Trial by Fire: Can Lebanon’s Fragile Stability Hold?

Hezbollah fighters stand guard during a rally commemorating "Liberation Day," which marks the withdrawal of the Israeli army from southern Lebanon in 2000, Nabatiyeh, Lebanon, May 24, 2015 (AP photo by Mohammed Zaatari).
Hezbollah fighters stand guard during a rally commemorating "Liberation Day," which marks the withdrawal of the Israeli army from southern Lebanon in 2000, Nabatiyeh, Lebanon, May 24, 2015 (AP photo by Mohammed Zaatari).
SUBSCRIBE NOW
Free Newsletter

The political change heralded by the 2010-2011 wave of protests across the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring never reached Lebanon, but the small Mediterranean country of 4 million has been suffering from the repercussions of those momentous events ever since.

To the north, fighters and goods are still being smuggled to embattled Syria. To the northeast, a war of attrition is underway with Islamist militants, who have already seized vast swathes of territory from northern Syria and Iraq. To the south, there is the ever-volatile border with Israel. Indeed, in all directions, Lebanon’s fate is inextricably linked to that of its neighbors.

Despite the many external threats and internal challenges—including Saudi-Iranian regional competition, brewing sectarian tensions, deteriorating security, a struggling economy and societal discontent—Lebanon is maintaining its fragile stability. Yet that has increasingly come at the cost of political paralysis, with little certainty as to how long the country can hold off the forces of disorder on its periphery.

A History of Sectarian Divisions

Lebanon’s Parliament has been divided along communal lines since independence from France in 1943, when the country still had a Christian majority. A power-sharing principle was applied to top government posts, requiring the president to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister to be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of Parliament to be a Shiite Muslim. Combined, Shiite and Sunni Muslims now represent a larger share of the population and are demanding that the confessional scheme be updated to represent them proportionately.

Tensions spawning from such demographic divisions have historically been at the heart of internal political struggles in Lebanon, and have served to limit effective governance. Over the years, other states in the region have used these long-standing political differences as a pretext to intervene and leverage their influence in the country.

Since 1948, Lebanon has also witnessed large influxes of Palestinian refugees, many of whom continue to live in poor conditions in 12 refugee camps across the country, with few legal rights. They account for approximately one-tenth of the population, and their presence has been a source of political discord in the past. Many in Lebanon still blame the Palestinians for instigating the country’s 1975-1990 civil war. This catastrophic historical experience is evoked often by the Lebanese and explains, to some degree, the government’s elusive policy—or lack thereof—toward the over 1 million more recently arrived refugees from Syria.

For Christian factions in particular, who emerged from the civil war with their power considerably weakened, the Syrian presence in the country terrifyingly recalls the pre-war years, when the country was rife with socio-economic upheaval and politically paralyzed by the domestic fallout from external struggles, including the Arab-Israeli wars. Opposing stances toward the armed Palestinian presence in the country gave rise to two rival camps: the right-wing Christian alliance, led by the Kataeb Party, which was hostile to the Palestinians’ cause; and the leftist Muslim alliance, led by Druze leader and head of the Progressive Socialist Party, Kamal Jumblatt, which was more supportive.

The spark that led to civil war then was the “Ain al-Rummaneh bus incident,” when Christian gunmen fired on a bus heading to the Tal al-Zaatar refugee camp on April 13, 1975. For Lebanese of all backgrounds, the incident still serves as a reminder of how easily one trigger event can lead a polarized public to war. Perhaps for this reason, when politically sensitive events such as clashes in the north or a suicide bombing seize the country’s attention, officials call for citizens to “stand united as Lebanese” above all else.

The civil war, in effect, converted Lebanon into a battleground for the regional conflicts between Israel, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Shortly after the war started, Syrian troops established a presence in Lebanon. Israeli troops invaded in 1978, before pulling back to a self-described “security zone” in the south. They were ultimately forced to withdraw in 2000 after a protracted conflict with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia that has since become a political party that enjoys wide support particularly in south Lebanon.

The Taif agreement that put an end to the civil war in 1990 modified the confessional structure of governance, largely to appease the warring factions. But political unrest persisted in the country, because the Taif accord itself was too fragile to constitute a basis of peace-building. Instead, by failing to address the root causes of the war, such as sectarianism, it only served to lay the groundwork for the underlying political tensions in Lebanon today.

The Taif agreement called for militia groups to disarm, and the fact that Hezbollah retains a formidable arsenal of weaponry remains a contentious subject in Lebanese politics. And by effectively handing political power to former warlords, the agreement also seemingly legitimized a feudalistic political tradition through which the reins of political power are passed from the old political guard to their children, ensuring that decision-making was kept the prerogative of a few privileged families. To this day, widespread corruption in the form of political clientelism remains pervasive, permeating all levels of society.

For 15 years after the end of the civil war, and especially after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Lebanese politics were dominated by Syria, which maintained influence and a significant troop presence in the country. Things changed dramatically after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut in February 2005, which triggered a chain of protests that came to be known as the “Cedar Revolution.” The protesters called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops—at the time numbering nearly 14,000 soldiers and intelligence agents—from Lebanon, the disbanding of the pro-Syrian government and the establishment of an international commission to investigate Hariri’s death.

After the assassination, the country entered an 18-month political crisis that impeded state institutions from functioning normally. An agreement reached in Qatar in May 2008 ended the crisis, creating two rival camps in the country: the pro-Western, anti-Syrian, Sunni-based March 14 Alliance, named after the date of the mass demonstrations that characterized the Cedar Revolution; and the March 8 Alliance, a pro-Syrian coalition made up of the two main Shiite parties, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, as well as the Christian Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun.

Both of Lebanon’s competing cross-sectarian alliances enjoy the patronage of outside powers. The March 14 Alliance—which includes the Future Movement of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri—maintains close ties to Saudi Arabia, where Saad Hariri is currently in exile for security reasons. In addition, the March 14 alliance enjoys support from the United States, European countries and other Arab Gulf monarchies, such as Qatar. Hezbollah, on the other hand, has long been under the patronage of Iran, which has armed and trained the group over two decades. These patronage networks levy substantial influence over political parties in Lebanon, especially in the case of Hezbollah, which is expected to obey Iran’s geopolitical priorities, even if this comes at the cost of national popularity.

In the aftermath of Rafik Hariri’s assassination, the main goals of the March 14 protests were ultimately achieved: Syria withdrew its troops; the government was disbanded; and the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon was established to try the perpetrators of Hariri’s killing. Yet Syria still has clout in Lebanese political affairs through its ally Hezbollah and other parties in the March 8 Alliance, and political affairs in Lebanon are now characterized by the polarization between the two camps.

The Limits of Political Paralysis as a Stabilizing Mechanism

The differences resulting from Lebanon’s confessional divisions aren’t limited to the realm of politics. Instead, they run deeply through all levels of society.

Due to the difficulty of consolidating the customs and traditions of Lebanon’s 18 sects in a single legal system, the defining feature of the confessional system is communal autonomy. This formally gives each sect legal jurisdiction over civil issues pertaining to family law and education. In this way, “citizenship” in Lebanon is inextricably linked to religion. Lebanese rarely introduce themselves without mentioning their local roots.

But in recent years, Lebanon’s civil society groups have taken to the streets to try to reverse components of the sectarian system. Proponents of civil marriage, unrecognized in the current system, are still demanding that Parliament endorse a draft law to permit interconfessional unions. Rights activists in particular have rallied against the government to counteract elements of religious laws that are blatantly discriminatory against women. To this day, Lebanese women married to foreigners are unable to pass on their citizenship to their children.

While in rural areas powerful families still dominate social life, confessional divisions appear to be blurred in mixed urban settings by virtue of daily interaction. In the Beirut neighborhood of Karakoun al-Druze, for example, there are many reports of Shiite and Sunni intermarriage. But sectarian divisions still serve to color how Lebanese perceive the regional developments around them. If the potency of sectarianism was waning nearly two decades after the civil war, the Syria crisis only helped to reinforce it.

It was the need to keep these divisions from again leading to civil war that informed the creation of the country’s rigid political system, which relies on consensus-based politics and power-sharing to shape the internal balance of power. But when consensus isn’t met, as has been the case time and again, the political process suffers from debilitating deadlock.

In practice, an unintended consequence of the emphasis on consensus is that political parties can obstruct the political process whenever it serves their interests by simply boycotting legislative sessions, ensuring that the necessary quorum to proceed is not met. This severely limits what any coalition government—as is currently the case—can do and has historically meant that, in times of tensions, attempts to address divisive issues are deferred until a healthier political climate is restored.

This strategy of deferring tough decisions characterizes the approach of the incumbent prime minister, Tammam Salam. But there are issues that need to be addressed soon, or else Lebanon’s fragile stability risks being compromised. Chief among them is the presidency, which has remained vacant for over a year, after Michel Suleiman’s term expired in May 2014. After initial candidates failed to reach the two-thirds majority vote required in the first round of elections, subsequent sessions failed to gain a legislative quorum due to a boycott by some March 8 MPs.

General legislative elections were also supposed to be held in 2014, but due to the failure to elect a new president, the current government extended its term until 2017, to the detriment of the democratic process.

The issue of top security appointments is another matter that has split the Cabinet, with ministers unable to agree on candidates to replace incumbent Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi and Internal Security Forces head Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Basbous. Some have suggested extending the terms of both officers until a consensus candidate can be agreed upon, but this proposal led Aoun to threaten to remove his ministers from the government; the issue of officer appointments already prompted the fall of then-Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Cabinet in 2014, after ministers refused to extend the term of Ashraf Rifi, now the justice minister, as head of the Internal Security Forces.

Despite the scale of polarization, there are still forces that favor stability in both coalitions, including the leading Sunni and Shiite parties. This was evident in the recent dialogue sessions between the Future Movement and Hezbollah, which focused on defusing Sunni-Shiite tensions, as well as finding a mechanism to elect a president, energize stagnant state institutions and boost counterterrorism efforts. This apparent rapprochement was no doubt facilitated by the progress made in talks between the U.S. and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program.

Fears that Lebanon could slide back to civil war are rampant, but the memory of those brutal years have time and again pulled the country back from the brink. The postwar years have witnessed many tests, such as tit-for-tat kidnappings, protests blocking vital roads, armed family militias and, notoriously, the street battles of 2008 sparked by a government-backed move to shut down Hezbollah’s telecommunications network. In each case the government or army shifted into high gear to keep tensions from escalating. The government typically opts for dialogue over violence, but the sustainability of such an approach amid the war next door in Syria remains to be seen.

Drawn In: Lebanese Participation in the Syrian Civil War

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the neighboring crisis has exacerbated sectarian divisions, pitting certain Shiite and Sunni communities against each other based on their positioning with regard to the Syrian regime as well as the broader regional competition underway between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. The sectarian tensions observed in Lebanon can be seen as a manifestation of the interplay between these complex domestic and regional factors.

Despite festering tensions between Shiites and Sunnis, however, spillover from the Syrian war into Lebanese territory only turned violent in May 2013, when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivered a controversial speech that publicly acknowledged what Lebanese politicians and rebel elements in Syria had surmised since 2012: The group’s military wing was actively fighting alongside its long-standing ally, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, specifically in the strategic Syrian province of Homs.

In an attempt to defend his group’s deepening involvement in Syria, Nasrallah portrayed the contest as part of its broader battle against Israel, which it has continued to use to justify its refusal to disarm since the early 2000s. Yet, the decision to intervene in Syria was more likely driven by Hezbollah’s dependency on Iran for financial support and military supplies, as well as the determination that Assad’s fall would weaken Hezbollah’s strategic position in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s decision to play a significant combat role in Syria was also in part a pre-emptive choice. Hezbollah calculated that it would be better to face the growing jihadi threat abroad, rather than at home should the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, and the self-declared Islamic State (IS) make significant territorial gains in the strategic Qalamoun region along the border to the east of the Bekaa Valley.

Nasrallah’s vow to stand by Damascus and protect Lebanon’s borders was met with harsh criticism at home and abroad. Leaders of the rival March 14 Alliance appealed to Hezbollah to end its military activities in Syria, arguing that these would jeopardize Lebanon’s stability and undermine efforts to remain neutral in the face of the divisive war next door.

At the same time, accusations were also mounting against some Sunni politicians affiliated with the March 14 Alliance over their role in covertly financing Syrian rebel groups. By January 2014, Lebanon’s Sunni community in the north and the Bekaa Valley had become a source of political and military support for rebels. Lebanon also witnessed successive rounds of Sunni-Alawite violence in the northern city of Tripoli, a direct result of sectarian tensions aggravated as a result of the neighboring crisis.

Sunni alienation in Lebanon is in part driven by resentment toward Hezbollah over its offensive operations in Syria, which exacerbated tensions considerably. Many also accuse the party of deliberately weakening the Sunni political leadership in the country through a series of assassinations, including that of Hariri. But mainstream Sunni parties are also partly to blame, as they have failed to address the grievances of the rural Sunni north, the poorest area in Lebanon, with more than twice the national average of extreme poverty and the lowest levels of government expenditure. Here, relative deprivation has always existed in parallel with a tradition of Salafism, giving rise to pockets of Islamic radicalism that have become a source of recruits for Syria’s Sunni rebels.

The number of Lebanese Sunnis joining rebel ranks, though difficult to determine, ranges in the hundreds. Initially, most joined brigades affiliated with the Nusra Front, rather than IS. However, some have reportedly died carrying out suicide missions for IS in Syria and Iraq, while others have returned to wage attacks on Lebanese soil.

Due to their exposure to extremist elements in Syria, their extensive criminal histories and their disenchantment with mainstream Sunni leaders, the prospect of these fighters returning to Lebanon is viewed as a significant security risk by the authorities. Yet a widespread crackdown would only serve to embitter the broader Sunni community and deepen perceptions of double standards in the Lebanese army’s response toward them as opposed to Hezbollah.

This would undermine the central role of the Lebanese military, long championed in the country’s political discourse as a symbol of national unity to temper the threat of sectarian schisms. Upgrading its capabilities has now become a heightened priority. With the help of a generous $3 billion grant from Saudi Arabia to purchase French weapons, as well as aid from Jordan, the U.K. and the U.S., Lebanon has significantly bolstered its military strength and intelligence-gathering capabilities to respond to the growing threat of foreign jihadis infiltrating from Syria, as well as that presented by returning Lebanese fighters.

The army’s main focus has been to contain the effects of the crisis along the porous border with Syria, where it has deployed two regiments of 3,000 troops each to monitor illicit cross-border activity and militant groups. The army is also present along the volatile Blue Line between Israel and Lebanon, which has seen bouts of violent escalation ever since the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Tensions have risen even further since the start of the Syrian civil war, and in particular after the January 2015 Israeli attack against a military convoy comprised of Hezbollah and Iranian officers in Syrian territory near the Golan Heights, which many feared could drag Lebanon into an all-out conflict.

But if Hezbollah and, to a much lesser degree, Lebanese Sunnis have been drawn into Syria’s conflict, the greater danger lies in the spillover of fighting into Lebanon itself.

Spillover: The Fight for Arsal

The first major instance of such spillover occurred hours after Nasrallah’s May 2013 speech, when two rockets hit a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut, injuring five people, while another two damaged property in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon not far from the Syrian border. The fact that subsequent spells of intermittent violence in northern Lebanon and along the borders have not metastasized into widespread armed confrontation within Lebanon is largely due to how the political elite and their external allies perceive their interests—with wars raging in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, maintaining stability in Lebanon is perhaps the one thing everyone across the region’s growing sectarian divide can agree on for the moment.

Instead, spillover from the Syrian conflict in the form of Islamist militant infiltration has now become the most pressing threat to Lebanon’s security, eclipsing even the country’s enduring conflict with Israel to the south. According to open source media reports, between May 2013 and January 2015, Lebanon suffered 22 suicide bombings, most of them targeted against Hezbollah interests and claimed by the Nusra Front and IS. Both groups inaugurated their Lebanese chapters in 2013, ostensibly in retaliation for Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, but also to establish a foothold in the country. Hezbollah maintains the fallout would have been much worse if it had not intervened in Syria, and the group did expect some retaliation on the home front. But if Hezbollah hoped that by fighting these groups in Syria it would avoid fighting them in Lebanon, it was mistaken.

Nowhere in Lebanon have the sectarian tensions spawned by the Syrian conflict and Hezbollah’s involvement in it been as pitched as in the Sunni border town of Arsal. Rebels from the Nusra Front and IS-affiliated groups consolidated their presence in the area, which straddles the border in the Qalamoun region, after a Syrian offensive in 2013 displaced them into Arsal. In August 2014, in a battle that marked the first time large-scale fighting from Syria spilled into Lebanon, they briefly besieged the city, taking at least 30 Lebanese servicemen hostage. The Lebanese army was subsequently forced to engage in a drawn-out, low-intensity war with the jihadi groups, who later retreated to the town’s outskirts. Militants have also staged several attacks in the neighboring Christian town of Ras Baalbek and the Shiite town of Britel. Due to its political leanings, geographical marginalization, proximity to Syria and massive influx of refugees, the Arsal area increasingly resembles a lawless enclave in a relatively weak state.

Rebel elements were subsequently able to use refugee-hosting areas in Arsal as a primary staging ground for conducting reprisal attacks against Hezbollah within Lebanese territory. The question of how to contain Arsal has become a polarizing issue in an already divided Cabinet. Nasrallah’s vow in May of this year to clear the town’s outskirts of jihadi elements should the state fail to do so drew the ire of Saad Hariri, who said it was the prerogative of the army, not the Shiite militia group, to carry out such an operation.

But the dilemma for the Lebanese government remains: How to stabilize Arsal without fueling Sunni sentiments of injustice and getting dragged into Syria’s war?

Meanwhile, the beleaguered 35,000 Lebanese residents of Arsal, weary from the pressures of a voluminous refugee population, the threat of militants and the debilitating socio-economic conditions as a result of the war, long for a restoration of security. But instead of instilling a sense of security, the archipelago of observation posts, logistics hubs and army checkpoints that cordon off the town’s periphery have fostered a siege mentality.

“We feel like we’re in the middle of a psychological war,” says Suham Ezzedine, a schoolteacher in Arsal, describing the toll the presence of the militants has taken on the town.

The Christian border villages, Al-Qaa and Ras Baalbek, face similar existential fears, no doubt fueled by the harrowing experiences of Syrian Christians in Hasakeh and Palmyra in the face of IS’ territorial advances. A weapons dealer reported that arms sales to Christians in border areas had increased exponentially since the August 2014 clashes. But unlike Arsal, these March 8-aligned towns are supported militarily by Hezbollah as well.

For now, the army’s strategy prioritizes defending Lebanon’s shared border with Syria over taking offensive action in Qalamoun. The latter would risk entangling the military in battles between Hezbollah and the Syrian regime on one side and the rebel groups on the other, irreversibly compromising the government’s efforts to stay clear of involvement in the Syrian conflict. Army officials have hinted that an offensive operation would require the political cover of the Cabinet, which, due to lack of consensus, seems unlikely at this time.

To prevent violence from spreading across the country, the military has deployed troops in areas from which Sunni militant activity might originate. These include Abra in Sidon, where the now-fugitive Sheikh Ahmed Assir led a failed insurrection; the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, considered a refuge for Islamist militants; as well as Tripoli and the Akkar district in the north.

The measures angered Sunni communities, which saw the dragnet as a government-sanctioned attack. To temper reactions, the army later conducted raids in Shiite areas in the Bekaa Valley. But security measures taken against the populous Syrian refugee community in Arsal remain controversial: The army came under fire last September after a raid injured dozens and set some camps ablaze.

Refugees and a Struggling Economy

The domestic political stalemate and volatile security environment have had a devastating effect on Lebanon’s economic prospects, weakening consumer and investor confidence and dealing a serious blow to economic growth. Of course, due to geographic and demographic disparities, this adversity is experienced differently across the country.

While Lebanon suffered economic woes prior to the crisis, the fiscal challenges were compounded considerably with the influx of 1.2 million Syrian refugees registered with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), equivalent to around 26 percent of the total Lebanese population. In the past four years, the refugees have overwhelmed public services, including health care, education, basic infrastructure and the informal job market. The challenge of absorbing and accommodating the deluge of additional people has exhausted public spending and has put particular strain on municipalities.

While it is true that, through their consumption of basic goods and services such as pharmaceuticals, energy and rentals, Syrian refugees have provided support to the domestic economy, it is not nearly enough to offset the burdens they have placed on the country’s basic infrastructure, public finances and job market.

The numbers of refugees stabilized this year after Lebanon effectively closed its doors to new non-emergency entries, a policy decried by human rights watchdogs but that permitted the government to formulate policy based on “the numbers we have,” said Khalil Gebara, an adviser to Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, who implemented the revised law.

In the early days of the Syrian civil war, the caretaker Mikati government believed the crisis would be temporary. Planning reflected this shortsightedness, as the UNHCR and its partner organizations, mandated to provide humanitarian relief to refugees, led the refugee response. As the numbers swelled and the years passed, concerns over short-term relief graduated to questions about institutional capacity-building in the face of a long-term refugee problem. Eventually, the government took the wheel on refugee response, prioritizing national stability.

But human rights watchdogs have criticized Lebanon’s refugee management approach, arguing it lacks an underlying vision. Despite hosting not only Syrian, but also Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, Lebanon is not a signatory to the international convention that recognizes them as such. The issue of definition—Syrians are considered “displaced” rather than “refugees” in official parlance—has had enormous consequences for how Lebanon approaches its own legal obligations toward Syrians.

The issue of establishing formal camps for refugees, who are spread out in 242 ad hoc communities near border areas in north Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, has also proved divisive for Lebanon’s political factions. The Future Movement and the Progressive Socialist Party support the idea, while Christian parties like the Free Patriotic Movement and Kataeb are vehemently opposed. Shiite parties, on the other hand, have maintained an ambiguous stance.

With formal refugee camps out of the question due to the lack of consensus, policymakers have turned to managing the number of refugees inside the country instead, with the first step being to implement the stringent new exit and entry measures.

In many ways, however, the refugees have only exacerbated pre-existing problems. Lebanon has long been beset by structural bottlenecks, especially with infrastructure issues such as electricity and water shortages, a haphazard transportation system and telecommunications. It is clear that the current government is limited in its ability to engage in long-term structural reforms, regardless of the burdens created by the refugees.

Lebanon’s fiscal deficit, estimated to have widened by 2.5 percent of GDP over the past few years to over 11 percent, also poses a threat to stability by putting public finances under significant strain. Experts agree that Lebanon will have to rely on expansionary monetary policy, such as the central bank’s planned $1 billion stimulus package, to support the economy in the coming years.

The continued vacuum of the presidency and the ensuing instability it might instigate is also expected to weigh down on consumer and investor sentiments. But economists predict the economy could pick up again if the Parliament ratifies key laws overseeing offshore oil and gas bidding.

Not surprisingly, tourism and construction, the mainstays of the Lebanese economy, have been the most affected by the precarious security situation. Lebanese exports were also severely impacted after IS seized the Nasib crossing connecting Syria with Jordan and, through it, Iraq. Industrialists attributed the 15 percent drop in exports to the war in Syria, the only overland export route for Lebanese-made goods.

The Lebanese labor market was also structurally weak prior to the crisis, but worsened exponentially after 2013 due to the refugee-induced increase of the labor force and the economic slowdown. The refugees have increased labor supply by 30 percent, with the majority employed in the informal sector. The competition for jobs created in these fields, particularly in agriculture and construction, has fueled social discontent and tensions between refugees and Lebanese. On top of that, Lebanese youth unemployment is estimated to exceed 20 percent, compared to 11 percent in 2011.

While the promise of exploiting offshore oil and gas reserves will no doubt bolster the economy if realized, Lebanon remains a risky place to do business. The government’s fiscal deficit did register some improvement, however incremental, last year due to an increase in revenues that offset a rise in government expenditures. But any improvement in Lebanon’s economy will likely be impeded by the wait-and-see attitude of private investors further delaying major investment decisions.

Conclusion

Lebanon’s fate is inextricably tied to regional events, especially the complex dynamics at play in neighboring Syria and, to a lesser degree, in Iraq and Yemen. For these reasons, few other countries in the region have been as adversely affected by the Syrian crisis as Lebanon.

Despite the enormous challenges, however, Lebanon remains resilient. The younger generation, which never lived through the atrocities of the civil war, now forms the backbone of a vibrant civil society that recognizes the shortcomings of the current political system and acknowledges that the road to change it will be a long one, so entrenched is sectarianism in Lebanese society. But the experience of war has also taught Lebanese how to survive the tough times through private-sector ingenuity.

So far, pragmatic politics and a commitment to stability by leading political elites have kept the threat of conflict at bay. But the lack of political consensus by these very same elites risks exposing Lebanon to the very dangers they seek to repel.

Samya Kullab is a Canadian journalist based in the Middle East. She is currently a reporter for Lebanon’s Daily Star.

More World Politics Review