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Lebanon on the Edge of a Severe Global Crisis, Including Decline into Disastrous Social Chaos

posted on: Jul 14, 2021

Beirut harbor explosion was just one of several recent crises to hit Lebanon Photo Agence France-Presse

By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer

Caretaker Prime Minister Diab recently warned that Lebanon is “days away from a social explosion.” The World Bank has described the country as “enduring a severe and prolonged economic depression” and identified it as one of the most severe global crises since the mid-19th century. Given the country’s largest peace-time economic and financial crisis, Covid-19 and the Port of Beirut explosion, and now the decreasing ability of the Military to control the chaos, the Bank has labeled Lebanon a “Fragility, Conflict and Violence State.”

Maybe One of Worst Depressions in Modern History—per World Bank, Half of Lebanese Population Living in Poverty

Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab made his warning loud and clear, while practically begging the international community to bale out his country experiencing a deep economic crisis. According to Al-Jazeera, Diab declared Lebanon a possibility for complete social breakdown, not just based on its 90% loss of currency value but the 50% of the population pushed into poverty, and fuel prices increases of one-third. In dramatizing his appeal for outside support, Diab dramatized that the “Lebanese are facing this dark fate alone.” Diab noted further, “As we gather here, the streets of Lebanon are full of cars queueing in front of gas stations. And there are those searching in pharmacies for medicine and a can of baby formula. Inside their own homes, the Lebanese are living without electricity.”

Caretaker Prime Minister has warned of a ‘social explosion in Lebanon Photo asiannewsday

However, since the catastrophic Beirut port explosion, the sectarian politics of Lebanon has reared its ugly head and disenabled any effort to agree on a new government for the country. Diab has stated that the problem of foreign aid to the country is linked to the corrupt system of governing Lebanon. He urged friendly nations to extend assistance despite the lack of a new government, saying that linking aid to reform of a deeply corrupt system has become a “threat to the lives of Lebanese” and to the country’s stability. 

Diab, speaking hyperbolically to diplomats, said “I appeal through you to the kings, princes, presidents and leaders of brotherly and friendly countries, and I call upon the United Nations and all international bodies, the international community, and the global public opinion to help save the Lebanese from death and prevent the demise of Lebanon.” More practically, he noted that only a new cabinet could restart talks, with such bodies as the International Monetary Fund.

However, reaction to the Lebanese pleas for foreign assistance was not so happily received by the European Union, which bluntly retorted that the Lebanese “were to blame for the political and economic crisis and some could face sanctions if they continue to obstruct steps to form a new government and implement reform.” Al-Jazeera’s own reporter, Zeina Khodr, reporting from Beirut, said “the politicians – which many Lebanese hold responsible for running the economy into the ground – are fixated on a power struggle over who will control the next government, and are blaming the international community for not bailing them out.” 

How Bad is it? Is “Lebanon Sinking into One of the Most Severe Global Crises Episodes, amidst Deliberate Inaction?”

The above header is the World Bank’s assessment of Lebanon’s economic, social and military condition of this often-vibrant country. Beirut, once known as the Paris of the Middle East, has become a parody of what it once may have been. The World Bank defines this tragedy as a “Deliberate Depression,” one caused by a corrupt political system and its perpetrators.

The World Bank has warned of severe crisis in Lebanon Photo

The Bank correctly assesses that the country’s leadership has been totally inadequate in addressing the severe issues facing Lebanon. No political consensus on corrective policy, on dealing with a corrupt economic system, and in dealing with Lebanon’s history of civil war and conflicts over generations has resulted in a fragile, conflict-ridden and violent state.   

Citing a “dangerous depletion of resources,” among others, including human capital and skilled labor, the World Bank regional director avers that “Only a reform-minded government, which embarks upon a credible path toward economic and financial recovery, while working closely with all stakeholders, can reverse further sinking of Lebanon and prevent more national fragmentation”. Besides huge levels of unemployment and the failure of basic services, including water, electricity, health services, and the availability of food has been catastrophic.

Lebanese military is rapidly running out of resources Photo ABC news

And now, how will the Military play into the Equation of Lebanese Law and Order?

Security incidents have occurred in the hundreds since civil disorder began around the country. These included protester roadblocks but incidences of violence and crime and personal protests. Roadblocks were set up all over the country, in Tyre, Sidon, Tripoli, and Zahle in Bekaa. Black market exchanges of Lira for Dollars have been major triggers for protest, leading to roadblocks riots and violence. Violence across Lebanon have occurred over power outages and gas station fuel shortages have also been a source of outrage.

The military has been deteriorating rapidly, used for a broad array of activities ranging from protecting politicians and financial institutions to breaking up fights at gas stations. But broader issues of how to pay soldiers for their duty, even including transport from one base to another, are at risk. Here is where the questionable role of Hezbollah comes into play. Even in pre-disaster times, Hezbollah has supported the Lebanese military in enforcing law and order. However, Hezbollah’s entry as a paramilitary force into the national fray would cause more trouble for the international community than for the Lebanese.

Urban protesters are becoming more emboldened Photo

In this context of militarization, one must be aware that the larger Lebanese civilian population possesses weapons; then there are the warlords from civil war days and other actors from who-knows-where-else who control dwindling resources. There are also other actors such as the large numbers of Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees in camps, and the role of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency which supports refugees.

Since half of the population of Lebanon lives under the poverty line with no end of how the crisis might end, it is hard to see it concluding favorably. This is not Lebanon with its stellar city of Beirut as the Paris of the Middle East we might have wished for. That was an unrealistic notion we might have loved, but, after all, East is East and West is West—why would we have wanted a Paris there? One is enough and Beirut is perfect the way it was.

A brief, final note, from the American Task Force on Lebanon on July 12:

U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea joined her French counterpart, Ambassador Anne Brillo, for a visit to Saudi Arabia. This marked twice in the same week that U.S., French, and Saudi officials have met to explore a solution for Lebanon’s political deadlock and declining economy and to seek a commitment from Riyadh to extend substantial aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces as well as broader humanitarian assistance, and for the kingdom to lean on those in Beirut over whom it has the influence to end the political dysfunction that has stymied the formation of a new government.


“Lebanon days away from ‘social explosion’, PM Diab warns,” Al-Jazeera, 7/6/2021
“Lebanon Sinking into One of the Most Severe Global Crises Episodes, amidst Deliberate Inaction,” World Bank Press Release, 6/1/2021
“Chaos in Lebanon: How much longer can the military maintain law and order?” Global Risk Insights, 7/8/2021
“US Ambassador to Lebanon Travels to Saudi Arabia,” American Task Force on Lebanon, 7/12/2-21 

John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He did fieldwork in an east Libyan Saharan oasis and has taught at the University of Libya-Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo. John served with the United Nations as an advisor in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, the UN, and the World Bank in 65 countries.

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