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A Fragile Spring? Lebanon Here and Now

18 Dec 2017
By Dr Vanessa Newby
Lebanon has been on the rise in 2017

Despite the pressures from Syrian refugees and a briefly missing prime minister, Lebanon has gone from strength to strength in 2017. But will it continue in the coming year?

Staring out of the taxi window at midnight on the highway that passes over downtown Beirut a few nights ago, it was easy to feel that the Lebanon I know is gone. Like crocuses in early spring, clusters of new developments are popping up all over this once fractured city. Completed new buildings sparkle with Christmas lights, somewhat smugly announcing their newness. Even the cranes and half-finished buildings have been lit up for the Christmas season. The image is one of change, growth and development. At night, it’s easy to miss interruptions to this impression: burned out, shot-up buildings, lying dark and gloomy, glowering on the fringes of urban centres, stark reminders of past pain.

After yet another year of living here, I have realised that trying to predict the future of Lebanon is as hard as trying to predict when it will rain in England. It feels like a page has been turned, but it’s all so fragile.  There are just too many external variables that could throw Lebanon off course and back into chaos.

The rise and rise of Hizbullah’s power in Lebanon appears at this point to be unstoppable. However, for a long time Hizbullah has insisted it is working for all Lebanese and not just its key support base, the Shi’a. Maintaining peace and security has been a major priority for the organisation to ensure the effects of its involvement in the Syrian war are not felt by the Lebanese.

But this is not the only reason peace prevails currently. Cooperation by multiple Lebanese security agencies has contributed to the current calm. In addition, the compromises made by political leaders on all sides has helped stabilise the country. The most notable result being the appointment of President Michel Aoun in 2016. The country once again has a head of state, after a 29-month vacuum.

In 2017, Lebanon has not been victim to the terror attacks that usually come in the form of random car bombings in public spaces. This in turn has triggered a welcome 14 per cent rise in tourism, including visitors from the Gulf who had stayed away since 2012.

Other guests are perhaps less welcome. The pressure on the Lebanese economy and society from Syrian refugees has not eased this year. On the ground, the Lebanese have shown far more tolerance for this increase in population than they are given credit for. But Lebanon has always been a state that has had a complicated relationship with the other. On the one hand, it has always welcomed foreigners and, at times, foreign intervention.  But its location has meant that it has often been on the receiving end of refugee waves from conflicts in which it has played no part. Lebanese fears that the delicate balance of sectarian tolerance and, indeed, the culture of Lebanon itself, is at risk, have not been assuaged.

This year, I have seen glimpses of hope that there is a strong desire for peace. The Hariri debacle, initiated by Saudi Arabia did not, as some had hoped, challenge Hizbullah and throw Lebanon back into chaos. The people wanted peace, and a complete absence of localised violence was a clear indication of that. In addition, political actors in Lebanon prioritised stability over the opportunity to use the event to rally their supporters.

In the coming year, the national legislative elections will be the next big step for Lebanon on its path to a semblance of normality in a troubled region. If the government can stay on track to hold the elections as promised in May 2018, the country will be bursting to the seams with expat Lebanese keen to have their say in who rules the country after what will have been a nine-year wait. In the Beirut municipal elections in 2016, a non-sectarian anti-corruption movement called ‘Beirut is my City’ surfaced and challenged the traditional political parties. It will be interesting to see if new movements arise at the national level, what form they might take, and the level of support they can muster.

But there remain serious threats to Lebanese security, all of which come from outside the state itself. The so-called decline of the Islamic State means only that those inclined to use violence in the name of religion to win power are now scattered far and wide. It does not mean the threat to Lebanon’s stability from these actors has been eradicated. If they are supported by regional players keen to take down Hizbullah at any cost, the effect of that power struggle will be felt.

Furthermore, Lebanese stability is deeply connected to the outcome of the Syrian War, and its aftermath. A great deal of the peace Lebanon feels currently may be the calm before a new storm. The other key state to consider, Lebanon’s only other neighbour to the south, is also an unknown factor. Israel has made no secret of its dissatisfaction with the rise of Hizbullah and its desire to finish it off once and for all. As I have noted elsewhere, Hizbullah’s need for legitimacy in Lebanon demands that it does not start another war with Israel which would be highly unpopular. But very likely all it would take for another war to start is a simple miscalculation by the party (as it is known) or by the Israelis; this time it would be much larger and more destructive than 2006. The brunt of this war would, in all certainty, be borne by the Lebanese.

Vanessa Newby is a visiting fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. Her current research focuses on peace-building and peacekeeping in the Middle East.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.