The Lebanese warfare state

6 November 2018

Lebanon’s army and security apparatus increasingly pervade everyday life. They manifest in the proliferation of checkpoints, banners and billboards, and in the multiplication of men in arms and military garb. Many Lebanese and foreigners deem this trend desirable, as it supposedly shields the country from a long list of threats: criminality, terrorism, intercommunal strife, and the destabilizing effect of refugees, neighboring wars and external subversion. While Lebanese citizens express increasing support for the armed forces, Western governments have ramped up their financial and technical aid programs.

This visible growth runs parallel to a set of subtler but no less momentous shifts relating to expanding Lebanese public spending on the security sector. This trend—which is best illustrated by budgetary data on the Lebanese army, the Internal Security Forces, General Security and State Security—has profound implications regarding both the securitization of Lebanese society and the relative neglect of other vital sectors.

At a glance, the most striking figure concerns the combined weight of the armed forces in the Lebanese state’s annual spending—16% of all state expenditure in 2017, per the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). This is almost double the proportion in the United States and triple that in China—the two countries with the highest total military spending in the world.

Source: SIPRI Military Expenditure database 2018

More dramatic still is the evolution of the armed forces’ budget over time, when compared to other essential functions of the state. Published data from the Lebanese Ministry of Finance reflects that, between 2005 and 2017, public spending on military and security personnel increased four times faster than it did for civilian public servants, such as public-school teachers and administrators. Adjusted for inflation, salaries and benefits doubled for the former while remaining stagnant for the latter. Within the same timeframe, salaries and benefits for armed forces personnel, as a percentage of total state spending on human resources, went from 45% to 60%.

Source: Lebanese Ministry of Finance

This expansion is all the more noteworthy given the rigidity of Lebanese public spending more broadly. The state devotes a third of its total annual budget to paying interest on its sovereign debt—the third largest in the world relative to GDP. It dedicates another estimated 10 to 15% to subsidizing its archaic electricity grid, leaving minimal room for manoeuver on other fronts. As military spending consumes an increasing share of an otherwise static budget, other key sectors inevitably suffer. As such, although Lebanon’s proportional spending on its armed forces is comparable to Jordan, it invests far less in education.

NB: Figures are for 2017 for Lebanon and 2016 for Jordan - Source: UNESCO, Institute Basil Fuleihan, SIPRI Military Expenditure database 2018

An additional concern lies in the disconnect between outsized spending, on one side, and actual performance, on the other. Since 2007, the Lebanese army’s main combat engagements—namely against militants in the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared and the Eastern town of Arsal—revealed limited combat readiness. Hizbollah’s private army, which maintains a strong presence in Lebanon’s east and south, has on occasions provided backup to state forces in domestic operations. Army barracks, police stations, and checkpoints are often surprisingly run-down.

These shortcomings reflect the fact that virtually all available state funds go to human resources, by contrast with facilities, hardware, maintenance and logistics. In Lebanon, the latter categories represent only 7% of total expenditure, compared to 60% in a country like the US. As a result, Lebanon relies almost completely on external support to finance non- personnel related costs. Washington is the primary benefactor: In 2017, the US provided 250 million USD in security assistance ranging from training to helicopters and missiles.

Source: US Department of Defense, Lebanese Ministry of Finance, SIPRI Military Expenditure database 2018

This disproportionate spending on staff is visible in yet another budget line: allowances and benefits, which include health care, maternity leave, and compensation in the event of death, as well as domestic workers and drivers for high-ranking officers. Combined, they represent 23% of total spending on personnel in the armed forces, compared with 9% in the education sector. Some of these perks extend to family members and endure after retirement, creating a snowball effect where spending expands beyond the scope of active personnel.

Source: Lebanese Ministry of Finance

Such data illuminates a largely undocumented reality: Lebanon’s armed forces are arguably at least as important for their social and economic functions as for their security role. For countless Lebanese youth, the military and security offer rare job opportunities and a desperately needed social safety net. Meanwhile, for Lebanese elites, such jobs—and especially positions higher up the security totem pole—represent a valuable form of patronage to parcel out among co-religionists. The result is that, in 2009, Lebanon’s military and security apparatus employed roughly 11% of the working population—almost 6% in the army alone. The French army, which is one of the largest in Europe, hovered around 1% that same year.

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A naive observer watching a Lebanese checkpoint—where armed men casually wave cars through, day after day—would wonder how such a ritual contributes to the country’s safety. Arguably, though, the sheer number of such checkpoints across Lebanon in fact forms a core element of stability—less by deterring violence than by keeping thousands of ordinary Lebanese from destitution.

Indeed, the security sector’s socioeconomic weight is a natural—and perhaps necessary— consequence of Lebanon’s dismal politics and chronically unproductive economy, which ensure that even the most highly educated Lebanese struggle to find fulfilling employment opportunities. Lebanese politicians, unwilling to enact structural reforms that would affect their own business interests, will continue to drive resources toward a prospering security sector, which in turn provides jobs for their followers. At the same time, European and American decision-makers—obsessed with stamping out terrorism and containing refugees—will further invest in security bodies as an expedient way forward.

Of course, there are consequences to securitization. Lebanese citizens, especially young activists, are increasingly subjected to harsh, arbitrary verdicts rendered in military courts. Some demonstrators protesting the garbage crisis in 2015 were accused of terrorism. Even criticizing politicians on social media may trigger forms of intimidation by security bodies. In other words, Lebanon may be proceeding along a familiar trajectory whereby freedom of expression—and human rights more broadly—will shrink in step with the armed forces’ expansion.

Rosalie Berthier & Georges Haddad

Illustration credit: War Guard Soldier Toy Green Action Small Plastic & Soldier Green Action Plastic Toy Small War Guard on Max Pixel / licensed CC0 by Creative Common.

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