Lebanon’s Political Impasse Worsens as the Biden Administration’s Stance Comes Under Criticism

  • 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.

Views from the Region


News of the failure of the latest talks between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, which took place on March 22, risks pushing Lebanon further into political and economic chaos. The Lebanese president, with the backing of Hezbollah’s secretary-general, has been pushing Mr. Hariri to form a new technocratic government or to step aside, rather than call for new elections, which many of Lebanon’s political parties have been demanding. This latest development comes as the country’s economic situation has become untenable and a newly emboldened Hezbollah has staked out positions increasingly at odds with those of Western donors. Some observers worry that part of the responsibility for Hezbollah’s intransigence lies with the policies of the new US administration, which are regarded with suspicion in the region.

Even as the political standstill worsens, Lebanon’s rapid economic decline and instability, according to the Lebanese independent media outlet Naharnet, is driving almost half of the country’s population under the poverty level and is resulting in “shops closing, companies going bankrupt and pharmacies with shelves emptying — in Lebanon these days, fistfights erupt in supermarkets as shoppers scramble to get to subsidized powdered milk, rice and cooking oil…. The Lebanese pound has lost more than 25% in value over the past weeks alone. Inflation and prices of basic goods have skyrocketed in a country that imports more than 80% of its basic goods. Purchasing power of salaries has dramatically declined and savings have evaporated — all on top of the coronavirus pandemic and a massive explosion last August at Beirut’s port that damaged parts of the capital.”

In Lebanon’s densely populated cities, the situation has become even more untenable.  As Gulf News’ Ayad Nahas notes, the economic crisis has driven much of the investment flows into the real-estate market, thus leading to a rapid rise in housing costs: “Real estate has become a haven of sorts in Lebanon amid the dire economic crisis, with a number of investors having shifted their funds to the sector. Fear of a “haircut” on bank deposits [and] the official devaluation of the Lebanese pound, reinforced by the introduction of informal capital controls, is what drove residents into property to safeguard their life…. While the residential market is witnessing renewed interest after years of prolonged sluggishness, commercial property is stuck in a downturn in the context of weak economic activity exacerbated by the pandemic…. The country still waits on the resumption of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, as it is the only way out of the crisis. While more delays are bad news for Lebanon, this is certainly good for those developers who may still have unsold stock.”

A UPI report by Dalal Saoud on the impact of the economic crisis on Lebanon’s military forces raises uncomfortable questions about whether the military will continue to try to maintain stability: “The Lebanese Army, which has been playing a critical role in maintaining stability since the country’s worst crisis broke out 18 months ago, is facing the growing challenge of surviving a rapidly deteriorating economy, resisting political pressures, containing looming security chaos and avoiding collapse…. Budget cuts that forced the army to remove meat from its meals, reduce benefits, and see forces being overstretched trying to ease tension and face angry protesters have pushed members to the edge…. Most alarming is that the Lebanese Armed Forces might not be able to pay salaries by June amid reports that soldiers are requesting leaves of absence, while senior commanders are considering an early end of their services.”

As a result, conditions in the country are such that many observers are no longer asking whether Lebanon will “fall, but rather ‘when’.” That is the assertion made by Itzhak Levanon, Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt, in a recent op-ed for The Jerusalem Post. He no longer sees “the collapse of the Lebanese state [as] a presumption anymore. It is a question of time, unless drastic steps will be taken…. The Taif Agreement in 1989 put an end to the civil war, adopted steps to make the army more united, coherent and the guarantor to stability. Today, the army does not fear the specter of fragmentation. Today, the danger is poverty. The soldiers are not receiving their salaries, for lack of currency. This danger might lead to the disintegration of the military institution from within. Corruption, political stalemate, foreign interference – these are the main causes of Lebanon’s maladies…. In the face of this grim picture, the American administration should again bring Israelis and Lebanese to the negotiation table and strike a deal on the maritime borders, parallel to convening an international conference. Israel should stand strongly behind the US.”

Unsurprisingly, given the despair in Lebanese society and the chaos in its economic and political spheres, there is no shortage of finger-pointing about who bears responsibility for driving the country to the brink. Nadim Shehadi, writing for Arab News, suggests that “two parallel narratives prevail: One is about the country being a failed state and the other is about a state that has been battered until it failed…. Both narratives claim to be part of the same revolution, both want to implement the Taif Agreement, albeit different parts of it, and both have similar slogans, but with different meanings and emphasis. The followers of the failed state narrative accuse those behind the battered state narrative of using Hezbollah as a scapegoat, blaming it for all the country’s problems and as a cover-up for the corruption of the system. Meanwhile, the proponents of the battered state narrative accuse the backers of the failed state narrative of self-flagellating and using this argument to cover up the crimes of Hezbollah. This could, of course, be resolved in the next election — if the country is not again blocked from holding them.”

With Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in a recent speech resisting calls for the creation of a non-technocratic government and evoking the specter of civil war, some Lebanese politicians have made it clear who they think may be responsible for the current situation. According to a report by the Lebanese independent and nonprofit media outlet The961, “In a televised speech, the President of the Kataeb Party and resigned MP Samy Gemayel had some choice words in response to Hezbollah‘s secretary-general. On Thursday evening, Hassan Nasrallah went on TV for a speech during which he warned against the people’s protests that he deems being incited by some internal and external parties to provoke violence and civil war…. In his heated speech, Nasrallah mentioned the ‘civil war’ around 10 times, Gemayel said in his not-less-heated response. ‘What is this talk of civil war?’ retorted Gemayel, addressing Hezbollah‘s leader. ‘There is no Lebanese person who wants a civil war, only you. The Lebanese people don’t like wars, they love peace. Stop talking to us about civil war!’’’

The bravado of Nasrallah is for some the latest sign that Hezbollah and its Iranian backers sense a sea change coming from Washington. That is the conclusion drawn, for example, by Asharq Alawsat’s Eyad Abu Shakra: “The recent speech of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, the de facto ruler of Lebanon, leaves no doubt about the real balance of power in a country that one can no longer deny is occupied. The speech was a collection of orders, prohibitions, accusations of ‘treason,’ and directives addressed not only to all state officials, including the President, Speaker, Prime Minister, Army Commander, and Central Bank Governor; but also, to the protesters taking to the streets and blocking roads, against whom Nasrallah threatened to take action…. Surely, a significant change has taken place in the time between Macron’s proposal and Nasrallah’s clear rejection thereof: Donald Trump left the White House, and a Democratic administration with a friendlier approach towards Europe and a less rigid attitude towards Iran was ushered in.”

That view is further expanded upon by Raghida Dergham, the founder and executive chair of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National, who argues that the disengagement by the Biden White House from Lebanon has cleared a path for Iran and its Lebanese proxies to exert almost unchecked influence: “The vacuum left by the Biden administration in Syria and Lebanon, as the two countries slip down the US list of priorities, is undermining regional stability as well as US interests there. After a decade of conflict, Syria’s situation is a mess. Lebanon, meanwhile, has become a failed state, controlled in part by Iranian-backed proxy Hezbollah and in part by a corrupt political class that has escaped any kind of international accountability or even scrutiny…. The Biden administration’s lack of interest in Lebanon – in sharp contrast to that of the previous Trump administration – has only helped Iran increase its grip over Lebanon at a time when economic collapse is imminent…. Amid all this uncertainty, one thing is clear: Iran and Hezbollah are in the driver’s seat, getting ever closer to dictating the identity and future of Lebanon.”

However, in an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, retired IDF major-general Eitan Dangot worries that US disengagement from Lebanon may have a detrimental impact on the interests of the US and its allies in the region, cause further instability, and ultimately even sink US efforts to bring under control Iran’s nuclear program: “To understand the new complex Middle Eastern puzzle, it is first necessary to recognize the fact that the Biden administrations is dealing with Iran on two fronts. The first is Tehran’s radical activities and support for armed movements that stretch from Yemen through to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as part of a grand strategic attempt to change realities in the region. The second is Iran’s nuclear program. Every attempt by the US to solve one of these fronts without linking it to the other is doomed to fail…. Ultimately, Washington should view the spread of the Shi’ite axis, its weapons proliferation, and proxy consolidation program, as being inseparable from the nuclear deal.”

  • 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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