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Civil Society and Preventing Violent Extremism Amid Lebanon’s Economic Crisis

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— 5 minutes reading time

Above: The Beirut Port explosion which took place in August 2020 has further exacerbated Lebanon’s deteriorating economy

Nidal Khaled

Head of the Youth Initiatives Association and Focal Point of Majdal Anjar Local Prevention Network

9 February 2020

The following opinion piece has been written by a guest author. The views expressed in it are the author’s own and cannot be attributed to the Strong Cities Network, its members or its Management Unit.

For more than two years, Lebanon has been sinking into the worst socio-economic crisis in its history, not seen even in the darkest periods of 15 years of civil war. Now included in the list of the world’s worst financial disasters since the mid-19th century, Lebanon’s national currency has lost more than 85% of its value, plunging more than half its citizens below the poverty line. The problems have been made intractable due to the influx in the last decade of almost two million Syrian refugees, the conflicts among Lebanon’s various political, religious and sectarian groups, and the spread of COVID-19.

Today, the country’s state institutions are collapsing. Many employees in the public sector and security forces are unable to go to work due to the high cost of transportation, since the price of a fuel tank has become equal to the monthly minimum wage. Extremist groups are seeking to exploit this vulnerability, either through physical violence against the state and its citizens, or the provision of basic services that the state is unable to deliver – such as medical care and education – in order to gain popularity and support. As inequality and poverty levels grow, individuals and communities may feel increasingly alienated and frustrated. Without means to voice these frustrations through legitimate, constructive channels, they may look to groups that look after their interests. In the most extreme cases, the need for change of authority may lead some to resort to violence. This is perhaps particularly true of youth, who are disproportionately both targeted by violent extremist groups for recruitment and negatively affected by the economic crisis.

Involving youth in this process, in addition to establishing social programmes that provide access to resources and safe spaces for expression, is one of the most powerful tools to counter polarisation, extremism and violence.

The failure of the central government and other national institutions to tackle extremism is due in part to their tendency to view it through a security lens. While providing security is an essential component of a functioning nation, it is neither the only means available nor always the most appropriate.

In this context, the role of civil society emerges to create a space for dialogue that does not give legitimacy to these groups, but rather provides a sense of inclusion as well as guidance, alternatives and possibility of reintegration in society. Civil society already plays a primary role in negotiating with local and national authorities to establish a link between youth and the state, to create frameworks for the practice of effective citizenship and to highlight the idea that young people play a role in building and supporting the institutions and taking part in governance, regardless of the difficulties. Involving youth in this process, in addition to establishing social programmes that provide access to resources and safe spaces for expression, is one of the most powerful tools to counter polarisation, extremism and violence.

This is not a problem that can be solved by any individual party – political or otherwise. Solidarity and integration among all society’s components and civic institutions are needed, along with the help of professionals, activists and international experts.

One modest solution is offered by the Local Preventions Networks (LPNs), which were established in 2017 in collaboration with the Strong Cities Network, the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities, in partnership with the National PVE Coordination Unit at the Council of Ministers, and with support from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In light of the many crises which have crippled the country, the LPNs aim to strengthen, train and support communities, and provide local responses to their social, economic and psychological needs, particularly vulnerable youth. By identifying and coordinating frontline stakeholders and practitioners and empowering communities with the knowledge and tools to detect early signs of radicalisation, they work to build a coordinated response to risk that is both tailored to the local context and in line with the national prevention strategy. At their heart, the LPNs seek to promote and strengthen social cohesion and resilience by embracing all aspects of society, particularly youth, and steer them away from violence and towards cooperative, community-focused solutions.

Recently, the LPNs led dialogue sessions and activities with specialists tackling issues such as religion, ideology and youth in order to elucidate the diverse ideas and opinions associated with the phenomenon of violence and extremism. This effort was the result of cooperation between the LPNs and the cities’ municipal councils with the aim of elaborating a work plan that paves the way for the establishment of a cohesive and harmonious society based on the principles of security and safety.

However, many challenges lie ahead. More work is needed to ensure that solutions reflect the needs of the community and draw on its full economic and human potential. Change needs to be inclusive, involving the whole of society while ensuring development is sustainable and serving the need of the poor and marginalised, empowering women at all levels and developing rural tourism while respecting the cultural and religious diversity of local communities. In parallel, municipal police should place a greater emphasis on citizen security and improve the response to the urgent needs of families affected by the economic collapse through the provision of emergency aid and necessary health services, which will do much to improve relations between civilians and the security sector. Moreover, support should be provided to educational institutions to guarantee the minimum level of education as it the only way to protect societies from being exploited by extremist groups which possess financial resources and seek to polarise supporters.

While Lebanon’s crisis may have been caused, and then exacerbated to some extent, by state inaction, solving it will require the whole of society, and where better to begin than in our local communities?