Lebanon: New Crisis, Old Wounds

James Denselow
James Denselow

The attention that the dramatic scenes from Kabul has garnered over the past few weeks has been all encompassing and inescapable. It’s drama and high stakes have made it a human story that people who perhaps knew little of the country and the conflict found themselves rivetted to. Yet whilst Afghanistan had an urgency that drew focus in the manner an intense burning fire does, the continuing descent of Lebanon into the mire is harder to chronicle but perhaps even more serious for its populace.

A Lebanese commentator tweeted recently that “our lives have been reduced to: Electricity. Benzene. Mazout. Medicine. Bottled Water. Don’t get food poisoning”. News about the countries collapse is manifest in warnings from intensive care units about running out of power, or from the UN about the end of clean drinking water for millions in the country. Last week, the price of fuel in Lebanon rose for the second time in less than two months. The government lifted subsidies for gasoline and diesel in an effort to ease shortages, which led to a nearly 66 percent spike in prices since the last hike in late June.

The latest episode of the country’s gridlocked politics means that it is hard for the protestors who’ve emerged at points during the crisis, to know where to focus their energy. Reports of increasing numbers of Syrian refugees returning home due to the desperate nature of the situation are emerging. Meanwhile some Lebanese are forced to move into Palestinian refugee camps to keep rooves over their heads.

One aspect that has not been looked at in much detail is whether the economic strains of the country’s dysfunctional politics will pressurise the sectarian and associated fault lines that defined the country’s civil war of 1975-1990. The all-encompassing challenge to the state was seemingly an issue beyond the country’s traditional politics but there are some signs that the new crisis has the potential to expose all wounds. A dispute over scarce fuel supplies, for instance, ignited sectarian tensions between neighbouring Shi’ite Muslim and Christian villages in southern Lebanon over the weekend, forcing the army to intervene, a security source told Reuters.

Hezbollah has been celebrating the assistance of Iran in sending multiple deliveries of fuel to support the allying Lebanese energy sector, whilst simultaneously bemoaning the US sanctions on the country has contributing to the crisis. It is unclear if the fuel that Iran is providing is making much of a dent in the context of the crisis or if it is being delivered to its allies as opposed to ‘all’ Lebanese, an issue that could widen old cleavages. Indeed, earlier in August in the southern Lebanon district of Hasbaya, Druze villagers stopped a truck carrying a multiple rocket launcher used by Hezbollah in Friday attacks against Israel, in a move reflecting increased opposition within Lebanon to Hezbollah’s military activities against the Jewish state.

An OpEd in an Indian paper argued this month that Lebanon has to ‘set aside’ its sectarian politics in order to break this political-economic logjam that is seeing the country haemorrhage across all facets of state and society. Others have compared the political leadership and the maintenance of the ‘national pact’ allocation of patronage and political power, as playing ‘chicken’ with the international community and its institutions. The logic is that it is not in their interests to see Lebanon collapse in its entirety and so they will blink first and restore financial pipelines to the country. That a country’s leadership can even make such a bet is a testament to their priorities, but they may be fundamentally misreading the mood of the world’s powers who are beleaguered from the Covid response and as the Afghanistan story has shown, more likely to withdraw involvement from parts of the world than increase it.

If the Lebanese political leadership cannot demonstrate any discernible plan ahead then cracks between different elements of it and violence and events at a local level may of course take a momentum of its own. It is often said that collapse can happen very slowly and then all at once, it is not unimaginable to see Lebanon dominate the media headlines of coming months in ways that Afghanistan dominated August unless a change of direction can quickly be found. levant

by: James Denselow levant

James Denselow,