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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.