Drama in Beirut
Joy, disbelief, indifference or skepticism. These were the reactions of many Lebanese to recent news from their country of origin. After thirteen months of an inactive interim government, Lebanon finally has a new government. After a year of depressing headlines and deepening inner troubles, this may be the last chance for my country to fix things.
Once nicknamed the “Switzerland of the Middle East”, Lebanon is now facing an unprecedented economic crisis that has left more than 70% of the population living below the poverty line. After years of massive public debt, Lebanon defaulted on its debt for the first time in March 2020. Soon, dramatic inflation destroyed the value of the national currency against the US dollar. As the official rate remains at its pre-crisis level, a whole black market has developed, sending commodity prices sky-high and threatening the lives of millions of people.
The tragic explosion of the port of Beirut in August 2020 wiped out a significant part of the capital, exacerbating the economic crisis. The government resigned and assumed a guardian role, refraining from adopting any reforms to save the day until a new government was put in place. Aid and debt restructuring talks with the International Monetary Fund have failed. Inflation has accelerated, causing a rapid decline in purchasing power. Basic necessities, including drugs and gasoline, were now scarce, fueling a vicious cycle of economic degradation. People lined up for hours to fill their tanks, unable to reach their schools and workplaces.
Lebanon is plagued by a myriad of foreign influences. Several world powers retain strengths on the Lebanese political scene, making my country fertile ground for proxy wars. The Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim political party and militant group Hezbollah are the kingmaker: nothing happens without their approval. Officially allies of the president, they have supported his quest for more power and in return expect greater influence.
The West has firmly opposed Iranian hegemony in this strategically located country. The two camps are locked in a permanent war of words and influence, with Hezbollah accusing its opponents of being sponsored by the “embassy”, a euphemism for the American embassy in Awkar. Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron has made Lebanon one of his foreign policy priorities. He was the first ruler to visit after the port explosion and received high praise from the Lebanese. This praise has given France, and by extension its American ally, great influence, establishing a sort of counterweight to Hezbollah. Macron organized a meeting at the French Embassy to agree on a unified list of priorities to be addressed by the next government, as well as the format of said government.
But the stalemate persisted, as the economic situation collapsed at breakneck speed. A sectarian rivalry exists between the Lebanese leaders. Eighteen sects compete for influence in the country; they’re constantly at each other’s throats, trying to build up as much power as possible. The interim government was chosen, in large part, by the party of President Michel Aoun. The public would not tolerate Aoun’s continued leadership after the explosion. Two prime ministers were successively appointed to form the next government. Both have failed. President Aoun played an unusually direct role in choosing the government, vaguely interpreting the constitution to claim new executive powers. After the resignation of the second prime minister designate, veteran politician Saad Hariri, the Lebanese pound collapsed. People predicted that the stalemate would last until 2022, at least until the legislative elections.
And then, a twist. Two months after his appointment, an unusual speed by Lebanese standards, another seasoned politician, Najib Mikati, managed to get his cabinet signed by the president. Parliament quickly gave it a vote of confidence, arming Lebanon with its first fully functioning government in over a year.
In the United States, Lebanon is not a dominant talking point. The Starbucks barista brewing my coffee in Davis Square had no idea where the country is. I had to describe our geographical location in relation to better known countries, such as Turkey. There is a duality in the way the exterior interacts with Lebanon. While external governments may care about this small nation, many people in the West don’t.
Here at Tufts, a quick search for Lebanon in the Courses offered yields several courses on the wider Middle East. Most of them are culture classes and one is a history class focusing on Lebanon which unfortunately ends in WWI. “US Foreign Policy in the Middle East” is a promising title, but the US definition of the Middle East includes more than 20 countries. At a school renowned for its international relations and political science programs that feed the diplomatic ranks of the State Department (the vice-consul who processed my visa application was himself a Tufts alumnus), it’s normal to expect more attention towards Lebanon.
Lebanon’s history and political system are complex enough to warrant a much deeper focus on the academic front. This could be an example in handling delicate foreign policy issues and be a very powerful case study for future diplomats. The university is expected to offer a course specifically focused on modern politics in the Levant – a geographic area much narrower than the nomenclature of the Middle East – which would help increase interest in the region and raise awareness of the country’s unrest. Offering country specific courses related to the Middle East could also allow students to pursue their personal interests in more depth and perhaps orient their future diplomatic posts.
My country’s politics are one of the most porous in the world, and Western countries have a responsibility to act responsibly and effectively if they are to continue to interfere and support their local allies. Tufts can do his part to raise awareness of the situation in my country. We need to ensure that the mistakes of old administrations in my part of the world do not happen again, while ensuring that the cultures and backgrounds of Middle Eastern students are recognized and valued. Lebanon, like many other countries in the Middle East, deserves greater attention and greater visibility.