Lebanon’s Challenge in 2021 – To Be or Not to Be

Tuesday, December 29, 2020
Jean AbiNader

There are many scenarios regarding Lebanon’s survival as a functioning state. There are serious questions about Lebanon’s existence as an independent, sovereign, inclusive, and open society. Perspectives range from dire and desperate (collapsed economy, malfunctioning government, hostility in the streets), to barely manageable (international humanitarian rescue enables health services, minimal economic reforms stabilizes currency, political leaders able to avoid complete government takeover by the Hezbollah coalition).

The political leadership has passed on the latest opportunity to form a government, possibly betting that international parties will step in rather than see Lebanon crumble. We know that their pensions are not dependent on this assumption. Meanwhile, millions of Lebanese face continued deterioration in their quality of life and future prospects without the deep and credible reforms needed to stabilize the economy and political system.

Of course, the major beneficiaries of a failed Lebanon are outside actors. These include Syria and Iran, while Russia and China may also find opportunities to offset Western efforts to sustain a stable and free Lebanon. Internally, the alliance now in control will benefit from being able to undercut any changes that might reduce its hegemony despite international calls for reform and renewal. Still left out of the dynamics shaping potential scenarios are the Lebanese people, the refugee population, and other marginalized groups experiencing the greatest disruptions to their well-being.

The latest brewing scandal is the degree of transparency surrounding distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines. Social media is calling for a discussion of the distribution plan and likelihood of a rapid build-up after the first tranche in February. Conspiracies abound whether one is calling for a return to the streets, a new crusade from the West or South to disable the current oligarchs, a military takeover to force system-wide reforms, or simply a coup by internal parties determined to impose their vision of a Lebanese state.

The most optimistic visions focus on survival until the 2022 elections, when a popular movement could have gained enough strength to overturn existing power structures and elect a more responsive Parliament able to work with a Council of Ministers to revive the country, or what’s left of it. But can the people wait that long? Can the people overcome lifelong behaviors and create new alliances to move forward on shared policies without the drawbacks experienced in Tunisia and elsewhere? Or will those who can find new lives abroad, depriving Lebanon of talented human resources?

Current events, from the razing of a Syrian refugee camp to the lack of progress in forming a government do not bode well for Lebanese endurance until the elections, if they are even held. There are plenty of emerging leaders in civil society and the current parties. Whether they are able to come together and claim a unified voice for Lebanon’s future will very much determine if the country survives 2021. The vision of Lebanon today is similar to that which inspired its formation 100 years ago: a unified, nonsectarian, democratic, open market system that embraces both Western and Eastern values built around home, family, openness, opportunity, and respect of differences. This is the ultimate test of the famous Lebanese resilience – can the country emerge from its current darkness into a better version of its founding principles?

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.