AS ONE of the Arab world’s earliest collapsed states, Lebanon has a lot going for it. The country may have been ruined by 15 years of civil war, but it is far wealthier than its big neighbour, Syria; it enjoys a degree of political liberty; and, by the region’s standards, its society is tolerant.
Under a power-sharing deal that ended the war in 1990, the central government is weak—when, that is, it has one. Parliamentary elections have been delayed since 2013 for lack of an election law; and politicians have been squabbling over a new president since April. But the country’s wily businesses have found ways of working around these and other obstacles such as corruption or electricity blackouts. Where the state fails to provide services entrepreneurs fill the gap: although only 30% of children attend state-run schools, the Lebanese are highly educated.
Christians, Sunni and Shia, who each make up roughly a third of the 4.4m population, have found a way of rubbing along despite their divisions at home and the turbulence around them. The Lebanese would be rich indeed if they had a pound every time their country had been described as “on the brink” of violent collapse. It has survived wars with Israel and meddling by Syria.
Lebanon is, like other Arab states, a sectarian patchwork. Its Sunnis share the fury of their Syrian co-religionists against the regime of President Bashar Assad; and its Shia share the fears of the minorities that support Syria’s government. Yet Lebanon did not fall into the abyss when Hizbullah, the Shia party-cum-militia, entered the war to prop up Mr Assad. It survived when Syria’s mainly Sunni rebels used northern Lebanon as a transit route for their arms. It has kept going despite the influx of more than 1m Syrian refugees, now a fifth of the total population.
Yet the picture is far from rosy. Lebanon has taken years to get around to exploiting its offshore gas; Israel is already exporting gas from the same area. Wars with Israel, including some started by Hizbullah, seem to break out every few years. The newest destabilising factor is the jihadists who call themselves Islamic State (IS). They have grown increasingly assertive on the Syrian-Lebanese border. In August militants from IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, snatched two dozen Lebanese soldiers from Arsal, a border town. Their families have since set up roadblocks to protest against the government’s inability to rescue them; IS has beheaded at least two of the captives.
On October 4th-6th Hizbullah clashed on the border with Jabhat al-Nusra, which was fighting to carve out a supply route. Syrian refugees suffer a growing and ugly backlash from their resentful hosts. Some 45 municipalities have imposed curfews on refugees, reckons Human Rights Watch, a lobby.
Particularly in the impoverished, Sunni-dominated north, anger simmers now that the Lebanese army, traditionally a neutral institution, is seen to be fighting the same Sunni enemies as Hizbullah. There is “a highly toxic cocktail” in northern Lebanon, says Raphaël Lefèvre of Carnegie Centre, a think-tank.
Until recently, most Sunnis in Tripoli, the main city in the north, supported the army and, next door, cheered on Syria’s moderate fighters and Jabhat al-Nusra. But among the poor and devout, some men now express admiration for IS’s victories against the Syrian regime and the Shia in Iraq. The talk is of Sunnis taking on the Shia within Lebanon. The unspoken pact underpinning the country’s mostly genteel anarchy—that the sects would refrain from behaviour that might bring back the civil war—could yet be tested.