Lebanon starts the new year amidst greater instability and worsening insecurity

  • 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.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


Fuel shortages and country-wide internet outages across Lebanon serve as early warnings of yet another difficult year ahead for Lebanon. With the Lebanese government not able to meet since last October due to internal rifts and disagreements among the various political forces, it is unlikely that the country’s economic and social conditions will improve anytime soon. The US has been accused of stifling the country’s recovery due to the US government’s Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act which is aimed at putting pressure on the Assad regime by threatening sanctions on any countries trading with Syria. The US ambassador in the country has signaled that the US will not impose sanctions on Lebanon. In the meantime, with parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2022, Hezbollah seems to have been the target of political attacks from some of its erstwhile allies in Lebanon, making the outcome of the upcoming elections difficult to predict.

According to a National news report, the situation in Lebanon is worsening day by day. The most recent victim of government dysfunction was the country’s internet service, which is directly connected to the ongoing fuel shortage: “Internet services were disrupted in Lebanon on Sunday because of diesel shortages, the state provider said, adding another essential service to the list of casualties of the country’s economic crisis…. Lebanese live with only a few hours of state electricity a day and rely on a network of private generators that also depend on diesel fuel. This often leaves neighborhoods in total darkness for hours. Residents have to pay for multiple services, including hefty bills to generator operators, which change regularly as the crisis worsens.”

It is clear that, with tensions high, social cohesion has deteriorated in the country. Some of challenges, as Najia Houssari points out in this Arab News op-ed, seem to be brought on by the desperate actions of citizens fed up by the ongoing economic crisis in the country, leading to an increased incidence of violence: “The Lebanese population was subjected to collective punishment on Saturday night after protesters stormed a key power station and tampered with the electrical equipment, inflicting power cuts on the whole country for hours. Protesters stormed the main power station in the Aramoun area, 22 km from Beirut, and tampered with its contents to secure electricity for their neighborhoods, causing a problem that affected all power generation plants…. The owner of a private electric generator in the Choueifat area near Aramoun said that as electricity supplies on Sunday morning returned to the same rationing levels in the Lebanese regions, resentment over what is happening could break out at any time.”

However, the bad news for Lebanon continues. The Iranian Press TV notes that Lebanon’s transportation sector and labor unions, concerned with rising fuel prices and the plummeting of the country’s currency, “have started a nationwide general strike to protest the dire economic conditions in the Mediterranean country. The industrial action, dubbed a “day of rage,” began at 05:00 a.m. local time (0300 GMT) on Thursday and is scheduled to last 12 hours. Demonstrators used trucks and buses to block major highways as well as roads inside different Lebanese cities and towns…. The people participating in the strike are protesting growing petrol prices, skyrocketing inflation and the plummeting value of the local currency.”

Responsibility for the long-running economic and political crisis in Lebanon has shifted between Hezbollah and its allies. That may explain recent op-eds taking aim at what this Gulf News editorial characterizes as Hezbollah’s role as a hostage-taker and a terror group: “The dust had not settled on the controversy over comments against Saudi Arabia made by a Lebanese cabinet minister regarding the Yemen war when another Lebanese party — this time the terror group Hezbollah — made outrageous comments against the Kingdom. The hapless Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati was left on Monday to distance himself from the inflammatory outburst from the Hezbollah leader…. The presence of the group has spelt nothing but disaster for Lebanon. It has distanced this culturally rich and politically important Arab country from the wider Arab world. Despite decades of Gulf largesse that has helped Lebanon economically and politically, members of its government and other figures continue to make vile comments against GCC states and do everything possible to undermine Gulf security.”

Ksenia Svetlova, writing for Yedioth Ahronoth, argues that Lebanon’s political class and even some of Hezbollah’s political allies may have ‘grown tired’ of the organization’s iron grip on the country’s political and economic future: “First it was Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the son-in-law of Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, who attacked the Shia Islamist political party Hezbollah and said that there would be “political consequences” for its actions against his party as it continues blocking the Cabinet from the meeting. Then Aoun made a similar statement, saying that “unjustified, deliberate and systematic blockage which dismantles the state and drives it to its demise must be ended.” The Cabinet has not met since October…. Experts are questioning whether the leaders of FPM are truly reconsidering their ties with Hezbollah so close to the upcoming 2022 parliamentary elections, and what such recent statements say about the growing resentment against Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

But Hezbollah is not the only one to be accused of contributing to the worsening of the economic crisis in Lebanon. The US Caesar Act has been seen by many as being a direct contributor to the fuel shortages, which is why, as this report by Karine Keuchkerian of Lebanon News notes, the US ambassador to Lebanon was keen to emphasize this week that the US would not invoke the Caesar Act and would allow the Lebanese government to conclude a number of energy deals with its neighbors: “Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati received U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea on Friday afternoon to discuss the Jordanian electricity deal in regards to the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act…. The Lebanese government wanted the assurance that, while pursuing the regional energy agreements, the United States won’t impose sanctions related to the Caesar Act and stop the process…. Ambassador Shea assured during the press conference that ‘there are no concerns about U.S sanctions legislation’, and that her government is helping and encouraging the regional deals to supply Lebanon with energy.”

Finally, there are those, like Asharq Alawsat’s Hazem Saghieh, who suggest that the underlying cause of Lebanon’s instability is the country’s inability to produce a viable alternative to the existing political class, as well as the perennial threat of war: “Among the many contradictions Lebanon is brimming with, the political, economic and cultural, one contradiction is deeper than the others, affecting them more than they affect it. It is the stance on war: Should we be embroiled in war or not?… [I]n the end, the problem is that the alternative for the Lebanese model has not yet been born simply because no alternative had been thought of it except being embroiled in war: Since the emergence of the Arab Kingdom in Damascus after the First World War, the formula hasn’t changed: Either chaos and a porous arena or a poisonous alliance like that which linked Hariri with Hezbollah and the Syrian security apparatus between 1989 and 2005…. We are also transforming from a contractual country into a tyrannical one that takes the vast majority of its people hostage in the slaughterhouse of war – impoverished, hungry and frightened hostages.”

  • 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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