Current political-economic crisis in Lebanon could escalate into new conflict

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Earlier this month, Sa’ad Hariri quit as Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate after a meeting with President Michel Aoun. The former was designated in October 2020 to assemble a new government. Many people hoped that after 10 months of negotiations a compromise would be reached to form a new government. After all, it’s been almost a year since the previous Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned in the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion in August 2020 - which remains unexplained to this very day.

France has been trying to take the lead in the international pressure campaign to compel Lebanese authorities in Beirut to put their differences aside and to form a new government - much to no avail. Paris has imposed certain travel restrictions on some Lebanese politicians (accused of hindering the formation of a new Cabinet) and has even threatened Beirut with further sanctions. France seeks to increase its influence in the region to reach Syria, in a context when regional powers like Turkey and Iran compete for regional influence there.

However Aoun and Hariri could not come to terms regarding the composition of a future Cabinet. In Lebanese current political tradition there has been an unwritten rule according to which the Cabinet’s posts are filled along the lines of religious quotas. And so goes with Executive positions. Thus, the Premier is usually a Sunni Muslim, while the House Speaker is a Shia Muslim, and the President must be a Christian.

Hariri (a Sunni Muslim who has good relations with Turkey) complained that President Aoun (a Maronite Christian allied with Hezbollah) would not allow him to exercise his constitutional prerogative  to select the members of his Cabinet, while Aoun, in his turn, complained that he should be able to name some Christian ministers and then blocked Hariri’s list, accusing him of being inflexible.

No way was found out of this political deadlock, and so Lebanon does not have a fully empowered government today to take much needed measures regarding the national crisis. Meanwhile, donor countries claim Lebanon must form a government and fight corruption before it can receive bailout funds.

In fact, since the Beirut blast, Lebanon is going through an unprecedented crisis - it affects not only in the political sphere, but the economy also. Its GDP has already decreased 20% last year and it is estimated it will further decrease 9.5% this year. The Lebanese currency (the Lebanese pound) lost 90% of its value (in comparison with the US dollar) within less than 2 years. Prices are high and salaries have stagnated.

According to a report, Lebanese families are spending five times the minimum wage on food items alone as the country slips into hyperinflation. Over half the population now lives below the poverty line.

There is a lack of fuel for vehicles and this could put Lebanon’s semi-regulated public transport system to a sudden halt (it relies strongly on public ride-share vans). There have been gunfights between the military and heavily armed gangs of fuel smugglers. The situation is so bad people are queuing overnight and arguing and fighting over whose turn it is to fill up their tanks.

This fuel shortage could impact the Army too. Should it collapse, the consequences could be dramatic. In fact, both Paris and Washington aim to strengthen the Lebanese military and to weaken Hezbollah.

The Shia organizations paramilitary wing remains the strongest armed organization in the country and it is less affected by the crisis because it receives financial support from Iran. Plus, it is said to be the world’s most heavily armed “non-state actor”.

Thus, the US has been increasing its aid to the Lebanese army. Even so, many soldiers are having a hard time to feed their families and the armed forces risk collapsing.

On Tuesday, Israeli artillery shelled southern Lebanon after two rockets were fired from the country. This incident came hours after Israel carried out airstrikes near Aleppo in northern Syria. Israel has been targeting what it claims to be Iranian forces in Syria, and weapons shipments for Hezbollah - which Israel sees as an Iranian proxy.

By next year, President Aoun's six-year term is due to expire. And there is no guarantee elections could bring a way out of the political crisis for disagreements over cabinet formation could start all over again.

With the armed forces on the brink of collapse, an escalation of tensions and increasingly frequent border skirmishing with Israel, a situation arises that opens the way for Hezbollah, often described as “a state within a state”, to take over the country.

It has established a formidable alliance with sections of the Christian population, and its network provides diverse solutions, from access to groceries to medical services. Demographics favors the Shia group, even in the medium term, for the Muslim Shia population in Lebanon is growing at greater rates.

A Hezbollah “take over” however would escalate tensions with Israel and of course Turkey too, aims to counter the Shia organization. Such could ensue a conflict in a context where neighbouring Syria still struggles to fight rebel groups and other states jockey for increased influence.

We could see more proxy conflicts taking place in the Levant, with Lebanon, after Syria, becoming a new battleground for Sunni fundamentalist groups against Hezbollah - which played a major role in Syria fighting ISIS (Daesh). A war with Israel would be unlikely in the near future, but an escalation of tensions would be sure.

Thus, any new Cabinet must acknowledge the role of Hezbollah within Lebanon’s social tissue and accommodate it and then enact reforms to restore the solvency of its public finances. But this will not be an easy task.

Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.

READ MORE: Deputy FM Vlasis ends highly productive visit to the Greek Orthodox community in Lebanon.

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor