While many would consider Lebanon a small and insignificant country, this summer has proven the exact opposite of that. From budgetary and financial crises, to looming geopolitical threats, the Lebanese summer has seen a myriad of political problems arise to the forefront. In this article, we will recount the major events and broad strokes of summer 2019 that have affected Lebanon and assess what these issues mean for the upcoming future.
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The Lebanese summer has been characterised by warm temperatures and a vibrant night life. Against the scenic backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea, late night clubs, colourful souks, and a cacophony of historical sites entice locals and tourists. This summer was no different, but laced between the celebrations and festivities were more dire underpinnings. A wide array of headlines and dramatic events dominated the Lebanese media, while a morose and sombre atmosphere seemed to envelope the sociopolitical landscape. The Daily Star Lebanon published a special edition of their regular news on August 7, 2019. There were only a few pages. Each individual page contained a handful of words. The final page featured a single cedar tree and a single sentence: “Wake up before it’s too late.”
These words were a warning message, reminding individuals of the realities Lebanon faced as summer nights became autumn days. While many conceive Lebanon as being a nihilistic paradise, this summer has proved the exact opposite of that. While many would rather ignore the pressing issues and concerns plaguing the country, this summer has proved that there is an appetite for reform.
An Economic Crisis Always on the Horizon
The 2019 Lebanese state budget was passed after an intense, half-year long battle. The fight for a substantive budget was long-overdue, but the summer eventually saw the beginning of the end. This was no easy process and a series of political disagreements resulted in major stalemates. At its core, the budget was set to address the growing economic challenges that threatened the Lebanese state. The country’s national debt has reached 152% of GDP, while its deficit spending has increased to around 11% of GDP. GDP growth on the other hand has slowed to around 0.2%, the Lebanese pound has inflated by around 6%, and unemployment rates remain disastrously high, with President Michael Aoun claiming back in 2018 worklessness was at around the 46% mark.
These concerns were reflected in IMF remarks and recommendations made in July of 2019. Claiming to understand that Lebanon’s “starting position [was] difficult, including high twin deficits, a large public debt, and low growth,” the country nonetheless seemed poised to “implement fundamental reforms to re-balance Lebanon’s economy.” All Lebanon had to do, or so the IMF claimed, was to create a functioning budget that reduced fiscal deficit spending.
However, it is important to assess these IMF recommendations within the overall context of structural reforms in emerging economies. Many elements proposed in the 2019 Lebanese budget are reminiscent of other changes attempted by neighboring countries like Jordan. Several key decisions discussed in the budget included cuts to military pensions, increases of the average retirement age, and significant slashes to Lebanon’s already underfunded education system.
These proposed cuts have resulted in significant outbursts of civil unrest. Veterans, frustrated and outraged by cuts to their pensions, demonstrated on the streets of Beirut throughout May and June. At the same time, students and university professors joined forces to showcase their opposition to the budget. President Michael Aoun even delayed the signing of the budget after disagreements emerged on the status of civil service applicants. Despite these issues, the 2019 Lebanese budget was finally signed on July 31st, 2019.
The blowback over the budget and the battle for Lebanon’s economy remain ongoing processes. Significant backlash lingers as a result of the 2019 budget’s significant cuts to a wide sector of society. Just a few weeks after the budget was signed, the Fitch credit agency further highlighted Lebanon’s economic crisis by downgrading the country’s credit rating from B- to CCC, indicating to international investors that Lebanese bonds were effectively junk. In response to the downgrade, Prime Minister Saad Hariri declared an economic state of emergency in Lebanon, further signaling instability and uncertainty. Amidst the chaos, Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil has stated that he intends to introduce Lebanon’s 2020 budget in October 2019. It remains to be seen how long this debate will take.
Mashrou Leila and Civil Rights
Another front that troubled Lebanon throughout the summer came in the form of divisions over major social issues. The Beirut indie rock band Mashrou Leila is well known for a variety of reasons, but a significant one is the sexuality of the band’s lead singer: Hamed Sinno. Well-known for being openly gay and for his pro-LGBT advocacy throughout the Middle East, Hamed Sinno and Mashrou Leila were involved in a major social crisis that erupted in Lebanon. The band was originally scheduled to play at the Byblos International Festival on August 9th, 2019. However, throughout July, religious authorities in Byblos and members of various social media communities decried the band and its upcoming performance. The archbishop of the community declared that the band “[undermined] religious and human values [and attacked] sacred symbols of Christianity.” Shortly after, members of the band were subjected to interrogation by Lebanese security forces. A lawsuit filed on July 22nd, which called “on the government to prosecute Mashrou’ Leila for insulting religious rituals and inciting sectarian tensions” was finally dropped after the band was questioned. Facing mounting pressure from various angles, the organisers of the Byblos International Festival eventually capitulated and on July 30th, forced Mashrou Leila to drop their set.
In a rather striking move, the band agreed to remove controversial songs from their social media platforms. The band then met with Christian authorities from Byblos, as well as politicians and officials representing major Maronite Christian parties in the country the Kateab Party, Free Patriotic Movement, and Lebanese Forces. Within hours of their cancellation announcement, Mashrou Leila posted on Facebook an official apology, noting that:
“Our songs do not insult any sacred religious symbols or beliefs, and that insulting people’s feelings was primarily the result of campaigns of fabrication, defamation, and false accusations of which we were the first victims.”
International actors and Lebanese citizens expressed outrage over the affair. Within hours of the band’s cancellation, eleven civil rights organisations and NGOs submitted complaints to the Lebanese government and expressed solidarity for the band. Other musical acts scheduled to play at the Byblos International Festival, such as the Dutch band Within Temptation, dropped out in support of Mashrou Leila. Meanwhile, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma played his scheduled performance, but ended his set with a song from Mashrou Leila: Tayf. On the Lebanese street, many individuals protested the band’s censorship and organised solidarity concerts. Hundreds of Lebanese attended a grassroots event in Beirut titled “Music is Louder,” with musicians and concertgoers alike decrying the Lebanese state’s attack on freedom of expression and sexuality. While much of the outrage over Mashrou Leila has begun to die down, the impact the band has had on Lebanon remains demonstrable, and the attacks on the group by the Lebanese government underscore an ongoing trend of declining civil rights.
Another Crisis on the Border
On August 25th, two Israeli drones entered Lebanese airspace, with reports indicating that their targets were Hezbollah-controlled areas in Beirut. One drone crashed in the southern suburbs, while another exploded in the Dahiyeh neighbourhood, causing some damage to buildings. Shortly after, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivered a speech claiming that the drones were attempting to kill Hezbollah operatives and that Hezbollah would not allow such an incident to go unanswered. Other Lebanese officials offered similar sentiments, with Prime Minister Saad Hariri claiming that these actions were threats to Lebanon’s security, sovereignty, and stability. President Michael Aoun emphasised these points further, declaring to UN officials that the incident was paramount to a “declaration of war.” While the border between Israel and Lebanon has been tense, it also has been relatively quiet in the years since the 2006 Lebanon War.
Now however, relations may be entering a new phase, as tensions are increasing. On August 28th, Lebanese security forces claimed that “it opened fire on three Israeli drones that entered the country’s airspace.” IDF units were placed on high alert and security forces on both sides were waiting one another to act further. A few days later, gun fire was exchanged. According to Israeli claims, on September 1st, Hezbollah anti-tank missiles were fired onto IDF positions and in response, Israel launched around 100 artillery shells. Hezbollah claimed to have killed several Israelis and taken out multiple tanks, while the IDF reported no casualties from the incident. While little changed on the military front, Israeli civilians living near the border were instructed to evacuate for safer areas.
The situation continues to unfold as summer turns into autumn. While many predicted further escalation, both Israel and Hezbollah remain at an impasse. Within 24 hours of the incident, UNFIL and other international actors stepped in to ensure that further fighting would not break out. The border continues to be tense, but, beyond the September 1st skirmish, little else has occurred. On September 9th, Hezbollah operatives claimed to have shot down another Israeli drone that was operating near the town of Ramyah. Meanwhile, US forces have docked the navy destroyer USS Ramage in Beirut and a meeting was conducted on the ship between American and Lebanese officials. This American action was preceded by US State Department announcements that declared support for Israel’s actions.
It is important to emphasise that these tensions are ongoing. With Israel’s Knesset elections finally wrapped up as of September 17th, it remains to be seen as to what direction the country will take. With Benny Gantz of the Blue and White alliance securing victory over Benjamin Netanyahu, it is uncertain which parties will enter a governing coalition and how a newly formed government will affect Israeli policy on its northern border. Benny Gantz, however, is a noted general and has continuously emphasized the IDF’s military prowess and operational capacity. On September 1st, just after the brief border skirmish between Hezbollah and the IDF, Gantz gave a solemn warning:
“Israel’s security forces can overcome any challenge and we do not recommend anyone put our capabilities to the test.”
Autumn Considerations and Winter Storms
While these incidents were impactful on the Lebanese sociopolitical landscape, they were not the only ones to mark this summer. Starting in July and continuing to this day, Palestinian refugees residing in Lebanon erupted in protests after a new labour policy effectively barred Palestinian participation in the Lebanese workforce. In late June, government official Saleh al-Gharib faced an assassination attempt that left several men dead, highlighting political infighting amongst Lebanon’s Druze community. Extremist organisations such as Islamic State continue to maintain a minor presence in the country and other issues like the Beirut trash crisis and regular electric power blackouts continue to plague the country.
One might counter these statements with words of optimism, highlighting some key developments that indicate a brighter future for the country. While civil society organisations and NGOs continue to battle the myriad of problems affecting Lebanon, more seem to crop up as the days go by. Ordinary Lebanese, continually frustrated by government inadequacies and declining socioeconomic statuses, are decreasing their participation in politics and many are searching for new opportunities in other places. With autumn arriving soon, Lebanon must continue to contend with the problems it faces at home and abroad. When considering the Lebanese summer, it becomes clear what the Daily Star Lebanon tried to say when it solemnly warned: “Wake up before it’s too late.”
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
- Lebanon: A Country in Fragments (Andrew Arsan)
- Lebanon: The Rise and Fall of a Secular State under Siege (Mark Farha)
- The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Bassel F Salloukh et al)
- The War for Lebanon, 1970–1985 (Itamar Rabinovich)
- Everyday Sectarianism in Urban Lebanon (Joanne Randa Nucho)
Additional geopolitical reading suggestions can be found on our 2019 reading list
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Edwin Tran is an independent writer focusing on geopolitics and the Levantine region. He is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno with degrees in History and International Affairs, and has published work in various sites from newspapers to academic journals. Edwin has spent time living and researching in the Levant region, and specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.
Photo: Oren Rozen