BEIRUT — An Italian diplomat once said that "the darkest corners of a crisis can be the most illuminating in understanding geopolitical dynamics." This is where Lebanon finds itself: One of the few Middle Eastern countries that is not at war, yet one suffering in the trenches nonetheless.
These days Lebanon is far from the glare of the international media, except for minor coverage of the "You Stink" protests against the waste collection crisis in Beirut. But it does find itself squarely in the sights of foreign experts, who see Lebanon's ever fragile sectarian equilibrium as the key to understanding the future of the region.
In private, one eminent member of the French foreign ministry confides that Lebanon is "the extreme frontier of local stability, where at any moment the entire structure can come falling down like a house of cards."
A recent attempt to elect a new president was the 30th to fail, and the country has been without a head of state for a year-and-a-half. The executive gridlock is due to the intransigence of Beirut's two opposing political blocs — the pro-Iranian March 8 alliance led by Hezbollah on one side, and the pro-Saudi March 14 alliance on the other.
There is talk of a compromise, with a transitional president possibly chosen from the armed forces. But this is just one of Lebanon's woes, adding to the spillover from the Syrian civil war that has brought 1.6 million refugees fleeing across the border. Syrians now account for more than one third of Lebanon's population, but the government in Beirut is reluctant to establish proper refugee camps for them, fearing that they will become permanent like the Palestinian ones set up in the past.
The country also faces a fragile economy and volatile borders. According to the World Bank, the Lebanese economy lost $7.5 billion between 2012 and 2014, plunging 170,000 people into poverty. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) still maintains the ceasefire on the southern border with Israel, but Hezbollah is openly at war with the Islamic State (ISIS) and the al-Nusra front — al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria — on the eastern border.
An inside look
"The city has never been as full as it is now," says Khaled, a 40-year-old restaurateur from Beirut. "There are Saudis who can't go anywhere else to spend their money due to political tensions. There are Russians. There are rich Syrians who have been waiting four years to return home, and poor Syrians who beg for money on the street. There are journalists from all over the world, humanitarian workers, spies, and Western businessmen: Beirut is completely full."
Khaled says Lebanese have a way of living "as if nothing happened, congratulating the army for pacifying Tripoli" after sectarian violence. "But the army is everywhere, even downtown. The parliament building is unrecognizable, they built a wall around it after the protests and now it looks like a prison," he says. "Everyone is depressed and living hand-to-mouth, you can still go out in the evening but now everything is expensive."
Lebanese society is resilient, perhaps because it is always in such a precarious state. Khaled recently returned to Beirut after a long spell abroad, much to the surprise of many locals eyeing any opportunity to leave the country. "There's a long line in front of the German embassy for visas, even though Lebanese don't qualify for political asylum," he says. "Some even travel to Turkey and try to make it to Europe like the Syrians."
Life is tough in Lebanon, according to Khaled. "Everything must be paid twice, you pay the government and the generator company for electricity because there's no power for 3-4 hours every day," he says. "State-provided health care doesn't work so people get private insurance, especially because of the bombings. And in your free time you can't go anywhere, because there is war at our borders."
Peace still holds in Lebanon, but the country must navigate a minefield of threats every day. Narcotics trafficking is rapidly expanding to fund the war effort in Syria, and the authorities recently confiscated two tons of synthetic drugs from a Saudi prince's private jet. The Lebanese army continues to use air attacks to pound al-Nusra and ISIS territory in the country's northeast, even as the latter group is reportedly infiltrating Palestinian refugee camps, stoking internal sectarianism.
Because of the myriad problems that Lebanon faces, the mass anti-government protests of the "You Stink" movement must be looked at in a broader context than just the waste collection crisis, as a symbol of Lebanon's numerous challenges. It has become a metaphor that is uniting a divided society — Christian, Sunni, Shia, and Druze alike. "It's the best, cleanest thing to happen to Lebanon in a long time," says Khaled.