Uncertainty is Lebanon's worst enemy

Uncertainty is Lebanon's worst enemy
Comment: It wasn't Syria, but a waste crisis that hit Lebanon's political scene hardest last year. This year, everyone expects unpredictability, writes James Denselow.
4 min read
26 Jan, 2016
Lebanon continues to face tests of its continued stability [AFP]
As the New Year was celebrated, Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam expressed hope that the executive and legislative branches of the government would begin to function properly in the year ahead, urging politicians to translate their words into actions.

After 18 months of political deadlock which has seen the country without a president, Salam actually may be close to seeing some of his advice cutting through.

The stalemate around whether Michel Aoun or Samir Geagea would be the head of state has seemingly been jolted into action by the appearance of a third candidate in Suleiman Frangieh.

It will be interesting to see how having a president has an impact on Lebanon's approach to the challenges ahead. Many predicted the Syria crisis to have a far more damaging effect on the country, yet while their neighbour to the east continues to burn, Lebanon has remained remarkably stable over the past five years.

Considering the scale of the fallout from Syria - humanitarian, political and in security terms - it was a surprise that 2015's most high-profile issue in Lebanon was that of rubbish collection.

The refusal of certain parts of the country to be home to mountains of refuse led to a standoff that sparked mass street protests, violence and iconic images of post-rainfall rivers of rubbish running through Beirut.
Today, some are seeing Lebanon as potential best practice for Middle East governance

The "You Stink" protesters were organising not on traditional sectarian lines but rather along economic class and age demographics - uniting a civil society that saw collection of waste as the most basic duty of the state.

The amount of time it took for the crisis to be addressed reflected a political system characterised by inefficiency and inertia. One part of the solution will now see some waste shipped for disposal in Germany before more long-term systems can be implemented in Lebanon.

Yet the fact that Lebanon - a country of different sects living under a confessional political system - is holding together in a region beset by sectarian violence means that while previously it was seen as the model to avoid, today some are seeing it as potential best practice for Middle East governance.

The threat of serious spillover from Syria remains. The battle of Arsal saw Lebanon's security forces in sustained fighting against the Nusra Front in the east of the country. High profile skirmishes and hostage-taking has dominated the country's media and, as Syria's peace process slowly emerges, those not involved - such as the Nusra Front - may behave more unpredictably.

Meanwhile, the killing of senior Hizballah figures by Israel in Syria has led to incidents around Lebanon's southern border that lead some to fear a repeat of the 2006 war - although with Hizballah so involved in Syria it would seem reluctant, and unlikely, to fight on two fronts.

The most visceral fallout from the Syrian conflict is the continued humanitarian crisis. It's worth remembering that Lebanon is playing host to more than 1.3 million refugees - more than one in four of the country's entire population.

UN agencies have frequently warned that the country's "hospitality" couldn't be taken for granted. Indeed the pressure of this influx, now nearing the fifth anniversary of the conflict's birth pangs, has seen greater pressure on refugee movement, visa issues, struggles to pay rent to landlords and, of course, the winter weather.
More organised camps could provide more effective humanitarian support

Nadim Houri, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, has said that visa restrictions had made life "impossible" for many refugees in Lebanon, pushing them "into the shadows and underground".

February's major humanitarian summit in the UK must ensure that Lebanon is fully supported in sustaining and caring for its refugee population. There also needs to be a serious, and depoliticised, discussion around whether more formal camps for displaced Syrians should be established inside the country.

While everyone is aware of threats to the sectarian balance and the issue of long-term presence of refugee populations, more organised camps could provide more effective humanitarian support for those forced to flee their homes in Syria.  

The humanitarian challenge, finally agreeing on a president and preparing for continued regional instability, whether that be from the Syrian conflict or repercussions of worsening Saudi-Iranian relations, are top of Lebanon's priorities for the year ahead.

However, as the rubbish crisis demonstrated, it may be the events that nobody predicts that could be the biggest test of the country's continued stability.

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.