z middle east institute briefingu
Lebanon's moment of reckoning
Randa Slim, Senior Fellow, Director of Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues program
The political contestation has taken on an existential dimension.
Lebanon's stability is under more threat now than it has been at any point since the end of the civil war in 1990. The massive explosion at the Beirut port on Aug. 4 that killed hundreds, injured thousands, and caused material damage in the billions of dollars has not only scarred people physically and psychologically, it has also altered the frames of reference for the country's opposing political forces. The political contestation has taken on an existential dimension. To the parties calling for an overhaul of the oligarchy that has ruled Lebanon since the signing of the Taif Agreement in 1989, the political elites have not only impoverished them, they are now accusing them of criminal negligence for causing the explosion. To the pro-regime camp, led by Hezbollah, this contestation is about upending a political system that since 1989 has co-existed with, and even legitimized, Hezbollah's military arsenal. Overhaul is codeword for disarming Hezbollah, which they will resist at any cost, even if it means plunging the country once again into civil strife.
A repeat of the scenario of Syria in 2011-12 is being discussed in pro-Hezbollah circles - a non-violent protest movement calling for a regime overhaul whose agenda for freedom and dignity gets appropriated by regional actors, turning the country into a proxy theater for regional and international power competition. The internal conflict dynamics that existed in Syria in 2011-12 exist in Lebanon today: a civil, non-violent, albeit disorganized, opposition that sees the political elites as a threat to their physical survival is facing a system that has a military arsenal and is willing to fight for its survival. In the case of Lebanon, however, it is not the Lebanese state that has the military arsenal. It is Hezbollah.
The major difference between Syria in 2011-12 and Lebanon today that can serve as a deterrent to the scenario described above is that regional dynamics are less amenable to it. Countries on both sides of the regional divide are dealing with public health challenges, facing dire economic futures, and are not incentivized to invest in another conflict, having drawn hard lessons from citizen uprisings that have taken place since 2010. The international community is preoccupied with domestic challenges and is not interested in seeing another failed state on the Mediterranean. However, so far the international response has been disappointing. The aid conference co-convened last Sunday by France and the UN fell far short of Lebanese expectations. The pledges in the amount of $296.71 million made by participating countries were nowhere close to meeting reconstruction needs, and the final statement called for assistance for an "impartial, credible and independent inquiry on the explosion of August 4th... upon the request of Lebanon," thus conceding to the Lebanese president's rejection of an international investigation of the explosion.
Given the unequal power equation between the opposing camps, the protest movement cannot force the kind of transformative change it seeks. There is not a non-violent path to force the pro-regime camp to agree to this change. Moreover, none of the political and economic elites, including those opposed to Hezbollah, are interested in effecting this kind of transformative change.
Lebanon faces one of two scenarios: A muddle through scenario involving a negotiated process among the conflicting parties, resulting in stabilization of the political and economic conditions without a restructuring of the current rules of the game. The political and economic elites agree to some concessions, primarily in the economic arena along the lines demanded by the International Monetary Fund. In the political arena, they agree to a new technocratic government that will not be much different from the one that just resigned. They also agree to early elections, seeing in them another means to re-legitimize the status quo that favors them. None of these concessions will upend the status quo. The opposition camp plays the long game, pushing for economic reforms and focusing on getting a new election law passed that would increases opportunities, especially for independent civil society actors, to contest the political space more effectively than they have done to-date. This requires that the different opposition groups unite around a common leadership and platform. So far this has not happened and there is still infighting in their midst.
The second scenario involves a perpetuation of political and economic instability, with the opposing camps holding their ground, the country continuing its descent into political and economic disintegration, increased calls for different parts of the country to go their own way, large parts of Beirut remaining destroyed, an ineffective central government, a state that continues to be hollowed out, and emigration en masse of skilled Lebanese.
The only ray of light from last week's humanitarian disaster lies in the response of the Lebanese, rising to action and taking it upon themselves to come to each other's aid, clearing debris from their streets and providing food and shelter to the hundreds of thousands rendered homeless by the explosion. This collective action contrasts with that of the government, which was nowhere to be seen managing and coordinating the response to the disaster.