Disenchantment within society and state paralysis in Lebanon today takes place in a regional context of dangerous instability.
Lebanon’s extreme sensitivity to its environment can be explained by its small size (some 14,800 km2) and the segmentation of its society and political life, as well as by the relative demographic weight of its diaspora: several millions compared with the 4.5 million domestic population. Each party and communal group has traditionally been in search of an external patron since the mid-nineteenth century (with European interventions of 1843 and 1860). They seek protection from without, rather than building resilience from within, but at the same time accuse foreign interests of projecting regional wars onto their territory.
The early 1990s suggested an era of optimism in the Near East. The end of the Lebanese civil war coincided with the liberation of Kuwait and the internationally-sponsored Arab-Israeli Madrid Conference, soon followed by Palestinian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli treaties. But stalemate and deterioration were close behind: the region, and especially Lebanon, did not receive the expected ‘peace dividend’; bilateral peace negotiations with Israel were placed on hold and Lebanon was struck by two heavy Israeli air attacks in retaliation for Hezbollah operations over the border in 1993 and 1996.
Moreover some 450,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been both excluded by the Lebanese state and let down by the failure of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. In refugee camps after the war, young Palestinians have become increasingly swayed by Islamist rather than nationalist mobilisation, and have played their part in regional Islamist armed and militant movements.
The 2000s witnessed further deterioration. Hezbollah forces – the only Lebanese militia spared demobilisation in 1991, justified through their function as ‘resistance’ to Israel – received extensive military support from Iran with the aid of Syria. After unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces in 2000, Hezbollah continued to launch skirmish operations in the border region between Lebanon, Israel and Syria. Marginal territorial disputes along the border (at Chebaa, Kfar-Shuba and Ghajar) provided the pretext for all-out war between Hezbollah and Israel Defense Forces in the summer of 2006, resulting in major civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure.
In the broader Middle East, Islamist trans-boundary mobilisation, born out of the wars in Afghanistan and Bosnia in the 1990s, assumed an increasingly dangerous tone – through the 9/11 attacks and then the war in Iraq in 2003. In Lebanon, it was not only Palestinian youth but also disenfranchised Lebanese Sunnis from peripheral regions (Akkar, Dinniye) who participated in regional jihad against armed forces in the region seen as pro-western, pro-Israeli and secularist, as well as against Shia groups who were considered impious competitors.
Lebanese towns such as Tripoli and Sidon were the scene of terrorist operations from the late 1990s. In 2007 the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) fought a three-month war to defeat a jihadist stronghold in the refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared. A few years later, the spread of fighting between Syrian and opposition forces in Homs has again stressed the significance of Islamic militant networks whose political agenda runs counter to the logic of a power sharing state.