18th Sep 2020


Lebanon is a new focal point

More than the tangible destruction, the explosion in the port of Beirut meant the ultimate destruction of hope for many civilians.

For weeks, residents of the Lebanese capital demonstrated against mismanagement and economic uncertainty.

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  • Lebanon, still an important transit zone between the Mediterranean and the Middle East, is becoming a new focal point in superpower politics

The explosion, which originated in a government depot, confirmed the catastrophic condition of the country.

However, the impact continues. Beirut was long the last piece of Europe in the Middle East, a free-spirited metropolis on the Eastern Mediterranean coast.

That position also takes a hit. We will not solve that with some European emergency aid.

For decades Lebanon has been balancing between East and West. The bourgeoisie in the coastal cities had an orientation towards Europe and the United States. Large parts of the hinterland surrendered to the influence of Iran and its local extension - Hezbollah.

I remember driving into the city of Tire, passing a series of banners of conservative Shia leaders and then spending the evening with ladies dancing and red wine, watching the surf.

Or how the wine châteaux of the Bekaa Valley wanted to conquer the European market in the best French style, while on a plot next door, opium was grown for the Hezbollah drug trade.

Europe has failed in the battle for influence. Or rather: Europe has given up Lebanon.

The country's economic and political challenges have been building up for a long time, sparking massive demonstrations against corruption and for democracy preservation and culminating in the unstable government's request for international financial assistance in May this year.

Recently, however, negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) came to a halt. European diplomats did not get much further than a few sympathetic remarks throughout that episode.

"Lebanon must help us," it said from Paris. Elsewhere, criticism was heard of the state's inability to implement reforms. "The Lebanese negotiate like carpet sellers."

However, that criticism is gratuitous. Lebanon has been a failing state for years, but we have done little to turn the tide. Here and there attempts were made to use military support to prevent Lebanon from falling completely under the control of Hezbollah and Iran.

European development aid fluctuated around €160m per year. And in fact, almost everyone knew that this was not a solution, but Europe hardly has the ambition to play a significant role in the Levant.

A century after Sykes-Picot, this is the swan song, with some flags and explanations, but little sense of responsibility.

Europe has just given up. This attitude reinforces the total desperation among the Western-minded part of the population. The demonstrations for transparent government didn't lead to anything.

The impact of the crisis is catastrophic, especially in the cities. City dwellers try to leave or survive thanks to money from relatives abroad. Others are resorting to some support from Hezbollah.

Economic sanctions have made Iran less generous, but Hezbollah continues to maintain a widespread patronage network.

The main short-term consequence is fragmentation and criminalisation. Shady businessmen are now completely taking over in the cities or in large neighbourhoods.

In exchange for loyalty, young men can get a job here and there. In the long term, it remains to be seen in which sphere of influence Lebanon ends up. Iran is trying to exploit the deadlock, but cannot alleviate its financial need.

Hezbollah is now increasingly looking to China.

The government is trying to attract Chinese investment and China itself sees an additional hub in the East Mediterranean, in addition to the bridgeheads it already has in Egypt and Greece.

That would be a geopolitical dike breach.

For millennia, Chinese dynasties tried to extend their authority over the Silk Road, sending delegations to the Mediterranean. But they always clashed with the powers of Persia and the Levant.

Today, Persia is more willing and the entire Levant is being recreated in a power vacuum. Lebanon, still an important transit zone between the Mediterranean and the Middle East, thus becomes a new focal point in superpower politics.

European emergency aid is important now. But more is needed in the long term.

Above all, Europe must decide for itself whether it wants to give up more ground, see another country collapse from instability, see a last free port in the Middle East disappear, give competitors a new base to the Mediterranean - its mythological cradle wants to give up.

After all, according to tradition, Europe was a Lebanese princess, chased by the Greek supreme god.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University of Brussels.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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