Lebanon — June 2009

Sociopolitical Situation

Lebanon’s political and security situation improved in 2009 after being on the brink of civil war a year ago. The first half of the year was mainly marked by the preparation for 7 June parliamentary elections, which proved to be Lebanon’s most competitive since the civil war with 587 candidates running for 128 parliamentary seats, contested by two coalitions whose rivalry has dominated national politics since 2005: the anti-Syrian March 14 alliance, led by Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri, and the March 8 coalition of the Christian leader Michel Aoun and Hezbollah. The March 14 alliance won the election and retained control of the government. Prior to the election, the process to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 years was put into motion, but it did not come into effect in time for the elections as it required a constitutional amendment.

As important to the parliamentary elections were the proceedings of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that convened in March at The Hague to examine the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. The four generals detained without charge for nearly four years in the aftermath of the assassination were unconditionally released as there was no evidence to justify their continued detention.

Internationally, Israel repeatedly violated Lebanese sovereignty, setting up spy rings on its territory that were uncovered in May by the Lebanese army and security services. In the process of establishing diplomatic relations, in March Syria appointed its first ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul Karim. The move marks a new chapter in relations since the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005.

Economically, the Lebanese economy managed to register a satisfactory performance in the first quarter of 2009, despite the deepening of the international financial crisis. Yet, Lebanon is not immune from the turmoil. An economic slowdown is expected in the near term as remittances from Lebanese residing and working abroad decline as job losses and income cuts mount. Furthermore, foreign direct investment in the country could dwindle in the aftermath of the crash in oil prices and the slide of regional financial markets. Growth is likely to slow to 3 percent this year from over 8 percent in 2008, while the budget deficit will rise to $1.14 billion from $592 million in the same period of 2008. The disastrous financial policies adopted by the government based on taxes and high-interest loans increased the debt, crippled productive sectors and turned an enterprising society into one that needs to beg for a living.

Religious Situation

Socially and economically, the church in Lebanon continued its active role in supporting the people through its diverse institutions. A new leader was elected by the Syriac Catholic Church. The former head of the Syriac Catholic eparchy in North America, Bishop Joseph Younan, was installed as Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church in Lebanon in February, replacing Patriarch Ignace Pierre VIII Abdel-Ahad.

For the first time, Lebanon’s government launched a joint Christian-Muslim celebration on the occasion of the feast of the Annunciation. The Virgin Mary is venerated by both communities on 25 March. This joint feast was considered the first “Islamic-Christian Day.”

Politically, Maronite Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Sfeir, the most influential Christian religious leader, has failed to bring forth reconciliation among the different Christian political parties and their leaders. The patriarch regularly reminds the country that he sees his office as one that should transcend politics and conflicts and instead unite all Lebanese.

Funding Activities and Recommendations

Lebanon faces significant challenges on the social and developmental fronts. In this regard, the social dimension necessitates serious efforts by the government to enhance social safety. Effort should be exerted to reduce poverty; improve access to basic education and health care services; enhance local development prospects; reduce regional disparities through better development investment promotion; and a better distribution of expenditures that would lead to creation of job opportunities, especially in the extremely poor regions of the country.

Major areas where funds are needed can be summarized as follows:

  • Church social institutions (orphanages, schools, hospitals, centers for the disabled and elderly)
  • Seminaries to provide the basic infrastructure for the formation of priests for all the Middle East (only in Lebanon is a university-level education available for the formation of priests and religious)
  • Christian communities in rural remote areas, by assisting them in developing their agricultural schemes to prevent or reduce emigration.

Another important human, social and economic issue, which requires international and local support, is the situation of refugees. Tens of thousands of Palestinians and Iraqis live in Lebanon illegally in distressed situations and are deprived of basic rights and citizenship.

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