Is Lebanon immune to the Arab spring?

Several crises during the past decade haven’t led to outright conflict in Syria’s neighbour.

The Lebanese are adept at living their lives normally while national and regional events simmer or rage. Lebanon is going about its business as usual, without notable crisis or conflict, and with members of the Lebanese disapora on holiday this Christmas filling the bars, restaurants and ski slopes.

But people are very politically aware and have been watching developments in the Middle East with a sharp eye over the past year. While the toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt has been welcomed by all, the uprisings in neighbouring Syria have inspired a quieter and more uneasy mood.

Officially neutral with regard to Syria, Lebanon is nervous about the potential consequences that either a protracted civil war or a collapse of the Syrian government might cause in Lebanon. Along with Iran, Syria is the main patron of Hezbollah (the Shia militant group and political party in Lebanon), so its loss could have far-reaching effects on the balance of power here.

Despite this air of quiet worry, the more immediate effects of the unrest next door are economic. The streets are relatively empty of tourists from other countries. Visitors from Jordan and Iran usually travel to Lebanon by land through Syria, so tour operators have been trying to attract them back with cheaper flights. "There has been a general slowdown in economic activity, particularly in trade and tourism," says Alia Moubayed, senior economist (Middle East) at Barclays Capital. The first ten months of 2011 saw a 25 per cent drop in tourist arrivals compared to the same period in 2010.

International sanctions recently imposed on Syria are being felt in the Lebanese economy, because a third of Lebanon's trade is either with Syria or transported through Syria. Ahmad Fayyad, a trader at Beirut's wholesale fruit and vegetable market, tells me that "a kilo of lemons used to be 3,000 lira [US$2]. Now it's down to 2,000." Citrus fruits and apples are big exports to Syria, but only a small portion of Fayyad's produce is actually leaving Lebanon, and prices have dropped. Exports to Egypt, Libya and Iraq are also down, and produce to the Gulf is now mostly flown out. "There is fear," Fayyad says, "and it affects us in Lebanon."

Pressure point: Hezbollah

Another economic challenge stemming from the Syrian crisis is the scrutiny under which the Lebanese banking system is being placed. Although no abnormal increase in deposit rates has yet been noticed, there are rumours that Syrian money is pouring into Lebanese banks. Meanwhile, the Lebanese-Canadian Bank has been pursued by the US treasury, investigating allegations of international transfers on behalf of Hezbollah.

But Moubayed points out that "the Lebanese authorities have done well in terms of acting upon the international community's demands to investigate, and their measures seem to have gained credibility". Lebanese banks are taking even more measures than international regulators are asking for. Most banks are family-owned, so there is an incentive to keep them clean.

Politically, the climate of uncertainty is expressed in the Lebanese press. Newspapers supporting the "March 14" alliance (Sunni, Druze and Christian parties) fear that civil strife in Syria might spill over into Lebanon. They predict more strained Sunni-Shia relations, with Christians and Druze caught somewhere in the middle, and worry that a Hezbollah weakened by the loss of its Syrian backer may feel pushed towards an aggressive move. Media that favour the "March 8" bloc (Hezbollah and its Christian allies) follow the official Syrian line, blaming the uprisings on foreign intervention and Salafist extremists.

To some, the Arab spring brings back memories of the 2005 Cedar Revolution: following the assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, a quarter of the Lebanese population took to the streets to demand an investigation into his death, with Syria as the main suspect. This massive movement led to the creation of the March 14 alliance.

However, rather than unifying the country against its powerful neighbour, Hariri's assassination polarised it more starkly. The March 8 alliance demonstrated in support of Syria, and the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel further divided the country, as Hezbollah was blamed for provoking Israel's disproportionate attacks on the whole country.

The anti-Syria demonstrations nevertheless led to international pressure on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, which it did. But the Syrian presence, built up over 30 years, has remained endemic in many Lebanese institutions and political parties. Most recently, Damascus was blamed by the Lebanese police and Human Rights Watch for organising abductions of Syrian dissidents on Lebanese soil. Roughly 5,000 Syrians have been registered as refugees in Lebanon since the political crisis in their country began last March, and there have been 13 to 15 reported abductions.

Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House takes a longer view and believes there is little to fear from instability in Syria: "Lebanon has everything to gain from the new political culture in the region." Hezbollah supported the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, so if Bashar al-Assad falls, it would only have to justify its stance on Syria to its own constituents and adapt to the changing situation.

Several crises over the past ten years could have led to outright conflict in Lebanon, but they didn't. The memory of the 1975-90 civil war is still fresh in the minds of most, and people are understandably reluctant to return to such a scenario. Perhaps for this reason alone, Lebanon is, as Shehadi says, "the most stable country in the region".

Lana Asfour is a freelance journalist based in London and Beirut.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity