The year 2021 has been one of Lebanon’s toughest years in decades. The country plunged deeper into a financial crisis that resulted in around 85% of its population regarded as below the poverty line. The economic crisis is enabled by a political environment, both national and international, which has directly or indirectly sustained a corrupt political system in the country. Lebanon is due to hold parliamentary elections in the spring of 2022. Despite some serious efforts to diversify the political landscape ahead of the elections, they are unlikely to bring in a new political class that might initiate a fresh chapter for the country’s political history. The outlook for Lebanon in 2022 remains gloomy. However, there are still glimmers of hope and factors the international community can support to help Lebanon overcome its political and economic crisis in the long term.
Today, the ruling class in Lebanon is mainly occupied with preserving their own financial interests as the resources at their disposal have shrunk. Lebanon’s financial crisis has affected its people across all geographical and sectarian backgrounds, the middle class in particular. In the past, political leaders relied on their external backers and their own business and government activities to generate funds they would direct to the sectarian communities they represent, whether in the form of actual handouts, civil service employment, or social services.
Clientelism as a feature of the social contract in Lebanon persists, but the decrease in resources will make it difficult for the ruling parties to compete in the upcoming elections as they once did. Some of those parties have already lost some social capital because of the financial crisis: with the deterioration in the value of the Lebanese lira, and with government employees earning in the national currency, offering civil servant employment to constituents as an incentive is no longer an option for political parties who had relied on this patronage tool to rally voters.
In the case of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, an added challenge is the cessation of support by Saudi Arabia, one of his traditional backers. Lack of funding will make it difficult for Hariri’s party, the Future Movement, to compete in the parliamentary elections, having already lost a number of seats in the last parliamentary elections compared to the previous round. If the Future Movement runs in the 2022 elections and loses more seats, it could seal the fate of the party as politically irrelevant, leaving the Sunni political faction without clear leadership in a country where sectarianism remains the basis for power allocation in government institutions.
As for the Free Patriotic Movement, the Christian party allied with Hezbollah, the financial crisis and the ongoing exposés of corruption by figures affiliated with the party is also costing it political and social capital. As a result, the party is expected to lose some seats in the next parliamentary election. By contrast, the political capital of the party’s Christian rivals, the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party, has risen in the aftermath of the incident of October 14th, 2021, when violence broke out between Hezbollah’s and the Lebanese Forces’ respective supporters. However, the two Christian parties’ rise in popularity will not be enough for them to secure a significant gain in the parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, Hezbollah is using the October 14th incident to frame itself and its supporters as victims and is in turn instrumentalizing this framework to rally its constituents ahead of the elections. Finding themselves with few options, the Progressive Socialist Party and the Future Movement have distanced themselves from the October 14th incident, suggesting chances of them forming an enduring alliance with the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb Party in the next elections are diminished, despite efforts to coordinate ahead of the elections.
Overall, Lebanon’s political landscape is more fragmented than ever and is dominated by one party, Hezbollah, which is benefiting from the financial crisis as well as the national and international developments affecting Lebanon. One such development is the dissociation of Gulf countries from Lebanon led by Saudi Arabia and UAE, which is having a severe economic impact on Lebanese people with business and employment interests in the Gulf and on the country’s financial situation in general. Hezbollah is taking advantage of this by continuing to push for greater engagement with Iran as an alternative. Although the Shia community is not immune to the financial crisis, popular support for Hezbollah within the community continues due to the lack of other options for political representation from within the community—something Hezbollah has enforced.
Some new reformist political parties are forming in Lebanon and planning to contest the elections. This is a positive development worthy of international support. Although these parties are not likely to win many seats in the next election, the momentum gained if their political trajectory continues will help the country in the future. There are also local efforts to support small- and medium-sized enterprises in Lebanon that would highly benefit from international funding. This would help alleviate some of the impact of the financial crisis and create alternatives to patronage. Both these developments are limited at present but with the vast scale of the political and financial stagnation plaguing Lebanon, the international community must be realistic about prospects of far-reaching reform in the short and medium terms. The ruling political class are not going to accept reforms that will expose their own transgressions. As such, while reforms must remain part of any Lebanon strategy for international stakeholders, supporting smaller, positive steps in the short and medium term is also important to prevent Lebanon from complete financial and political collapse. This also requires embracing an honest assessment of the damage the current ruling class is causing and will continue to cause in Lebanon as long as it remains in power.