Lebanon — June 2008

Sociopolitical Situation

On Sunday, 25 May, Lebanon’s Parliament elected General Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, as president, ending a six-month crisis during which time the post remained vacant. The election follows an agreement reached in Doha, Qatar, on 21 May to contain the crisis and put an end to an 18-month feud that erupted into deadly sectarian fighting and threatened to plunge the nation into civil war.

Since 7 May, the political and security situations in Lebanon have deteriorated to an extent not seen since the civil war. In many ways, May’s armed clashes represented the climax in a state of political paralysis that had afflicted the country since the end of 2006. Since November 2007, a dysfunctional parliament had failed to elect a new president. Fears that the political deadlock would degenerate into armed confrontation were affirmed following an initiative by the government of Lebanon to investigate the legality of the Hezbollah communications network and the dismissal of the head of airport security, who has close ties to Hezbollah.

In response, Hezbollah fighters seized western Beirut, forcing the Lebanese government to reverse key decisions it had taken against Hezbollah. Government concessions subsequently ended the fighting. All roads since have been reopened and the makeshift campsite in downtown Beirut where protestors engaged in an 18-month sit-in dismantled.

During the eight days of violent clashes, GDP growth fell to 1.5 percent, costing the country an estimated $350 million in lost revenue.

The global economic downturn in early 2008 (the rise in oil and food prices on the international markets and the weakening of the dollar against other currencies) has exacerbated Lebanon’s financial and economic woes. Over the past two years, the consumer price index has risen 43 percent. With inflation in the double digits and the cost of living on the rise, the government has proposed increasing the minimum wage for the first time in a decade from $200 to $300. The General Federation of Labor Unions, however, rejected the proposal, demanding that the minimum wage be tripled to around $600 and wages up to $1,000 be raised across the board and at a rate that outpaces inflation.

The government has been unable to subsidize the steep climb in fuel oil and gas prices due to the size of public debt. As a result, several Lebanese factories that rely heavily on fuel oil and gas have been forced to shut down their operations. Furthermore, a number of factories have relocated to other countries — mainly Syria — where the cost of labor, energy and land is cheaper. The Syrian government, for instance, offers foreign companies a ten year tax exemption if they move to Syria.

In light of the country’s deteriorating economy, poverty among Lebanese is now widespread. Around 28.5 percent of Lebanese, or one million of the country’s total four million people, live at or below the poverty line and 8 percent (about 300,000 persons) live in extreme poverty. The official unemployment rate stands at a staggering 20 percent.

Religious Situation

From 14 to 16 April, an international conference on migration was held at the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias. Representatives from various faith communities — Christian and Muslim — attended the conference. Entitled “Migration and the Changing Ecclesial Context of Churches,” the conference aimed to deepen cooperation among nations, churches and other faith communities on issues related to migration.

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