Conversations with European policymakers on the Middle East tend to revolve around stability. No matter the object of discussion, when it comes to the Middle East the main priority is to return to or preserve the existing status quo – or the most feasible version of it given circumstances – to safeguard interests.
Europeans work hard to formulate a common position on a given issue. It is not an easy task to generate agreement among 27 member states with different histories and perspectives. Once an agreement is found, Europe comes up with a sophisticated strategy to articulate its position. Behind each statement lie concerted efforts towards forging a point of view that is representative of all its members. Once a strategy is released, Europe needs to act on that line. It sets plans and invests significant resources to implement them. Many times, these plans and strategies feature the words “democracy” and “rights”. Yet, when looking at European policy in the Middle East, one may be led to believe that it would only take a revolution to stir Europe’s current focus on stability towards meaningful support towards democracy and accountability. Lebanon is undergoing a revolution, and a peaceful one. Yet, not even revolutions are enough for Europeans to realise that an approach that relies on stability concerns alone will not help solve the profound problems affecting the region.
Throughout the past few months, Lebanon has seen it all. The grievances that caused the protests that began in October 2019 are all still there. Prior to COVID-19, Lebanon had entered the most severe financial crisis in its modern history, with gross general government debt rising to an estimated 174.5 percent of GDP during that year and the lira losing up to 90 percent of its value since October 2019. Global media labelled the Beirut blast was one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history. The human and economic devastation felt by Lebanese people was profound. Abroad, we mourned at the further fracturing of what is seen by many as the spiritual heart of the Middle East. A defining feature of the 2019 protests was that they predominantly involved younger people, who are deeply disillusioned with their political leaders and demand significant shifts in power on top of structural political reforms. By June 2020, 77 percent of young Lebanese citizens expressed a desire to emigrate, the Levant being the top region in the Middle East young people want to leave. As the many governments that have followed each other throughout the past year and a half look for quick fixes, mostly in view of placing themselves successfully during the 2022 elections, there is a strong sense among the protest movement that a return to the status quo ante is just not enough a way out of economic collapse.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Beirut following the 4 August explosion conveyed a message that the European Union and its member states have an interest to rescue the country’s future in exchange of reforms that benefit Lebanon, and of course their own interests and the ones of their regional allies. But to foreign actors, including Europe, geopolitical calculations around countering regional enemies and securing economic gains determine their stance. Yet the truth is global and regional powers are simply not concerned about the bringing true reform in Lebanon – or they are to the extent to which this impacts key interests, such as countering Hizbullah or securing political gains on Syria, both of which have been long-term goals which Europeans so far have unsuccessfully tackled.
European advocates working on the Middle East see Europe as the global beacon of human rights and democracy in the region. To these individuals, the lack of interest to capitalize on the events in Lebanon to further Europe’s multilateral agenda feels puzzling. Whoever has travelled to Lebanon in late 2019 to see the protests in the making will have heard the loud outcry for democracy with excitement and hope. Some of us might even have felt envy when comparing the movement’s energy with our own country’s lack of civic engagement. Against odds experienced in 2015, the 2019 protestors skilfully resisted government’s attempts to de-legitimise the movement or portray it as representative of a specific sect or faction. Moments of protests continued even during the pandemic, a testament to the acuteness of the need for change felt in the country.
Europe is certainly yearning for a success story of engagement in the region. There is also a strong deficit of democratic allies in a region where interests of regional and global powers seem to prevail and overlap with each other and where economic hardship adds further layers of complication to protracted conflict. The emergence of a laic, democratic grassroot movement encompassing such a wide realm of political and religious constituencies should be seen as a positive development, especially given the trauma the so called “Arab Springs” have left on the region.
Europe should seek to be an active participant in this celebration of democracy. Lebanon’s meaningful stability can have a positive ripple effect on the rest of the region. As a key recipient of refugees, especially from Syria and Palestine, Lebanon, along with Jordan and Turkey, acts as cushion of the human costs of conflict and economic collapse that would otherwise fall on Europe.
Europe might not be invested in supporting protestors’ demands for system change, but it can help build accountability by supporting civil society’s initiatives in line with its aid objectives and its newly released Southern Neighbourhood policy. By effectively channelling support through local partners, Europe can ensure its approach is built on a solid understanding of vertical and horizontal power dynamics at play in Lebanon, and thus ensure a positive impact on the ground. Civil society in Lebanon is alive and strong. It can guide these efforts, but in return it needs to be safeguarded financially and politically.
Written by Kelly Petillo
Kelly Petillo is the programme coordinator for Middle East and North Africa at the European Council on Foreign Relations.