Crossing our fingers for Lebanon, how much worse can things get in 2014?
Although 2013 was a bad year for Lebanon in terms of politics, security and the economy, 2014 could be worse, officials and analysts warn, with the country increasingly caught in the crossfire of the war raging in neighboring Syria.The Lebanese are bracing for the worst in the face of warnings from top leaders that 2014 will be fraught with dangers that could threaten the country’s fragile stability, mainly as a result of the repercussions of the war in Syria, which has caused more than 1 million Syrian refugees to flee into Lebanon.
“How can one have any hope in the new year when our political leaders are very pessimistic, warning us on a daily basis that the worst is yet to come?” asked Farah Fawaz, a 48-year-old mother of four children. Fawaz, who lives in the west Beirut neighborhood of Zoqaq al-Blat, spoke shortly after hearing the sound of the car bomb explosion that killed former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah, a political adviser to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, along with seven others in Downtown Beirut.
Shatah’s assassination, occurring just four days before 2013 draws to a close, is the latest in a string of car bombings and suicide attacks that has struck different targets in various areas – an ominous signal that Lebanon is rapidly being drawn into the Syrian civil war. The warnings about the country’s fate in light of the turmoil in the region, particularly the 33-month war in Syria, have been issued by officials on both sides of the political spectrum.
The prolonged political crisis has left Lebanon without a functioning government for nine months and a paralyzed Parliament unable to meet due to a lack of quorum.The problem has been exacerbated by Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria, where the party’s fighters are battling alongside President Bashar Assad’s army to defeat rebel groups seeking to overthrow the regime.
By all accounts, 2013 will go down in the annals of Lebanon’s history as a year that witnessed a serious escalation of sectarian and political tensions and a deterioration of the security situation as a direct consequence of the spillover of the war in Syria into Lebanese territory.The soaring tensions have already had an adverse effect on the country’s struggling economy. Leading business leaders have said a total economic and financial collapse in Lebanon is possible if a quick solution is not found to halt the deterioration of the country’s political and security institutions.
Caretaker Economy Minister Nicolas Nahas warned that the ailing economy would be further battered if Lebanon failed to elect a new president in May 2014.“Foreign indications portend that the economy would be affected if the political crisis worsened and the country entered a [presidential] vacuum,” Nahas told the Voice of Lebanon radio station last week.
The year began with a sudden resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Cabinet on March 22 after ministers from Hezbollah and its March 8 allies rejected his bid to renew the mandate of police chief Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi. Mikati’s dramatic move has since thrown the country into a Cabinet deadlock that has defied all of Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam’s attempts to break it.
Salam’s efforts to form a new Cabinet have been stymied by conditions and counterconditions set out by the March 8 and March 14 parties over the shape and role of the government.While the March 14 coalition insists on a neutral, nonpartisan government, Hezbollah and its March 8 allies demand a national unity Cabinet in which all the parties are represented.
Deep national divisions over the unrest in Syria have pushed Lebanon to the brink of strife. This was perhaps best manifested by several rounds of fierce clashes between supporters and opponents of Assad in the northern city of Tripoli that left scores of people dead.The year also saw a wave of deadly car bombings. Two struck Hezbollah-controlled areas in Beirut’s southern suburbs, another two hit mosques in Tripoli, and twin suicide bombings targeted the Iranian Embassy. In total, more than 100 people lost their lives.
There was also an unprecedented suicide attack against the Lebanese Army in the southern city of Sidon on Dec. 15, which killed a soldier and four gunmen.Directly linked to the Syrian conflict, all these attacks were a clear indication that Lebanon was teetering on the edge of a major conflagration.
Worse still, the alarming rise in Lebanon of Al-Qaeda-affiliated “takfiri” factions – which were already active in strife-torn Syria and war-ravaged Iraq – supposedly in response to Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria, has added fuel to the fire, heightening fears of the divided country sliding into Iraq-style sectarian violence.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel warned that Lebanon was faced with grave security and political challenges in the New Year and urged its rival leaders to reach an agreement to halt the country’s drift toward the abyss.“We are facing tough security challenges as a result of the crisis in Syria. We need an internal political accord in order for Lebanon to overcome these challenges,” Charbel told The Daily Star. “In the absence of a political accord among the country’s leaders, the situation in Lebanon will be difficult at all levels.”
President Michel Sleiman said the wave of bombings that struck Lebanon, including the attack on the Iranian Embassy, had confirmed that the country was threatened with “dangers of strife and imported terrorism.”Hezbollah has predicted that more bombings similar to the attack that targeted the Iranian Embassy could occur, while Speaker Nabih Berri has warned of “a dangerous scheme aimed at making Lebanon another Iraq.”
Caretaker Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn has also declared that Lebanon was in danger, saying the attacks on the Army amounted to an attack on the entire country.“Lebanon is facing a looming danger by fundamentalists who enter the country across the [Syrian] border to destabilize Lebanon,” he said in a statement on Dec. 21. He added that the Army would stage pre-emptive operations in order to prevent these groups from carrying out bombings.
Ghosn, who was harshly criticized by March 14 politicians in 2011 for saying that Al-Qaeda had a presence in Lebanon, told Al-Manar TV station recently: “Al-Qaeda exists in the country and there is terrorism in the country.”“But the Army has a firm and final decision to uproot terrorism no matter how precious the sacrifices are,” Ghosn told As-Safir newspaper on Dec. 20.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has also warned that Lebanon stood at “a very dangerous crossroads,” and former President Amin Gemayel described the situation in the country as “very dangerous” and called for forming an all-encompassing government capable of meeting the challenges.Speaking to The Daily Star, Charbel said if the rival March 8 and March 14 leaders, already not on speaking terms, failed to forge an agreement to resolve the political crisis, then attention should be focused on an external accord, especially between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“A Saudi-Iranian rapprochement can help defuse sectarian and political tensions in Lebanon,” Charbel said.On the day Shatah was assassinated, MP Walid Jumblatt called for dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran, saying that this would help ease tensions in Lebanon.
Charbel said crucial events in the New Year that could have repercussions on the country’s security and stability were: the Jan. 16 trials by the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon of four Hezbollah suspects allegedly involved in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; the presidential elections scheduled for May; parliamentary elections in October; the election of a new Sunni mufti; and the election of a new president in Syria. Dates for these last two events have not yet been set.
There are growing fears that Lebanon might slip into a presidential vacuum if Parliament fails to meet to elect a new head of state. Sleiman’s six-year term in office expires on May 25, and preparations must begin two months before.A presidential vacuum would have grave consequences for the country’s security and stability.
Mouna Fayyad, a writer and a psychology professor at the state-run Lebanese University, blamed lax security and paralysis in government institutions on the absence of an effective state authority. She also warned of an increasing threat posed by takfiri groups in the next year as a result of Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria.“The biggest challenge facing the Lebanese in the new year is the absence of the state. The country is plagued by a security breakdown due to a vacuum in state institutions,” Fayyad told The Daily Star.
“There is no [effective] state authority and no responsible government to cope with the deteriorating security and socio-economic situation which has led to rampant sectarian violence,” she added.Fayyad, an outspoken Shiite critic of Hezbollah, said the party’s intervention in Syria had led to the rise of takfiri factions – Muslims who believe other Muslims that do not follow their ideology are infidels – in Lebanon.
“The threat of these factions will continue in the next year,” she said.In order for Lebanon to be able to confront political, security and economic challenges in the next year, Fayyad said, a new Cabinet should be formed quickly. She blamed Hezbollah’s insistence on veto power for the Cabinet stalemate.
“Hezbollah must give up its demand for veto power in order to facilitate the formation of a new Cabinet,” said Fayyad, who has written articles criticizing Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon as well as its military involvement in Syria.The Future Movement and Hezbollah have traded blame for responsibility for the spread of takfiri groups into Lebanon. The Future Movement and its March 14 allies have condemned Hezbollah’s involvement in the fighting in Syria, saying the party’s actions have brought such factions to Lebanon.
“Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria has pushed Lebanon into a conflict with the biggest part of the Syrian people, which fueled a feeling of revenge, hatred, terrorism and extremism in Lebanon. Therefore, Hezbollah and terrorist and extremist takfiri organizations have become two faces of one coin,” the parliamentary Future bloc said in a statement after its weekly meeting on Dec. 24.
But Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has rejected such an assessment, saying that his party’s intervention in Syria was mainly designed to protect Lebanon from car bombs and takfiri groups.Nasrallah and other Hezbollah officials have accused the Future Movement of providing a safe haven for extremist groups, a charge vehemently denied by the movement.