North Africa, West Asia

Lebanon: a year which promises little but foreboding?

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The feeling of being hamstrung by international events both out of their control but with direct consequences, combined with domestic political stalemate and factionalism, is all too familiar. 

Helen Mackreath
16 January 2014

People stayed off the streets to welcome in the New Year in Lebanon, deterred by the car bomb in central downtown a few days earlier, or perhaps unwilling to celebrate the arrival of a year which promises little but foreboding. This time last year Lebanon’s involvement in the Syrian conflict was still being fiercely denied but, a year on, it is now widely accepted that most of the country has become immersed in the turmoil.

‘Most of the country’ still remains an inaccurate statement on a geographically fractured Lebanon. Lebanese Sunni militants now regularly engage in violent clashes with pro-Assad Shiite and Alawite rivals in geographical hotspots such as the southern city of Saida and the eastern Bekaa Valley, as well as the northern city of Tripoli, which has been perpetually unstable for the past two years.

The north and border regions of the country have collapsed into limbo areas of unrest as refugees, soldiers and arms regularly cross arbitrary borders and civilians fear attack from the air regardless of their nationality. The car bombs which devastated the southern suburbs of Beirut and Tripoli during the summer of last year, and the suicide bomb attack to target the Iranian embassy in November, were regarded by most as attacks specifically against Hezbollah, seen as a entity ‘separate’ from the state, in geographical and ideological terms. These attacks, widely believed to be perpetrated by Sunni radicals, were aimed at forcing Hezbollah to withdraw their support from Syrian President Bashar Assad, who they publicly confirmed they would assist last May. Whilst causing devastating loss of life, they were still seen by some as geographically isolated. 

But the assassination of anti-Assad minister Mohammad Shatah in the central Downtown district of Beirut on 27 December, widens the threat of violence to new actors, and has opened the possibility of hitherto relatively peripheral attacks becoming increasingly centralised. Before the assassination, central Beirut, still rumbling with the noise of construction and the advertised promise of a bright future, had remained relatively isolated from direct violence. Now, even as it reels from that deadly warning, it continues its pretensions to normalcy, but is increasingly self-conscious doing so.

The view from an individual perspective in Lebanon, which will necessarily differ according to where one is living, is a foggy one, obscured by political stalemate, inflamed by sectarian competition and the impact of indirect international prevarication over Syria. The individual is, again, victim both to unfavourable geopolitical influences on the country and its own domestic complexities.

Domestically, political stalemate is entrenched. There is currently no middle ground between the effectively oligarchic system of politicians at the ‘top’ of the political chain, and the numbers of private individuals and groups, largely operating along sectarian agendas, taking violent action at the ‘bottom’ end of the chain; the Lebanese citizen is stuck between a rock and a hard place with little real democratic power.

While proposals for a new ‘all-embracing’ cabinet formation have been announced, which represent a slight weakening of the political paralysis, they are yet to gain the support of all ministers. The Sunni population remain the key group here. Essentially politically leaderless since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, private individuals, mostly fundamentalist leaders, have filled the political vacuum.

The mainstream Sunni community in Lebanon today has few unifying political options and the increasing numbers of Lebanese Sunni militants, coupled with continuing Hezbollah dominance over the state, economic fragility, and increasing resentment at the neutral Lebanese Army, continues to exacerbate tensions. That the car bomb attacks directed against Hezbollah -  the latest in Beirut’s suburbs on January 2 in response to the Shatah assassination - appear to have been the work of Sunni extremist groups has prompted analysts to voice concerns about their increasing strength, and potential for larger-scale militancy. With politics at the ‘state’ level effectively nonexistent, and Hezbollah (acting as another ‘state’ entity) distracted in Syria, there is currently little to stop nonstate groups taking free reign in Lebanon.

Geopolitically, while Lebanon continues to host direct proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran (through the Sunni community and Hezbollah) and, indirectly, the US and Russia in Syria, there are signs that the west may be losing patience over its inability to take a domestic political rapprochement seriously. According to reports, the Belgian foreign minister, Didier Reyners, has warned Lebanon that international interest in the country was declining, a stance which poses particular questions over the numbers of UNIFIL international troops currently stationed in the country.

As if to make up for political interference, the international community is attempting to exert itself in other ways by wrapping its legal and humanitarian arms around the country. But many in Lebanon remain unconvinced. People may respect the intentions of the trial of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague to try four Hezbollah men, accused of perpetrating the Hariri assassination in 2005, due to start this week. But they are cynical about the actuality of the perpetrators being convicted and appropriately punished.

Decades of unsolved kidnapping and murder during the civil war, alongside later political assassinations never brought to court, have given the Lebanese little faith in legal practice. Similar cynicism pervades the international humanitarian response to the refugee crisis which, while supportive of providing financial assistance to refugees in Lebanon, has not extended to opening doors to those fleeing the Syrian implosion. 64,000 refugees have sought asylum in Europe (2.4 per cent of the exodus), mostly in Germany and Sweden. To date, five hundred have been accepted in France, 10 in Hungary, 90 in Ireland, and none in the UK. The burden of providing assistance is a heavy one for Lebanon, where Syrian refugees represent roughly a quarter of the population. Here, they can deservedly feel let down by the international community’s response.

The feeling of being hamstrung by international events both out of their control but with direct consequences, combined with domestic political stalemate and factionalism, is all too familiar. Sitting tight and hoping that one, or both, of these levels will firstly prioritise Lebanese cohesion and secondly inspire it, remains top of the New Year wish list for most people in Lebanon.

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