After gaining independence in 1943, Lebanon’s new political leaders created a system of governance that would allow for the proportional representation of the country’s three major religious groups: Maronite Christians (represented by the president), Shiite Muslims (represented by the speaker of parliament), and Sunni Muslims (represented by the prime minister). However, unresolved sectarian differences eventually devolved into a civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990, in which both Israeli and Syrian forces intervened—and more than one hundred thousand people died. Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2005 following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, but a war between Israel and Hezbollah quickly followed in 2006.
Since these hostilities, sectarian tensions between Hezbollah and other religious sects have increased, particularly among Sunnis and Maronite Christians. The unique balance of power within the country has made it increasingly difficult for all stakeholders to come to political agreements, especially when it comes to filling the presidency. In addition to a two-and-a-half-year leadership gap from 2014 to 2016, Lebanon is currently without a president after the conclusion of Michel Aoun’s contentious term in October 2022. Furthermore, Lebanese politics has become a proxy battleground for Iran, which provides support for Hezbollah; and Saudi Arabia, which backed former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and other Sunni politicians.
Lebanon’s tenuous political situation can largely be attributed to political gridlock but has also occurred because of spillover from the Syrian civil war. In addition to hosting more than 1.5 million refugees (over 800,000 of whom are Syrian), the nearly thirteen-year conflict in Syria has affected cross-border trade and dampened Lebanon’s tourism industry. In addition to the world’s third-highest ratio of debt to gross domestic product, Lebanon also maintains one of the largest refugee populations per capita.
Despite Lebanon’s dissociation policy, Hezbollah’s armed component has also been involved in the Syrian civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This has exacerbated relations between Hezbollah and Israel along the shared (and disputed) Israel-Lebanon border and has led to increasingly hostile rhetorical exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel over Israeli air strikes in Syria. Hezbollah has allegedly supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the start of the Syrian war in 2011.
Lebanon has traditionally been a strong U.S. partner in the Middle East. Security risks, including weak governance, a crippled economy, destabilizing spillover from the Syrian civil war, and the increasing tension between Israel and Hezbollah, have alarmed U.S. policymakers, as well as leaders of partner states in Europe and the Persian Gulf. Under the auspices of the United States, Lebanon and Israel signed a maritime deal in October 2022 that defined the sea borders of the two countries, allowing for exploration and extraction of natural gas found in the area. However, this deal has done little to quell the hostilities between Israel and the Iranian proxy group. U.S. policymakers remain focused on mitigating the instability in Lebanon in order to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war and to prevent the growing influence of Iran in the region.
In October 2019, widespread protests erupted throughout Lebanon as a result of endemic corruption and a complete stagnation of the economy. Protestors—coming from all religious sects—called for the establishment of a new political regime, which did away with the sectarian divides that had plagued the country since its independence. This rare unity among the citizens resulted in the resignation of the Cabinet of Ministers and put into motion the reshuffling of the government. However, the COVID-19 pandemic put an effective end to any change that had been culminating.
Tensions between the government and its citizens reached an all-time high once again following an explosion at the Port of Beirut in August 2020, which cost an estimated $15 billion in damages and left more than 300,000 homeless. The explosion—which many attributed to years of government negligence—reignited widespread protests and saw the entire cabinet resign, with the government staying on only in a caretaker capacity. The domestic investigation into the explosion has become a highly politicized affair as the Shia-majority political parties, Amal and Hezbollah, have moved to obstruct the investigation by shielding politicians and threatening the presiding judge.
The culmination of several factors, including widespread government corruption, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Beirut port explosion, have led to the worst financial crisis in the small country’s history. After Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced that Lebanon would default on its Eurobond debt for the first time, the Lebanese currency began to plummet in valuation, leading to hyperinflation. In April 2023, Lebanese inflation hit a high at almost 270 percent, reducing to 254 percent in June 2023. Despite being pegged to the United States Dollar at a rate of £L1507.5 per dollar since 1997, the Lebanese pound reached a new low of more than £L100,000 per dollar in March 2023.
In 2022, the Lebanese government and the IMF came to a staff-level agreement that would provide billions in economic assistance. The deal, however, is contingent on the implementation of several complex economic reforms that would increase financial and political transparency in Lebanon. While the government has been slow to implement any reforms, more than 80 percent of the population now lives in multidimensional poverty. Following the conclusion of President Michel Aoun’s term, the government has been unable to elect a new president, leaving the country in a political and economic vacuum. In June 2023, protests aimed at banks and politicians erupted after lawmakers failed in their twelfth attempt to elect a president.