Main Image Credit Grievances flare: relatives of individuals detained during violent clashes the year before protest in Beirut in October 2022. Image: dpa / Alamy
Lebanon ended 2022 in a position which most followers of the region will have become accustomed to – on the brink of collapse following a pattern of hurtling from crisis to crisis. This position is underpinned by systemic economic failure, political gridlock and a long-lasting humanitarian crisis. As 2023 begins, will Lebanon continue on a trajectory towards ultimate collapse and state failure, or is there a way out?
A rare piece of positive news for Lebanon came towards the end of 2022 with the conclusion of a maritime agreement with Israel. The deal itself refers to Line 23, which gives Israel full control of the Karish Field and Lebanon control of the Qana Field, although with the provision that French energy company Total will take 17% of all revenues from the latter, and that Total must also make separate financial arrangements with Israel. Through this, Israel retains a mechanism to receive revenue from the Qana Field, depending on the terms of its arrangement with Total. There is much to be hoped for, aside from the immediate de-escalation of potential conflict between Lebanon and Israel, as revenue from the Qana Field could constitute a significant source of income for the Lebanese exchequer. In addition to this, the agreement illustrates that Lebanese politicians are capable of enacting legislation, in this case even with the agreement of Hezbollah as well as with the involvement of large international companies. Despite these causes for optimism, the agreement is by no means a quick fix for Lebanon, as drilling in the Qana Field – if gas is found – is unlikely to generate revenue for at least five years.
The immediate catalyst for signing the deal was the deadline of former President Michel Aoun’s departure and the future absence of executive power to sign such an agreement. Ultimately, an agreement was possible as the interests of both the Lebanese side and the Israeli side were met. Israel avoided a conflict which, although it is the stronger power, would have resulted in rockets being fired over its northern border, citizens being driven into shelters and infrastructure damage. Hezbollah similarly had no choice but to avoid such a conflict, which – despite its posturing – would be a military and economic disaster due to Israel’s considerable military technology and equipment superiority, as experienced in 2006.
The Lebanese government is unlikely to benefit economically from the agreement for some time and, even then, it is at the whim of the Israeli government and Total to decide on their share of revenue. The immediate effect of the agreement, if not economic, is therefore a de-escalation of tensions between Hezbollah, which has a strong presence in Southern Lebanon, and Israel. The agreement was hailed by Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, as a historic victory for Lebanon, although he dismissed claims that the agreement in any way constituted a normalisation of relations between Lebanon and Israel. In reality, Nasrallah’s proclaimed victory simply provides a mechanism for Hezbollah to avoid a crippling conflict with Israel while still retaining its ideological stance. Indeed, Hezbollah has since continued its anti-Israeli rhetoric, as illustrated by its New Year video depicting a fictitious production of Hezbollah fighters invading Northern Israel.
Politically, Lebanon is in a position of complete deadlock, with the most recent presidential election in parliament on 19 January failing to produce a successor to Michel Aoun for the 11th time since his resignation on 31 October 2022. This most recent election produced a frontrunner in MP Michel Mouawad, who obtained 34 votes; however, the fact that 37 MPs returned blank votes suggests that the parliamentary power blocs are still some way off agreement. Ex-President Michel Aoun’s resignation was marked by further controversy as he also announced the resignation of the current caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati. The prime minister rejected this decision and was forced to ask MPs to stay in his role. Aoun’s ally, who is also his son-in-law and the current leader of the Free Patriotic Movement Party, Gebran Bassil, supported him by suggesting that the cabinet must not assume the powers of the president in the absence of an elected leader. This is emblematic of the catastrophic stasis that has seized Lebanese political life as the country falls apart and reform is demanded by its citizens.
The World Bank estimates that Lebanon’s plight ranks in the top 10 – and possibly the top three – most severe crises globally since the mid-19th century
The gridlock is further deepened by Hezbollah, which holds little interest in genuine political reform as the current status quo suits it perfectly. Not only does it generate huge amounts of revenue from corruption in Lebanese political institutions, but its parliamentary power bloc could hold the Lebanese executive to ransom whenever it is in the group’s interest. Hezbollah lost a considerable amount of legislative power in the 2022 elections, with its share of MPs – together with that of allied parties (particularly the Free Patriotic Movement) – falling from 71 to 58. As the amount needed for a majority is 65, this provides a serious chance for progressive Lebanese politicians to build an anti-Hezbollah bloc among reformist and independent MPs and force through much-needed reform.
Despite this, Lebanese politicians are notorious for missing such opportunities. Moments of significant political will following the expulsion of the Syrian army, the assassination of Rafic Hariri and the deadly 2020 Beirut port explosion led to demonstrations, with many hoping that they would prove the catalyst for systemic reform in Lebanon – only to be ultimately disappointed.
The desperate state of the Lebanese economy cannot be overstated: since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2019, the Lebanese currency has lost over 95% of its value, Lebanon’s GDP has contracted by around 50%, scheduled and unscheduled power cuts routinely disrupt all regions of the country, and over 80% of the population has been pushed into poverty. The World Bank estimates that Lebanon’s plight ranks in the top 10 – and possibly the top three – most severe crises globally since the mid-19th century. This has, of course, been exacerbated by international fuel shortages and price hikes since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The humanitarian crisis in Lebanon is also severe: the WHO, for instance, reported towards the end of 2022 that Lebanon is experiencing its first cholera outbreak in nearly 30 years, with more than 5,912 suspected cases from nearly all governorates of the country. The Lebanese Ministry of Public Health has so far reported 671 confirmed cases and 23 deaths. Due to power cuts and lack of infrastructure development, those in poverty in Lebanon are regularly forced to use unclean water for cooking, washing and drinking. This outbreak reflects the terminal state of government infrastructure across much of the country.
Lebanon’s most recent crisis flared when a UN peacekeeping detachment came under fire in the Southern Lebanese village of Al-Aqbieh on 14 December 2022 after taking a detour en route to Beirut. This culminated in the death of Private Sean Rooney, the first Irish soldier to die in the line of fire since 1999, when Private Billy Kedian was also killed in Lebanon. Ireland has made extraordinary contributions in the name of establishing lasting peace in Lebanon, with over 300,000 tours of duty, but surely the Taoiseach must begin to ask what contributions Lebanon’s own politicians and decision-makers are making towards establishing a secure and prosperous country.
If the international community wants to effect real change in Lebanon, a concerted and united effort must be made to put clear pressure on the Lebanese political elite
The peacekeeping mission has recently been visited by a medley of UN representatives, Lebanese politicians and foreign ministers who all seem unwilling or unable to address the difficult reality that the mission has become incrementally more difficult – as well as dangerous – for the soldiers involved, as Lebanese politicians remain in gridlock. This danger emanates from the radicalisation of some of the poorest communities in Lebanon. In November 2022, for instance, the BBC reported that over 100 young men in Lebanon’s second-largest city, Tripoli, had fled their homes and families to join Islamic State due to poverty and lack of opportunities. This complex situation is partly the outcome of increasing pressure on Hezbollah as it loses both political support and the financial power to effect change, while localised militia groups grow in power and autonomy.
There are clear incentives for the international community to support the Lebanese state: it is a critical part of regional security, it harbours refugees that many countries simply cannot deal with, and it has great potential as a trading partner. If the international community wants to effect real change in Lebanon, a concerted and united effort must be made to put clear pressure on the Lebanese political elite. This has been intermittently led by President Emmanuel Macron of France due to Lebanon’s francophone heritage, but could also be driven by countries such as the UK, which can in turn convene major stakeholders such as the US, France and Saudi Arabia. There is reason to be optimistic that Lebanese politicians, with the right pressure, can decisively step back from the brink. If they do not, the international community must brace for Lebanon’s eventual transition from a failing state to a collapsed state.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.
Research Analyst and Course Lead