explosion in fact exposed the limitations of the Lebanese political system, the foundations of which are in fact quicksand : a consociational regime where power is shared among 18 confessions since President Beshara al-Khuri (Christian) and Prime Minister Riad Al Solh (Muslim) agreed the foundations of the 1943 national pact, following independence. Executive authority was vested in the Christian President and the Parliament would have a ratio of 6:5 in favour of Christians, based on a 1932 census in which Christians made up 51% of the population. As demographic and social changes were taking place in the 1950s, regional dynamics and the Nasser tidal wave revived a yearning among certain (mainly) Muslim segments to join a large pan-Arab state, reminiscent of the Ottoman order and frustrated with the Christian dominance over state institutions. The national pact seemingly did not convince everyone and acute polarisation with pro-Western groups led to a short civil war in 1958, which was ended swiftly by the intervention of a US Marines contingent. All following violent and non-violent conflicts in Lebanon will pose the inherent question of the identity of the state and therefore the legitimacy of Lebanon as an entity, a legitimacy (so far) assessed on the basis of confessional belonging and shifting alignments on the international chessboard. In 1975, successive civil wars took place over Lebanon’s positioning vis-a-vis the Palestinian cause, which translated into the desire of all belligerent factions to control the state. The Taif Accord, which ended the Lebanese civil wars on a “no victor, no vanquished” note, granted Christians and Muslims parity in the political system (although one should mention communities are not homogenous and intra-communal differences of opinion and tendencies are the norm). Syrian tutelage over Lebanon between 1990 and 2005 served as an arbitrator among the warlords turned political class and resolved any arising disputes. Since the retreat of Syrian troops in 2005, Lebanese politicians were left to their own device, trialling a pseudo-democratic order which they in fact control, a façade rather than a rule-based system.

Fast forward to today: polarisation within the system is again at an all-time high with clashes erupting just yesterday in the streets of Beirut between Iran-backed pro-Hezbollah protesters demonstrating against the judicial investigator tasked with investigating the 4 August blast and other armed groups that have not yet come forward to claim responsibility, although many have pointed to the Lebanese Forces Party. The exchange of fire lasted over five hours and neighbouring schools had to evacuate terrified children. This is not an usual episode and similar events took place at critical moments of Lebanon’s history. With Parliamentary elections approaching fast, no one was surprised to see what is dubbed “security events” taking place, as these aim to discourage the judicial investigator from pursuing his work, spread fear among those who support the judicial process, and ultimately could delay the elections. While the country is steadily descending into chaos, many are asking if the crowds who once believed they could save Lebanon in 2019 have disappeared. They haven’t. What started as a movement of pure opposition evolved into actual ideas and proposals. Political activists who were part of the 2019 protests are organising, coordinating efforts, and some groups are planning to establish coalitions able to challenge traditional parties in the next elections. For this to happen, the opposition has the difficult task to surpass its internal disagreements to be able to run on a cohesive platform bringing together sometimes divergent principles – but this is the price to pay to secure seats in the Assembly. Nascent political parties and new leaders, many of whom are women1, are proposing new ways of representing the people while many of them reject any foreign influence or alignment, and innovative policy ideas that would serve the long-term interest of the country. In fact, the competition over Lebanon’s destiny continues, with a multitude of actors and a complex range of variables influencing the outcome, including the new movements that emerged out of the October 2019 protests. It is crucial that these new political alternatives take part in shaping the face of a country, not least because they represent youth who should have a say in the future of Lebanon. But equally important, is the unpopular opinion that youth within traditional political parties should also seek to reform their parties’ methodologies and this might arguably be the most difficult but crucial task. If the Lebanese are to live together and share a future, then annihilation is not an option and a strong state with the monopoly of force is the only guarantor of peace and equal citizenship.

1Here, find out more about our work supporting women’s political representation in Lebanon and beyond.