The climate of popular resignation in Lebanon, aggravated by its sectarian political system, appears unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Corruption and a culture of impunity remain pervasive within the Mediterranean country. Political parties use the state apparatus as their personal piggy bank while their rivals protect a system that shields them. The general impression is that Prime Minister Najib Mikati, the richest man in Lebanon, according to Forbes, was nominated by Parliament to preserve the status quo which entails managing, not reversing, Lebanon’s slow-motion collapse.
There are also no signs that Hezbollah, which operates as both a Shiite political party and a militant group, will disrupt the country’s existing state of affairs in the next few months. Although the prospects for long-term political stability while Hezbollah holds a firm grip on power are dim for three main reasons.
Foreign intervention is a necessary step to kickstart Lebanon’s economy.
First, foreign intervention is a necessary step to kickstart Lebanon’s economy but Hezbollah’s ties to Iran and its ideology are keeping out financial and humanitarian aid from the West and wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Second, Hezbollah now has more political power than ever before, enjoying a position as the ultimate arbiter between political factions and, together with their allies, holding two-thirds of the governing portfolios. Third, the militant group is using this moment of crisis to increase its role in the lives of the Lebanese people.
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has been playing the role of savior of the nation by bringing in and distributing Iranian oil. On the other hand, the group generates fear through the use of violence. Last October a protest against Judge Tarek Bitar, who was the second judge investigating the Beirut port blast, turned deadly when Hezbollah militias and unknown snipers exchanged fire in what resembled a war zone. The clashes reignited sectarian tensions and fears of civil war and are illustrative of Hezbollah’s reliance on force.
Subsequently, Hezbollah and its main Shiite allies imposed a three-month boycott on the government which did not end until January 24. Emerging from the gridlock, the Mikati government, in place since September 2021, might provide some relative steadiness and relief over the next few months.
Although, in the long run, Mikati’s primary objective is to preserve the current situation, meaning he will sidestep serious and painful reforms to simply manage the crisis. The upcoming parliamentary elections may motivate Mikati to implement small-scale reforms and “band-aid” solutions to secure votes for Lebanon’s traditional sectarian parties such as rejoining negotiations with the IMF, addressing the subsidies program on fuel, medicine, and wheat, and increasing access to electricity and gas.
Mikati’s primary objective is to preserve the current situation.
However, as in the past, negotiations with the IMF are expected to drag out and the fund might not provide any relief in the upcoming months. Most importantly, the government has yet to present any concrete plans for solving Lebanon’s economic, social, and energy crises and seems to lack any serious intentions to address the country’s systemic dysfunctions.
In addition to the numerous internal fragilities, the government has fallen prey to the Saudi-Iranian enmity. Historically, Lebanon has been a strong ally of the Gulf States, but the growing dominance of Hezbollah in the country’s affairs has severely strained that relationship. Furthermore, the recent inflammatory statements on the war in Yemen by ex-Foreign Minister George Kordahi, which led to a diplomatic rift between Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States such as United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, and Oman have only added fuel to the fire.
This dispute now seems diffused thanks to Kordahi’s subsequent resignation but at the expense of the unity of the government, since it generated great disagreements between the various Lebanese factions. The incident also sheds light on how Saudi Arabia uses its geopolitical power to control weaker states in the region further crippling Lebanon’s shaky political standing at home and abroad. Balancing the influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah and the Gulf States is already proving to be one more challenge for Mikati.
Taking the current popular mood of despair into account, together with the deteriorating political culture, the largely impotent Mikati government, and the dire economic prospects, the picture that emerges is anything but positive. For some time now, the Lebanese have been living through what is considered to be the second most severe financial crisis in history.
77 percent of the population lives in poverty and 40 percent in extreme hardship
The Lira has lost 90 percent of its value and is currently exchanged on the black market where cash is traded for 10 times less than its official value. 77 percent of the population lives in poverty and 40 percent in extreme hardship. This situation could change if significant financial aid was provided. There are billions of dollars in international donor funds and an IMF rescue package with Lebanon’s name on it. But there is no credible economic reform plan to unlock the financial aid and guide the country’s financial policy. Hence, any expectations remain negative and highly unpredictable, even in the short term.
The prospects for stability —or rather persistent apathy, despite a few union strikes— in civil society for the next few months appear likely despite a pervasive sense of hopelessness. There is also renewed fear of the government security forces, and of Hezbollah, and its Amal Movement allies, known for silencing dissidents through violent means and incarcerations.
Opposition groups are fragmented and clashing with each other, suggesting weakness. The opposition would have to unite behind one leader, but fears of assassination, justified from past events, help maintain the status quo. Nonetheless, in the long run, this deceptive quietness may quickly vanish. If the Mikati government cannot show any capacity to implement actual change, which is highly probable, the chance of the Lebanese people revolting again increases.
Furthermore, while antagonisms with Israel seem to be under control at the moment— airstrikes were carried out in early August but the tension was rapidly defused— contributing to a sense of political calm in the country, thus benefitting the government. During the May 2021 Gaza War, Hezbollah and Israel conveyed they were not engaging in active warfare for the time being and have maintained hostilities at an equilibrium since then. Hezbollah has also been affected by the economic crisis and its main focus is to consolidate its power domestically thus, a stable period serves the Iranian-backed group’s interests.
In the coming months, it is improbable that the energy crisis will worsen to the point of creating further volatility. The US’ ongoing strategy is to do as little as possible while counteracting Iranian influence. The tit-for-tat dynamic over negotiations to deliver fuel to the country is set to delay any progress for months.
Overall, the prospects for positive and quantifiable change in the foreseeable future are unlikely. The economic picture will continue to deteriorate and drive insecurity in the country, and any forecast for the long run looks dire. The Lebanese quagmire may still worsen before it gets better.