A Country in Crisis? Challenges Facing Lebanon’s New Government

On May 25, 2014, Michel Suleiman’s term as president of Lebanon came to an end. It wasn’t until October 31, 2016, after 46 rounds of voting and multiple backroom discussions between major Lebanese political parties, that parliament elected his successor, Michel Aoun. In the nearly two-and-a-half years it took Lebanon to choose its current president, the Syrian civil war drew Turkey, Iran, Russia, and the United States into its fold; the Islamic State took over large swaths of Iraq and Syria; and the Saudi-Iranian cold war intensified. Now, Michel Aoun’s government and his newly appointed prime minister, Saad Hariri, must find a way to navigate this influx of domestic and international challenges.

GOVERNMENT SERVICES

One of the biggest challenges facing the next government is municipal service provision. Reliable electricity generation, for example, has been a longstanding problem throughout the country. The current system does not have the capacity to power the country for a full 24 hours, and blackouts can last for most of the day in the countryside. While the country is currently able to provide electricity up to 18 hours a day, growing demand and declining infrastructure could reduce it to 12. With power outages disrupting business operations, high energy prices soaking up household income, and state subsidies draining government coffers, these energy problems significantly burden Lebanon’s economy.

The problem of service provision in Lebanon crystallized last year in the You Stink protests that swept through Beirut, Lebanon’s capital. The city’s primary landfill reached capacity in July 2015, and after the Environment Ministry closed it, trash quickly piled up in the streets over the following weeks. Government efforts to ameliorate the problem resulted in simply moving the trash around to different parts of the city. For many, the accumulation of garbage in public spaces was the final straw. As one Beirut resident noted to the New York Times, “No electricity — we said, O.K. No water — we said, O.K. But the trash?” A year later, the government’s proposed solutions have yet to be fully implemented, and trash-collection problems still linger.

The new government must focus on reliably providing municipal services. Past administrations’ failures have already sparked unrest nationwide and continue to undermine public faith in local and national institutions. The municipal elections in May this past year sent a strong signal to this end with choosing local parties instead of the lists of prominent Sunni, Shia, and Christian parties. If President Aoun and Prime Minister Hariri are unable to show progress on service provision before the looming 2017 parliamentary elections, their government may not last long.

REFUGEES

No less important is the issue of Syrian refugees. Over 1.5 million Syrians now live in Lebanon, making up roughly one fourth of the population. Their presence has put an enormous strain on a society already struggling to provide for its own citizens. For instance, the price of housing and rent has increased significantly over the last several years, putting substantial pressure on Lebanese citizens who also face rising unemployment as refugees compete for jobs. While the government has tried to reduce unemployment by banning Syrian refugees from working, this has only forced Syrians to enter the underground labor market. With refugees often willing to work for lower wages, the policy has failed to get unemployment under control, and as Human Rights Watch noted in a 2015 report, it has also led to an increase in child labor and put Syrian refugees at risk for workplace abuses.

Unsurprisingly, the strain on Lebanese and Syrian communities has also led to heightened tensions between the two. Refugees face violence and abuse, sometimes at the hands of police, and politicians, including the newly-elected President Aoun, have scapegoated refugee communities.

These tensions are further complicated by refugee demographics. Since the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, Shia, Christian, and Sunni communities have kept the peace through a delicate balancing act, dividing up government posts between the major sects. According to Sahar Atrache, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, Lebanese Christian, Druze, and Shia communities are concerned that the predominantly Sunni Syrian refugees could upset this balance of power especially if, like the Palestinian refugee population, they become a permanent fixture in Lebanon. While the refugee problem is too big for Lebanon to solve alone, keeping social and economic tensions in check will require innovative solutions and thinking from the Aoun-Hariri government.

SAUDI-IRANIAN COMPETITION 

As if addressing these domestic problems was not hard enough, the new government must also ensure that the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran stops at the border. Initially, that might appear difficult given Iran considers Aoun an ally and Saudi Arabia opposed him. However, Aoun’s decision to charge Saudi-allied Hariri with forming a national unity government may reflect an attempt to split the difference between the two powers.

It is unlikely that such compromise will be the end of the power conflict, however. Both countries enjoy deep ties within Lebanon, and their regional competition has already created domestic problems for the country. The most notable example has been Saudi Arabia’s cancellation of nearly $4 billion in security aid to Lebanon because it failed to condemn the 2016 attack on Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran. Gulf countries banded with Saudi Arabia to further punish Lebanon by issuing travel advisories for the country, and the United Arab Emirates went so far as to ban its residents from traveling there. The decision did remarkable damage to Lebanon’s tourism sector, devastating the economy.

If the new government is to successfully address service provision and refugee issues, it will need to ensure that it does not lean toward either power. Saudi Arabia has already proved it will use Lebanon’s dependence on Saudi and Gulf money to punish the country should it stray too far in Iran’s direction. Iran, likewise, can use Hezbollah to cause significant problems for Lebanon if Aoun and Hariri’s government reorients toward Riyadh. The next government will have to engage in a careful balancing act lest either country’s extensive Lebanese networks be turned against the state.

POLITICAL CULTURE

While Lebanon has finally agreed on a president, the underlying problems that led to the two-and-a-half-year long paralysis have not been sufficiently addressed. As the International Crisis Group noted in a July 2015 report, the intra-Christian dialogue determining who would become president “highlights that governance is primarily the outcome of informal practices and arrangements.” This type of behind-the-scenes deal making is the hallmark of modern Lebanese politics, but according to the Crisis Group, the resulting outcomes from patronage networks and informal side-agreements “are imperfect, easily reversed, temporary stop-gaps, [rather than] durable solutions.”

While this political culture has ensnared Lebanese politicians and political parties of all stripes, the primary victims are their constituents. The provision of public services, such as trash collection, water provision, and electricity generation, routinely falls prey to politicians battling over which benefactors get the contract to provide those services.

Aoun and Hariri will first have to tackle this problematic political culture if they want to make real progress on the myriad other issues plaguing Lebanon. They will have to instill a culture that puts government functions ahead of patronage and public service before personal benefit. Nonetheless, there is little reason to believe that anything will change in the near future. As Maha Yahya, the director of Carnegie’s Middle East Center notes, Aoun “has been closely involved in deal making, the undermining of elections, and the divvying up of governmental posts,” and there is concern that he represents a continuation of politics-as-usual. In the face of Lebanon’s growing problems, however, it is unclear how much longer Lebanese citizens will tolerate politics-as-usual.

Image: Jedeide Square, Lebanon. (Paul Saad, Creative Commons, Flickr)


Jacob Uzman is a Middle East analyst and peacebuilding practitioner with a focus on the Levant. He spent the past four years working on conflict resolution and peacebuilding initiatives related to the conflict in Syria, where he heard perspectives and stories from Syrians on virtually all sides of the conflict. His research interests also include WMD proliferation and environmental security. Jacob holds a B.A. in philosophy and political science from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

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