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Guest Article: The Economic, Social and Political Crisis in Lebanon and its Impact on Violent Extremist Rhetoric

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— 5 minutes reading time

Above: The explosion at the Port of Beirut on 4 August 2020 killed more than 200 and injured at least 7,000.

Nidal Khaled, Coordinator and Focal Point for Majdal Anjar Local Prevention Network, Lebanon. President of Youth Initiatives Association

On 4 August, a powerful explosion ripped through Beirut’s port, killing at least 200 people, injuring more than 7,000, and making more than 300,000 homeless. The explosion has exposed the levels of corruption and mismanagement in the Lebanese public sector and has intensified public anger against the government for its apparent inability to address the economic crisis that has crippled the country for the past year. However, it has also played into the hands of extremist groups seeking to divide the country. Nidal Khaled, Coordinator and focal point for the SCN’s Majdal Anjar prevention network, examines the effect of the crisis on extremist rhetoric and how we can help to prevent division and restore national unity.

Lebanon has historically been subject to the region’s many political shockwaves. Located in a fragile regional context, there are a myriad of political, religious and sectarian divisions and contests that are continuously played out in the economic, social and financial realms within the country.

The end of the 15-year Lebanese civil war in 1990 was hailed as a new era fo­r Lebanon and was the launching pad of the so-called second republic. The optimism that accompanied the end of the war however, suffered from multiple economic, financial and security crises that hobbled Lebanon well into the new millennium. It was only through economic reforms, spearheaded by then-Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, that Lebanon was able to weather the storms by opening itself up to regional and international investment.

However, with the assassination of Rafik Hariri in February 2005, the regional scene shifted again. Through the sustained efforts of national protests, Syrian troops that had occupied the country since the end of the civil war were driven out. However, what followed only further compounded the Lebanon’s precarious peace. Both the 2006 war with Israel and the onset of the Syrian Civil War in 2012, which saw the arrival of almost 2 million Syrians into Lebanon, pushed the country’s economy to the brink of collapse.

The economic crisis brought on by both mismanagement as well as local and regional conflict, are extensions of a tumultuous history of competing political, social and economic interests in Lebanon. The victims of these conflicts are the Lebanese people. The onset of COVID-19 coupled with the tragic Beirut Port explosion are just the latest in a long string of crises that have afflicted the country for decades, laying bare the scale of the country’s systematic failures in building strong democratic institutions that are both responsive and transparent.

“A new Lebanon must be established on principles of equality, not elitism and corruption. This requires that the role of civil society and community networks be strengthened, in partnership with municipalities”

The question that arises now is the following: How does the socio-economic crisis reflect on communities and what role does it play in the extremist rhetoric? 

The economic crisis has already had an impact on the country’s security with a notable rise in armed robberies, vigilantism and paramilitary groups operating outside the law. Much of this is eerily reminiscent of the lead-up to the Lebanese civil war prior to 1975. Crises sow further crises. The ghosts of our fractious past are not some distant spectre. They live on through the political, economic, and social tensions that grip the country to this day, and are stark reminder that at a moment’s notice we could be plunged into the grips of another bloody conflict. Just as apparitions of the past have always dogged Lebanon, so have extremist groups. Crises may always breed conflict and competition, but they similarly lay the ground work for extremist ideologues and groups to catapult their messaging beyond their existing support bases

Above: The Local Prevention Networks have been working tirelessly on the ground to deliver aid to some of the 300,000 who have been made homeless as a result of the explosion.

While the national strategy to prevent violent extremism has been designed to prevent the emergence of extremist groups and bolster the efforts of the country’s security forces to maintain order, it is only as effective as the national institutions and the economy that uphold it. In the absence of strong national leadership, local authorities and religious and political groups will be forced to step in to provide the necessary security, stability and support, as was evident during the Syrian refugee crisis as well as in the COVID-19 response.

However, the limitations of these local authorities has left a vacuum that extremist groups can fill through financial means and ideological discourse, specifically in areas with a predominantly Sunni population. Speeches that describe injustices in Sunni cities and villages can have a powerful pull factor, particularly on youth. The bombing of mosques in Tripoli in May 2008, as well as crackdowns by Lebanese security forces during the Syrian civil war in which thousands of young Sunnis were imprisoned without trial, have also served as powerful push factors.  All this has contributed to and will pave the way for an increase in extremist rhetoric, on top of a stifling economic crisis.

So how can we work in tandem to reduce the impact of extremist exploitation of crises through our comprehensive national vision?

The basis for reducing extremist rhetoric is to emphasize that the socio-economic crisis does not target only one group but affects all. A new Lebanon must be established on principles of equality, not elitism and corruption. This requires that the role of civil society and community networks be strengthened, in partnership with municipalities, in order to play a greater role in promoting the discourse of moderation and the development of a socio-economic vision that reflects local needs. This can take place through small economic development projects that take into account women’s empowerment, while simultaneously raising the response to families most affected by the economic collapse. By providing emergency assistance and basic health services necessary to service communities, we also protect them from exploitation and recruitment by groups with extreme ideas and great financial means.

In the wake of the port explosion, our Strong Cities Network (SCN) local prevention networks in Majdal Alanjar, Tripoli and Sadia banded together to support Beirut and its citizens. We have delivered meals to homeless families and frontline workers. We mobilized our youth to help in clean up and reconstruction. We did whatever we could in order to show our country that we can address the systemic failures of leadership, with collective action. Preventing and countering violent extremism is only a means to an end, not the end itself. Utilizing our extensive community networks, built for violence prevention, but connected to the beating heart of civil society across Lebanon, we are challenging those who may attempt to tear us apart during this time.

We are, after all, strong cities.