Lebanon needs support, before it's too late

Lebanon needs support, before it's too late
Comment: The continued political paralysis in the country must be tackled before far more challenging and dangerous problems emerge, writes James Denselow.
4 min read
29 Aug, 2016
The arrival of 1.5 million Syrian refugees is increasing pressure on the Lebanese system [AFP]

In the shadow of the carnage in Syria, the ongoing political crisis in Lebanon is often forgotten. The country's constitution is based on a system of sectarian power sharing yet the Presidency - the "top Christian post" so to speak - has been vacant for over two years now.

Meanwhile serious questions remain as to the legitimacy of the remaining governing actors, with Prime Minister Salam vowing to stay in office this month.

Attempts to find a political consensus or way forward have moved nowhere at a snail's pace. Instead we have seen round after round of failed national dialogue, whose only success was to make the Beirut traffic even more gridlocked, whilst marathon bilateral meetings between party leaders or external actors have delivered nothing.

Walk outs and boycotts are par for the course as all sides use their various media allies to hurl accusations at one another.

Against this backdrop of political paralysis, IS-linked militants remain holed-up in the north-east of the country, and concerns are emerging as the stability of Palestinian refugee camps in the country and protests continue to highlight the government’s failure to deliver basic services such as rubbish collection.

Yet behind these more immediate challenges is a worrying downward trend in the country's development. Since 2011 rates of overall poverty of Lebanese has increased from 28 percent to 32 percent; while youth unemployment has increased by 50 percent over the past five years. A recent Unicef study also revealed that 1,000 children are "working on the streets of Lebanon".

Behind these more immediate challenges is a worrying downward trend in the country's development

The pressure of the huge influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees - a situation which is likely to last for some time - is combining with an absence of a functioning government, to chip away at the country's prospects.

These growing socioeconomic challenges are not all of the country's making, none less so than the fallout from Syria, and this places special responsibility on the international community to help ensure that Lebanon's government has the resources and capacity to help steer the country in the right direction.

While actors have traditionally been better at providing financial assistance than capacity-building - with huge donor summits committing large sums of humanitarian funding - support for governance is arguably more essential as it frames the environment in which everything else operates.

Solving the Rubik's Cube of Lebanon's political paralysis will not be easy, but will be far easier than dealing with the consequences if it becomes chronic and spirals into further governance failure, or even civil conflict.

Solving the Rubik's Cube of Lebanon's political paralysis will not be easy

The International Crisis Group (ICG) put it well in a report released earlier in the year when they warned that Lebanon's "resilience has become an excuse for tolerating political dysfunction". The ICG used the term 'decay' to describe the current direction of travel of the state and this needs to be addressed to kick-start a new a more productive political arc.

Whereas the region's main adversaries, the Saudis and the Iranians, have more or less played nice in Lebanon to date, choosing to battle each other through proxy in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, one way of addressing Lebanon's "decay" could involve charging them with a more responsible and productive approach to policy in the country.

Commentators often describe the Tehran-Riyadh rivalry as "simmering" inside Lebanon. Currently, there is a standoff over whether Lebanon's government will green light an Iranian arms deal replacing one that Saudi Arabia angrily scrapped.

But could Lebanon be the country where Iran and Saudi Arabia discover more crossover in their interests than they first thought? In Beirut there is a powerful similarity between the Saudi-led sparkling redevelopment of downtown, surrounded by checkpoints and security, and the Iranian funded redevelopment of the southern Hizballah controlled suburbs, also surrounded by checkpoints and security. How does either side benefit from these being turned back into the kind of urban rubble that dominates images coming out of Syria?

The wise Lebanese writer Rami G. Khouri wrote recently that the future of the Middle East may be determined by whether Iran and Saudi Arabia decide to continue to fight, or instead work together. Khouri painted a future in which their cooperation could replace "the catastrophic militarism of the United States-led Western powers".

Lebanon needs an injection of cooperation to address its continued political decay, and the sooner the better.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.