Lebanon in Freefall

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Edited by Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


The announcement by Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate, Saad Hariri, that he would no longer lead an effort to form a new government has sent shock waves across the region. Lebanon, by some accounts, is now suffering its worst economic period in decades, while demands from the international community for economic and political reform go unheeded. Eyes now turn to President Michel Aoun, who, some suggest, may designate former Prime Minister Najib Azmi Mikati as the country’s next top official.

Writing for Albawaba, Marwan Asmar reflects on Mr. Hariri’s struggles to create a government, concluding that the former prime minister has made the right decision: to take a step back: “Saad Hariri should stop trying to form a Lebanese government and quit. He should go back to just being an MP or simply return to private life as the businessman billionaire par excellence. He has been trying to put a Cabinet together since October 2020, when he was appointed as Prime Minister-designate but with no luck because of the wayward Lebanese political system that relies on patronage and sectarianism and bickering…. Mr. Hariri must surely be admired for his tenacity and some would say his stubbornness to stay in the political field, but he should also know when to quit rather than just keep going to fight another day, hoping to find ‘consensus’ around the corner or in the next hurdle, for this is Lebanon.”

For many, however, the bigger question is not the future of Mr. Hariri, but rather that of Lebanon. In a recent op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Saghieh argues that the current situation is an outgrowth of the impact of the civil war on the country’s demographic shifts: “Lebanon is now paying the many costs that had begun accumulating since the Two-Years War (1975-76) and left the countryside more rural and the city less urban: with regard to the countryside, the Mountains War (1983-84) was the major contributor to exacerbating the situation. The most urban part of the countryside, which had been traditional Lebanon’s backbone, collapsed. The rise of support for Aoun among Christians was the fruit of these developments and was fortified by the ‘marginalization of Christians’ until 2005…. Once we add Hezbollah’s iron grip on the county’s Shiites and its role in isolating them from Lebanese political life’s broad social and political trends, we come to understand some aspects of the degradation we are currently living through.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, it is Iran that often comes under criticism, both within Lebanon and in the region. For example, Jerusalem Post’s Jonathan Spyer concludes that Iran’s role becomes even more evident when one takes into account “[a]ll the elements – US sanctions, Saudi and international withdrawal of aid and investment, subsequent debt default and loss of confidence, resulting currency devaluation, a shadow economy benefiting only itself, and a paralyzed political system – are directly traceable to the distorting effect that the presence of the pervasive Iranian project on Lebanese soil has brought. From this point of view, the current situation stands as a stark warning to all countries faced with infiltration by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its various militia franchises…. The significance of the current events extends far beyond Lebanon’s borders. Iran is responsible for the slow death of Lebanon.”

The question, of course, is this: How does one move forward under the current circumstances, which, as Tala Jarjour points out in a recent Arab News op-ed, continue to perpetuate “the old disagreements that fueled previous crises in the sectarian social and power structures of Lebanon. But the economic repercussions currently unfolding have made life unsustainable…. Fuel shortages, which both cause and are caused by the electricity-sector crisis, are testing the patience of people on the street in new ways. But the real problem, analysts agree, is accountability. Business leaders, politicians and judges are all part of an interlocking web of interests that is causing the deadlock. But the people are still suffering. With more than half of them now below the poverty line and the other half having no access to cash or goods, the future is looking bleak.”

Daily Sabah’s Ferhat Tutkal sets out two possibilities, currently entertained by those invested in the internal stability of the country, for how Lebanon could shake up the current status quo and rebuild: “There are two major options for solving the political deadlock and ending the economic crisis. The first is not to change the current system of confessionalism but only rearrange [it]. Many academics contribute to this view by suggesting how the system can be changed without causing insecurity among sectarian communities. The second idea is to change the sectarian system entirely. Anti-sectarian movements among the youth are increasing. Many want to be represented without concern for their religion and seek to see non-sectarian political parties. They believe that clientelism and corruption are the results of this sectarian system.”

There are also those who believe that Lebanon’s problems are so complex they require the immediate intervention of the international community, with long-time Lebanese journalist Raghida Dergham noting on the pages of The National that the United States has a special role to play, since “Lebanon needs rescuing not just from economic collapse but from the systemic problems its ruling class has engendered over the years. At first glance, this political class seems too shrewd to be reined in by a US administration focused on reviving its 2015 nuclear deal with Iran…. Any attempt to strike deals with politicians that include a trade-off between “good behavior” and their continued hold on power is harmful – as long as they contain no mechanism for international legal accountability for a corrupt class that has destroyed people’s livelihoods and confiscated their wealth, their dreams and their rights.”

Nonetheless, no amount of international intervention, asserts Daoud Kuttab in a recent Yedioth Ahronoth op-ed, can make up for endogenous reforms and homegrown activism, adding that “the way out of the crippling political and economic crisis in Lebanon is to change the identity priorities of its leaders. Instead of being Shiite or Maronite first and Lebanese second, the Lebanese identity must prevail and be the priority over any sectarian or denominational identity. The disease that is hitting Lebanon hard now is prevalent in many countries. When tribalism and smaller factional identities prevail over the national identity, countries suffer. Look at Yemen or Syria or Libya or Iraq and it is the same lesson…. There is a limit to what the outside world can offer. The real heavy lifting must still be the responsibility of the Lebanese people.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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