Analysis

Lebanon Is Europe’s Most Urgent Challenge

A collapsing state risks creating a catastrophic refugee crisis.

By , the director of the Human Security Unit at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, and , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy.
A member of Hezbollah fires a gun during a funeral for some members who were killed during clashes in the Tayouneh neighbourhood of Beirut's southern suburbs on Oct. 15.
A member of Hezbollah fires a gun during a funeral for some members who were killed during clashes in the Tayouneh neighbourhood of Beirut's southern suburbs on Oct. 15. Ibrahim Amro/AFP via Getty Images

The European Parliament has pledged targeted sanctions against leading Lebanese political figures if they destabilize the recently formed government in the country. This is an extension of the policy that the European Parliament used to compel Beirut’s fractious political elite to come together to finally form a government on Sept. 10 after a year of wrangling, delays, and mutual blame games.

Such a policy may appear odd: The European Union is not typically in the business of nation-building, and if it were to get into that business, threatening sanctions against the very people it wants in government seems like a counterintuitive way of going about it. But as the country falls into renewed violence, after months of economic disaster, the EU may find itself playing a critical role. Lebanon is currently Europe’s most pressing foreign-policy challenge, and the EU has a vital interest in preserving good governance there. The collapse of Lebanon, which has absorbed millions of refugees fleeing the war in Syria and other conflicts, would create a new wave of refugees heading to Europe—and bring political crisis with it.

Lebanon is one of the Middle East’s most diverse countries, but it is also one of its most unstable. The country has no majority political identity, with approximately equal numbers of Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians, all internally divided themselves, sustaining a fragile coexistence. The recent deadly outbreak of fighting between Hezbollah and its opponents in Beirut, leaving at least seven people dead, demonstrates this fragility even as the political players have remained remarkably stable over the decades.

The European Parliament has pledged targeted sanctions against leading Lebanese political figures if they destabilize the recently formed government in the country. This is an extension of the policy that the European Parliament used to compel Beirut’s fractious political elite to come together to finally form a government on Sept. 10 after a year of wrangling, delays, and mutual blame games.

Such a policy may appear odd: The European Union is not typically in the business of nation-building, and if it were to get into that business, threatening sanctions against the very people it wants in government seems like a counterintuitive way of going about it. But as the country falls into renewed violence, after months of economic disaster, the EU may find itself playing a critical role. Lebanon is currently Europe’s most pressing foreign-policy challenge, and the EU has a vital interest in preserving good governance there. The collapse of Lebanon, which has absorbed millions of refugees fleeing the war in Syria and other conflicts, would create a new wave of refugees heading to Europe—and bring political crisis with it.

Lebanon is one of the Middle East’s most diverse countries, but it is also one of its most unstable. The country has no majority political identity, with approximately equal numbers of Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians, all internally divided themselves, sustaining a fragile coexistence. The recent deadly outbreak of fighting between Hezbollah and its opponents in Beirut, leaving at least seven people dead, demonstrates this fragility even as the political players have remained remarkably stable over the decades.

Considering the Israeli and Syrian invasions and occupations of the country, its own propensity toward factional infighting and civil war, and spillover from other conflicts, the fact that Lebanon has managed to build any kind of stable government at all in recent history is itself a miracle.

But this miracle has occurred only sporadically and is based mostly on a rigid division of the top jobs in government: The president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, the speaker of the parliament a Shiite, the deputy prime minister and the deputy speaker of parliament Eastern Orthodox Christian, and so on. The dark side of this system is that it has fostered the formation of an ossified, noncompetitive political elite who are not responsive to the democratic demands of the people and who have long been shielded from normal democratic scrutiny by the threat that such measures might destabilize the government and reignite open conflict. This shield against scrutiny yielded incompetence, mendacity, and corruption—and the EU actions, matched with and supporting Lebanese democratic revival, may be a rare chance to break it.

Things came to a head in 2019, when a wave of popular protest surged across Lebanon, targeted specifically at the incompetence and corruption of public officials. Unusually, the protests were overwhelmingly secular and crossed confessional boundaries and political affinity. Ordinary citizens stood together, shoulder to shoulder, on the streets of Lebanon to protest against a corrupt and moribund elite, irrespective of whom they claimed to represent.

The 2019 uprising was met with state repression and sporadic partisan violence but failed to achieve its lofty goal of unseating Lebanon’s political elite and redrawing the Lebanese social contract. It lacked cohesive political leadership or a complete, unified political platform and struggled to create large coalitions around specific political goals or policies. Despite widespread sympathy for its principles, Lebanese people did not desert their parties in droves for this now amorphous civic movement.

But there was a lasting, healthy effect, nevertheless. Politicians and their commercial allies now find themselves under constant scrutiny by the media and civil society, indicating a new type of accountability in Lebanese affairs. Taboos have been broken, and the Lebanese street has been in a state of ferment since.

These protests went on for months, as Lebanon descended into financial ruin. Adding fuel to the  fire in 2020 was the COVID-19 pandemic and, most dramatically, the Beirut port explosion, in which an enormous stockpile of ammonium nitrate exploded in August, killing more than 200 people, causing widespread property damage, and rendering some 250,000 people homeless. Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned amid widespread outrage at the government neglect that had allowed this disaster to happen. The explosion marked a year of disaster for Lebanon, with COVID-19 cases skyrocketing and the currency collapsing amid rapid inflation. In what the World Bank has termed one of the worst economic crises since the mid-1800s, much of Lebanon’s population has fallen below the poverty line as the cost of living spirals upward. The political elites were in no hurry to form a government to deal with this emergency, and Lebanon remained without a cabinet until very recently.

The same elites had a very different experience of the crisis, as they simply had a lot more cash in foreign currency, much of which was reportedly sent abroad early in the crisis. And members of Hezbollah have a line of hard currency from Iran in U.S. dollars anyway. In theory, many of them would be making more money if the economy were revitalized, but since that would require reforms that undermine their own position, they would prefer the status quo and are fine with the opportunity cost.

The explosion exposed the rotten underbelly of Lebanese governance; corruption and incompetence, shared among all factions, had created the perfect disaster. The public is still demanding that heads must roll for the explosion—the recent fighting in Beirut is essentially tied to the fate of the investigation into who is culpable for the blast. Many have come to doubt the early story that the ammonium nitrate was en route to a commercial buyer in Mozambique and only offloaded because the vessel carrying it was impounded in Beirut for legal reasons. There is now growing belief that Hezbollah was involved in procuring or distributing the material for its own use or to transfer it to the Assad regime in Syria. Yet this is one of multiple versions of a story that has not been uncovered precisely because political elites have not allowed the investigative and judicial processes to take their course. Hezbollah’s insistence on removing the judge leading the probe has only deepened suspicion toward its own role in the catastrophe.

But if the political process is allowed to resume normally, the drive for accountability might take on a life of its own—and catch up with the very people who are currently responsible for the political process. This is why politics in Lebanon has been in gridlock for the past year and why much of the government is OK with that continuing, even as families scavenge in the garbage for food and the lights go off.

The problem for Europe is that the longer the political crisis, and therefore the economic and security crises, in Lebanon persists, the more likely it is that the state could collapse entirely. This presents many dangers for Europe. Lebanon is host to some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, plus a further 500,000 refugees from other conflicts, mostly Palestinians—this out of a total population of less than 7 million. While Lebanon enjoyed a period of relative stability at the very time when the Syrian civil war was going through its worst phases, the political and economic crisis in the country is taking a huge toll, especially on the refugee population: U.N. agencies have recently warned that 90 percent of the refugees in Lebanon are currently living in extreme poverty. This is already a recipe for mass migration—but if the security situation degenerates, flight is inevitable. With few havens left in the region, the most sensible route will be to head to Europe.

And this raises the question: Can Europe absorb another million or more refugees? Economically, of course it can. Europe is in a much better position to provide refuge than Lebanon ever was, even in its best days. But politically? The 2015 refugee wave was hugely destabilizing for domestic and European-level politics, leading to a surge of support for far-right and neofascist parties across the continent and imperiling the liberal democratic political order. What would happen if another million Syrians started making their way to Europe’s borders just as the democratic tide seems to have turned against the far-right?

The European Parliament appears desperate to avoid just that eventuality, which is why it is taking a firmer hand with Beirut’s politicians. Of course, Lebanon itself is feeling the enormous strain of hosting this refugee population, but the country needs a functioning government, and its people deserve greater accountability from their politicians. If Europe wants Lebanon to keep absorbing these refugees, it needs to provide the aid desperately needed—but that aid has to go to a class of competent politicians rather than thugs and thieves. European countries, above all France, have significant leverage over Beirut’s political class, not least because while they might steal in Lebanon, they spend in Paris and Milan and keep their bank accounts overseas.

But the situation remains precarious. Not all politicians will respond to the threat of sanctions in the same way. The wild card is most likely to be, once again, Hezbollah, which continues to enjoy the backing of Damascus and Tehran. If the leaders of Hezbollah fear that they will pay a price for the Beirut blast, they might be less worried about French sanctions and more worried about their own survival.

Faysal Itani is the director of the Human Security Unit at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy.

Azeem Ibrahim is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.
 Twitter: @azeemibrahim

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