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Security Brief: Lebanon Protests

Team: CENTCOM

Week of March 8, 2021, | Issue 24


Protesters gathered in Beirut[1]


Date: March 2, 2021- present

Location: Lebanon

Parties involved: Lebanese government; Lebanese civilians; Hezbollah; The Maronite Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch

The event: On March 2, 2021, the Lebanese pound hit a record low against the dollar on the black market, while minimum wage accounts for $67.50 per month. The currency collapse, a sign of deepening multiple crises, sparked a series of protests in many cities across the country. Protesters blocked many major roads with burning tires in many Lebanese cities, including in the capital Beirut, Tripoli, and Sidon. Lebanon is experiencing a financial crisis lasting over a year now and it was economically weak well before the August 2020 Beirut port blast resulted in an exacerbation of the already dire economic climate as well as more than 200 fatalities.

The implications:

  • Lebanon has experienced a spiraling economic and political crisis since 2019. The Lebanese currency has plunged to a new low which has fueled angry protests. This puts even more pressure on the Lebanese government, which has not been able to get back on its feet to create stability since 2019. The Lebanese government has been struggling since the outbreak of the anti-government protests against the country’s corrupt political class in late 2019 which was only worsened during the coronavirus pandemic and after the devastating blast in the port of Beirut in August 2020. Now, the government is facing another critical issue in the form of political instability. Even though Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government has resigned since the Beirut blast, the opposition has failed to form a government due to a protracted political crisis, thus Hassan Diab remains in a caretaker role with neither a financial rescue plan nor the public’s trust. Consequently, Diab’s government, which holds much of the power, does not seem capable of bringing political stability and peace to Lebanon, while the outbreak of the Lebanon protest in March 2021 has put immense pressure on the Lebanese government and leads to an even deepening national crisis.

  • A nation in deep crisis, such as Lebanon, may be considered a fertile land for terrorist organizations to flourish and recruit people, who are experiencing poverty and have a strong anti-government sentiment. The fragmentation of Lebanon can be compared with the political unrest and fragmentation in Iraq after 2008 when ISIS thrived by gaining vast territories. The exacerbation of the financial crisis and the desperation of the people may be exploited by terrorist organizations to recruit more militants. Some dormant terrorist cells located in Ain al Hilweh camp and northern Lebanon could take advantage of the crisis and political instability to regroup. Due to Hezbollah’s momentum, the government may face a strong opposition front driven by Hezbollah’s propaganda resulting in deeper polarization and the public’s distrust in the government’s capabilities to cope with the crisis.

  • In the current economic and political climate, a crime spike has emerged in Lebanon and the primary cause is the country’s ongoing political and socio-economic crisis. The Lebanese pound has lost 85 percent of its value since October 2019 with the currency trading in the black market at 11,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.[2] The ongoing crisis has fuelled insecurity across the country. Organized criminals are taking advantage of the situation, carrying out armed robberies, burglaries, and thefts. There has been a significant increase in overall crime rates in Lebanon. According to police data, homicides doubled in the first four months of 2020 compared to the same period last year. Car thefts increased by nearly 50 percent and burglaries by 20 percent. Incidents of petty and street crime also increased considerably. There have been more theft every month between January and May 2020 compared to the same time in 2019. April constituted the only exception and the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis may have played a significant role in the decline of crime during this month. Moreover, robbery of shops and pharmacies has become more common this year, since the value of robbing pharmacies is high and their security levels are low. Police recorded 863 thefts and robberies in the first half of 2020,[3] up from 650 for all of last year. That being said, it becomes apparent that the freefalling economy of Lebanon is a primary driver behind the sudden spike in crime and as long as the financial crisis is being exacerbated, it is highly likely that crime rates will be higher in the future. Moreover, the closure of many supermarkets in Lebanon as a result of the financial crisis may lead more crimes to be committed out of desperation for limited food or medical supplies rather than opportunistic criminal activity.

  • Amid the financial crisis, the Lebanese patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch intervened to find a solution for this crisis. On February 27, 2021, thousands of Lebanese citizens rallied in support of the Maronite patriarch who called for an UN-sponsored "international conference" in the face of Lebanon's economic collapse and political impasse. It is important to note that the current patriarch is an ardent supporter of Lebanon's official policy of dissociation from regional conflicts, a position that clashes with Iran-backed Hezbollah's involvement in the war in Syria. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah slammed the patriarch’s proposal, saying it would open the door for foreign interference or even “occupation”. This rally increased tensions between the communities in Lebanon specifically between Lebanese Christians and Shiites. On one hand, Lebanese Christians blame Hezbollah for being the cause of Lebanon’s crisis. On the other hand, Hezbollah’s supporters consider the patriarch solution as a declaration of war. Consequently, this polarization facilitates the deeper fragmentation of the country and puts even more obstacles on the road to peace in Lebanon.

________________________________________________________________________

The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Beirut Protests” by Shahen Araboghlian licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Price Of The Dollar Rises Above 11,000 L.L. On Lebanon’s Black Market, The 961, March 2021, https://www.the961.com/price-of-dollar-above-11000ll/

[3] 'Hunger crimes' on the rise in crisis-hit Lebanon, France 24, July 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/20200715-hunger-crimes-on-the-rise-in-crisis-hit-lebanon


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