Security and economic tensions are rising in Lebanon after another failed attempt to form a new government. As businesses shut down, joblessness and hunger are rising. Lebanon’s banks, having lent 70% of their assets to an insolvent central bank, have locked most depositors out of their savings. Analysts say that with no government budget, there will soon also be no hard currency to pay for imports of subsidized wheat, fuel and medicine in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Political observers, like Michael Young of Beirut’s Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, warn that Lebanon may be facing the worst moment in its postwar history. He says the beleaguered country, once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East, faces “the potential multifaceted collapse—of its financial system, its economy, and its security situation—with no effort by political leaders to prevent this.”
More Lebanese are slipping into poverty as their currency loses almost 90 percent of its value on the informal market in just 18 months.
Economist Toufic Gaspard, a former senior economic adviser to the Lebanese minister of finance and a former adviser to the International Monetary Fund, spells out how Lebanon got into this dire crisis.
“The policy of the Central Bank of Lebanon is the culprit, the criminal behind banking collapse," said Gaspard. "Fiscal policy brought the collapse of the exchange rate with unsustainable debt level. There is absolutely, totally no economic, financial solution in Lebanon before first we address the occupation of Lebanon by Iran through their local arm, Hezbollah. Lebanon’s fundamental problem is political.”
Young says many in Lebanon believe Hezbollah is behind the delay in forming a new government because the group is waiting to see the outcome of negotiations on an Iran nuclear deal. He says “Lebanon is a hostage, ensuring that Washington accepts Tehran's and Hezbollah's domination there in any broader regional agreement.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri does not want to lead a government if his condition that technocrats form it is not accepted. So far, Hezbollah has refused the demand. Also, Young says observers in Lebanon believe Hariri’s backer, Saudi Arabia, does not want him to act as a cover for Hezbollah.
Robin Wright, a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Wilson Center, recently returned from Lebanon where she observed that Lebanese army soldiers are also suffering and going hungry like the rest of the population, raising a serious security threat.
"The Lebanese army is the one institution that is functioning in this country that is almost a failed state," said Wright. "Warlords are no longer fighting each other militarily. They’re fighting each other politically. So, the Lebanese army is critical. ISIS has tried once again to take advantage of that vacuum and it is started to resurge after being pushed out of the eastern mountains on the Syrian border. Two sleeper cells have been captured this year. They think there are others.”
The United Nations says that more than 55-percent of Lebanon’s population “is now trapped in poverty and struggling for bare necessities,” as it warns of very severe domestic and regional repercussions.