by Nora Schorscher and Viktoria Holler
Between the atrocities of the Syrian Civil War and the military-focused regime of Israel, Lebanon is a country of contrasts – a state with a troubled past and an uncertain future. Once described as the Paris of the Middle East, it has endured grueling civil war, long-term Syrian occupation and a continuous influx of refugees, all of which have taken their toll on this once great and prosperous nation. The Lebanon of today is a country deeply divided along religious, cultural and ethnic lines, unable to form a stable government and fighting a losing battle to protect its democratic structures against the chaos that has taken hold of the Middle East.
“July 2006. Looking out of my airplanewindow, I couldn’t quite control my excitement. Lebanon…finally! Time to visit my best friend and to experience this beautiful country I had heard so much about. Little did excited 18-year-old-me know that my journey would lead me straight into a war zone and force me to flee the country by bus only ten days after my arrival.On my first day, whilst I was flirting my way to a free teddy bear in Beirut’s biggest amusement park, Hezbollah launched an ambush against Israeli border forces and abducted two soldiers. Israel’s response was swift and brutal – only 24 hours after I had landed at Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport, that same airport [ceased] to exist. Lebanon found itself in the midst of war.”
This anecdote provides only a snippet of the problems that Lebanon has been facing in recent years. Against the backdrop of war and destruction, the country has been languishing under numerous threats to its internal security. As a country with a population of not even 4 million, Lebanon has been supporting a Palestinian refugee population of 460,000 for decades. These staggering numbers have been dwarfed by the recent influx of Syrian refugees, which according to the Spectator, now amounts to around 1.2 million, gathering in the north of the country. It is no wonder then that the nation is struggling against domestic disorganization when nearly half of its population holds refugee status, rendering them unable to work or even partake in social life. The Palestinian refugees, despite having lived in Lebanon for decades, are still stranded in tented encampments. On the one hand, they do not want to give up their right of return; on the other, the government opposes any real effort toward integration.
Lebanon’s internal division is even more multifaceted, however. The country is populated by a near even percentage of Christians, Shia and Sunnis and speckled with minorities, such as Druze and Coptics. This division is so prominent that it has spilled over into their political system. The political system of “Libanification” reserves the three highest posts in the country for a Christian, a Shia and a Sunni Muslim, respectively. It is therefore no surprise that, according to the Economist, the country had been without a president already 546 days in December 2015, because the necessary 2/3 majority could not be reached.
This fragmentation of political forces has extended to a societal level. Hezbollah, a Shia militant group which has intervened in political affairs, essentially holds control of the south. The center of the country around Beirut is the liberal stronghold of the Christian community, with beaches full of minimally dressed girls and boys partying the night away. In contrast, the north is reigned by hardcore fundamentalists. The domestic situation reached a boiling point last year with the rubbish crisis. As BBC reported in August 2015, the crisis nearly led to the resignation of the Prime Minister but nevertheless remains only an echo of the deep-seated problems the country faces.
Nevertheless, Lebanon has managed to maintain its constitutional and democratic values in a region overrun by authoritarian regimes. It has continued to protect freedom of expression and unbiased media and has maintained friendly relations with the West. Many of the existing threats and weaknesses in the political system have the potential to become opportunities. The current political system of “Libanification” has led to a complete standstill of the country through its strict and deadlocked character. The basic concept of involving all subgroups of society in the executive system is, however, a forward-thinking, progressive approach, which through proper implementation could lead to goal-orientated and successful government. If politicians were to focus on this basic idea and rise above their personal and political discrepancies to work together for the survival of the country, “Libanification” has the potential for fair, just and effective representation.
Given the absence of a national defense strategy and the weakness of Lebanon’s army, militias like Hezbollah have often filled this vacuum and acted as national defence forces. Instead of surrendering government control, it has been suggested that Hezbollah be included in the decision-making process regarding issues of national defense. This might have benefits for both sides. It could increase the strength and presence of the Lebanese Army whilst improving control over other militia groups. For Hezbollah, on the other hand, it could increase their influence and legitimize some of their political goals.
Many of the other currently destabilizing factors are external to Lebanon and not within the country’s control. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has destabilized the region as has the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which have had a major influence on Lebanon’s domestic and foreign affairs. These issues have been pushed to the background in the wake of the current devastation in Syria, which has had effects worldwide but especially in the Middle East. The refugee crisis in Europe might actually be helpful, in this respect, as it has finally drawn attention to a country far overstretched and a region that has long been unable to cope.