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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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage