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On 25 January Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli was the scene of massive protests. The old town hall was set alight, government buildings were attacked and some of the protesters clashed with police, using Molotov cocktails. One protester died and more than 400 were injured. At least 40 soldiers and police were also injured, and at least 25 people were detained.
Commentators said that this could mark the beginning of the possible “collapse” that they had been warning about throughout 2020.
Lebanon is something of a microcosm of the Middle East, with many of the region’s sects represented. The power-sharing agreement reached at the end of the civil war in the 1980s has entrenched sectarian elites, encouraging corruption and making the system unresponsive to the needs of the populace. That system is under severe strain; talk of revolution is widespread.
This Insight looks at contributing factors to the country’s fragile state and the UK’s response.
The immediate cause of the rioting was the new lockdown. On 15 January Lebanon imposed a curfew, after milder measures failed to prevent a New Year surge in infections. Residents are not allowed to shop for food. Combined with an economic collapse, the new measures will leave many unable to feed themselves.
2020 saw the “worst economic and financial crisis in the country’s history”. GDP is projected to have shrunk by 19.2% in 2020 and there is triple digit inflation. Banks have been paralysed, the Lebanese pound has crashed, and savers have been unable to withdraw from their dollar-denominated accounts, losing billions in savings. Inflation has slashed the value of salaries, including those of public servants, the police and the army. The incidence of absolute poverty tripled from 2019 to 2020.
Lebanon’s economy had been deteriorating for at least a decade, as Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states despaired at Hezbollah’s growing influence in the Government and cut their financial support. As corruption and mismanagement undermined the economy, the unaccountable elite continued borrowing with few restraints. Lebanon is indebted to the tune of 150% of GDP, one of the biggest debt burdens in the world; servicing it rose to at least a third of the annual budget.
On 12 January the World Bank approved a $246-million aid package, to provide emergency cash to 786,000 vulnerable Lebanese and strengthen the social security system.
Faced with widespread anger and political unrest since 2019, the authorities have tried to hold on to power. There have been increases in the intimidation of civil rights activists and in the disappearances of individuals opposing the Government. Human Rights Watch says the deterioration of rights protection in Lebanon is the “most drastic” in decades.
The Beirut explosion
Adding to the sense of catastrophe afflicting Lebanon in 2020, on 4 August a cataclysmic explosion ripped through the centre of the capital, Beirut. The blast, caused by unsafely stored ammonium nitrate, left at least 204 people dead, 7,500 injured and causing £8-11 billion of damage. Perhaps 300,000 people were made homeless.
By 10 August the whole Government had resigned over the disaster. Demonstrations flared across the country, adding to a series of protests that had been taking place since 2019. An inquiry was set up but the elite is resisting its efforts and refusing to take the blame.
Forming a new government has been as difficult as ever, although Saad Hariri has been designated as the new Prime Minister. This will be his third stint as Prime Minister, having resigned in 2019 due to the protests.
Potential for violence and humanitarian crisis
Lebanon hosts more displaced people per capita than anywhere else in the world: one in five people, including about 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Millions of people were already classified as in humanitarian need in the middle of 2020 and poverty roughly doubled between 2019 and 2020. 2021 is likely to see a serious humanitarian crisis.
Lebanon is also a front line in the regional dispute between Sunnis and Shias, something that also involves the wars in Syria (just over the border) and Yemen, as well as the continuing violence in Iraq. If the Lebanese power-sharing agreement comes apart violence could surge, with the potential to set off more sectarian and inter-state conflict in the region. Western attempts to engineer a rebirth of the Iran nuclear deal, for example, could be disrupted by a crisis involving Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran, and perhaps Israel, also just over the border.
The UK’s response
The UK allocated £114 million in development aid for financial year 2020/21, and gave £27 million in emergency aid after the explosion, most of it allocated to the UN World Food Programme. British military experts were provided to help reconstruct the port.
The UK has a “strong relationship in tackling the terrorist threat” with the Lebanese armed forces and in January 2021 donated 100 armoured vehicles to help patrol Lebanon’s Syrian border.
There are two main sets of UK sanctions relating to Lebanon, both of which implement UN-derived measures.
For more on the role of Hezbollah and the impact of the Syrian war, see: Lebanon 2018, House of Commons Library, October 2018.
About the author: Ben Smith is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs and defence.
This paper provides details and links for ministerial statements and parliamentary debates (from both Houses of Parliament) that cover international affairs and defence.
In 2015 Iran agreed a deal with China, the EU, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US to limit the Iranian nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. The deal was intended to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons programme. It did not include measures on Iranian foreign policy or ballistic missile programme.