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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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