‘A Playground for Regional Division’: Interference Threatens Transformation in Lebanon

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Testifying before the United States House Foreign Affairs Committee in mid-November, former UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman encouraged the USA to increase its role in shaping Lebanon’s increasingly chaotic political climate.

Feltman argued ‘Lebanon is a venue for global strategic competition. Others will happily fill the vacuum if we cede ground….as frustrating, needy and complicated as Lebanon can be, we need to play the long game and not allow Iran, Syria, China or Russia to exploit our absence.’

 

Despite a muted response from international media, Mr Feltman’s statements met with an almost immediate response in Beirut. Some among Lebanon’s protesting masses welcomed Mr Feltman’s intervention as a long awaited statement of solidarity from an international supporter, others surrounded the US Embassy in the district of Awkar to burn images of Feltman and President Donald Trump, incensed at what they saw as a cynical strategy to mobilise popular energies to marginalise America’s regional adversaries.

Yet many more argued that Feltman’s statements were simply inappropriate. For months, Lebanon’s protest movement has derived its strength from harnessing the energy of an unprecedently unified nation, rejecting the tired politics of sectarianism and the chess game of international proxy conflict and demanding a national future forged by the people themselves.

For months, Lebanon’s protest movement has derived its strength from harnessing the energy of an unprecedently unified nation, rejecting the tired politics of sectarianism and the chess game of international proxy conflict and demanding a national future forged by the people themselves.

As Tamirace Fakhoury, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut notes ‘an argument that many voiced is that the protest is something that transcends regional geopolitics…it is about the dignity of Lebanese citizens and their attempts to improve their economy and political system’.

Yet as long term observers of Lebanon know all too well, the country’s fractious politics are rarely contained within the borders of the nation. As protests enter their 8th week, international rivals have increasingly seized on popular unrest and an economic and political crisis to advance their own agendas in Lebanon. They risk turning an opportunity for much needed transformation in Lebanon into a far more dangerous international affair.

They risk turning an opportunity for much needed transformation in Lebanon into a far more dangerous international affair.

By late October, Lebanon’s protesters had secured one of their primary objectives, the resignation of unpopular Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and his cabinet. Mr Hariri had already shelved plans to place a tax on internet phone calls using the popular messaging service WhatsApp and proposed to cut politician’s salaries and create a more comprehensive set of anti-corruption commissions to replace toothless bodies which have turned a blind eye to the kleptocratic practices of the country’s financial and political elite.

Yet despite superficial transformations, protesters argue that only a complete rout of the country’s ruling class and its sectarian based political system will eliminate corruption and mismanagement once and for all.

Since Mr Hariri’s resignation, his government has limped on in a caretaker capacity. Discussions on the formation of a new government have faltered as protestors remain dissatisfied at the ability of those implicated in the political system to oversee a clean break form the past.

Though elements of the protest movement call for the replacement of elected officials with a ‘technocratic government’, others bristle at this suggestion, arguing that it will undermine the nation’s democratic institutions and lack popular accountability. This political stalemate is no closer to a solution than it was after Mr Hariri’s resignation. Many believe it will take several months to form a new government, as was the case in forming the country’s last government.

Though elements of the protest movement call for the replacement of elected officials with a ‘technocratic government’, others bristle at this suggestion, arguing that it will undermine the nation’s democratic institutions and lack popular accountability. This political stalemate is no closer to a solution than it was after Mr Hariri’s resignation.

As political statis cements itself, Lebanon finds itself in an ever-worsening economic situation. Lebanon’s economic malaise has been a long time in the making. A number of shifts in the regional and international economic climate have hit the country particularly hard. Its economic stability depends on a number of unreliable income sources.

Lebanese workers in the Gulf contribute up to one fifth of the country’s GDP, yet remittances and foreign direct investment from the Gulf have dried up due to the global financial downturn and drops in oil prices. Though Lebanon boasts a highly strategic Mediterranean coastline and a range of successful domestic industries, foreign investment has dried up in recent years due to a perception of increasing political instability. Lebanon’s ailing economy has been particularly strained by the Syrian refugee crisis, which has seen more than 1 million refugees cross into the country from its larger neighbour.

Beirut, Lebanon, Nov 28, 2019- Protesters, wearing masks of Lebanon’s Central Bank governor Riad Salameh, demonstrate amid the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. Karim Naamani / Shutterstock

Despite numerous international pledges of support to prop up the Lebanese economy, little direct financial aid has materialised- at an international donors conference in Paris last year, pledges of $11 billion in soft loans were made, yet not a cent has been released. In this situation the Lebanese government has had to turn to new ways to cut spending and raise revenue. Government responses in Lebanon to this economic situation, concerned as they are to not affect the financial empires of regime loyalists and sectarian elites, have tended to disproportionately place the burden on the disenfranchised and precarious middle class and working population of the country.

Desperate borrowing and failed repayments have seen Lebanon’s credit rating drop to the same level as Gabon, Zambia and Iraq. Lebanon finds itself in a double bind- the acute economic crisis will make it more difficult to form a strong and responsible government, but without such a government, the crisis will only deteriorate further.

Desperate borrowing and failed repayments have seen Lebanon’s credit rating drop to the same level as Gabon, Zambia and Iraq. Lebanon finds itself in a double bind- the acute economic crisis will make it more difficult to form a strong and responsible government, but without such a government, the crisis will only deteriorate further.

Months of political turmoil are increasingly being felt by the country’s dissatisfying citizenry. Banks have intermittently shut their doors since October to protect employees from angry customers demanding their dollars and the country faces an acute shortage of currency. This shortage has in turn lead to greater inflationary pressure on the costs of food and goods. Meanwhile proposed reforms and the hardship of a regime of financial austerity have done little to dent the country’s rife economic inequality- the top 1% of the population earn nearly one quarter of GDP and Lebanon finds itself among the most unequal societies in the Middle, itself one of the world’s most unequal regions.

The depth of Lebanon’s political and economic crisis makes it a tempting sphere for regional and international rivals to consolidate their own interests. Tamirace Fakhoury notes that since the onset of civil war in Syria in 2011, Lebanon has increasingly ‘turned into a playground for regional divisions’.

As Ms Fakhoury argues, ‘as Syria’s war turned into a broader regional conflict where Iran and Saudi Arabia were vying for hegemony, Lebanese parties who support different external patrons got entangled in this dynamic’. Though the Syrian war provided a particular catalyst for foreign involvement, foreign involvement in Lebanese affairs has been a long-term element of the country’s political life- Ms Fakhoury astutely observes, ‘Lebanon’s history shows that external players have sought to capitalise on Lebanon’s domestic politics to pursue their geostrategic interests’.

The nature and incentives of foreign influence in Lebanon is often opaque, yet public statements by international and regional powers may provide some insights. In the case of the United States and its allies, as Mr Feltman and a range of other American foreign policy makers have made clear, the primary geostrategic aim in Lebanon involves marginalising and reducing the influence of Hezbollah, the Shi’a political party classed as a terrorist group in much of the Western world. By attacking the governing coalition, of which Hezbollah is a part, and calling for the construction of a technocratic government, many of the demands of protesters align with those of the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Tamirace Fakhoury notes that since the onset of civil war in Syria in 2011, Lebanon has increasingly ‘turned into a playground for regional divisions’.

Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah accuses the United States of further inflaming tensions to achieve this aim and cites America’s reluctance to release long awaited military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces as evidence of this. Whether or not America is engaging in cynical proxy competition in Lebanon matters less than the perception that this is the case.

Perceptions of attempts to weaken Hezbollah’s authority in Lebanon may encourage Iran to double down on its support for its protégé and close ally. Indirectly, as Mr Feltman acknowledges, America fears that ceding its position in Lebanon may bring new international players into the arena.

China has offered substantial infrastructural deals to the Lebanese government, offering to build a conservatory in Dbayeh, and a railway to connect Beirut, Tripoli, Aleppo and Damascus. Russia has long hoped to consolidate its Mediterranean presence by entering into arrangements to operate and make use of Lebanon’s seaports in exchange for assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces.

China has offered substantial infrastructural deals to the Lebanese government, offering to build a conservatory in Dbayeh, and a railway to connect Beirut, Tripoli, Aleppo and Damascus. Russia has long hoped to consolidate its Mediterranean presence by entering into arrangements to operate and make use of Lebanon’s seaports in exchange for assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces

Threats to the interests of regional and international actors in Lebanon may lead to more overt displays of force and influence. Fearing increasing accommodation with Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia is alleged to have kidnapped and forced the resignation of Mr Hariri in November 2017, whilst Iran has increasingly funnelled military resources to its regional proxies, including Hezbollah, in response to America’s maximum pressure sanctions campaign in place since late 2018. Rash international strategy may deepen Lebanon’s already acute crisis.

Lebanon’s protests have derived their strength from national unity, a rejection of outside interference, and an increasing hostility to the confected and self-defeating politics of sectarianism. Yet as chaos increases, so too grows the temptation of interference for powers who do not have the interests of the Lebanese people at heart. Lebanon’s protest movement must avoid this situation at all costs. Not doing so may put the country’s much needed transformation at risk and may lead in catastrophic yet all too familiar directions. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.

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