Disaffection Descends onto the Streets of Lebanon
The Citizen’s foreign affairs primer
Since October 17, 2019, the streets of Lebanon from the capital Beirut to the southern towns and cities, have been echoing to the protests of citizens furious with the functioning of the government. Their main charge against Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his cabinet--high level corruption, through favourable deals and kickbacks, and economic malaise. Such is the fury that calls for an overthrow of the government have been laced with slogans of “Revolution! Revolution!” and “..the people want the fall of the regime.” They have been calling for the ousting of PM Hariri, President Michel Aoun, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Though the protests have been largely peaceful there have been instances of some violence against shops and establishments. In places the security forces responded with tear gas and rubber bullets injuring and detaining dozens of people --action that invited criticism from Amnesty international. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates warned their citizens against travelling to Lebanon. Bahrain told its nationals to leave at once.
Lebanon is no stranger to protests. In 2005, Lebanon witnessed the Cedar Revolution, when people demonstrated in huge numbers against the Syrian military occupation. But there were no calls for the overthrow of the regime and the leaders of Lebanon’s various sects held on to their control of the country. In 2015, Beirut witnessed protests against the piling up of rubbish on the streets with some of the protestors actually questioning their own sects' political leaders. To ensure the political status quo, Lebanon’s political elite used divide-and-rule tactics tarnishing some of the civil society leaders as being paid foreign agents. But 2015 was the genesis of what is now being seen as a slowly emerging social revolution through organised public action with groups contesting municipal elections, fielding candidates against the dominant traditional political parties in parliamentary elections, and ongoing civic engagement.
The protests this time however are significantly different in that the protestors are sparing no leader and demonstrating a complete disregard for religious, clan and political affiliations. Reports suggest that what the people want is a nationalist leader whose loyalty is to Lebanon and not a political party. The current protests are much larger than those of 2015. Protests are taking place even in southern Lebanon where many from the Shia community have been publicly denouncing traditional Shia leaders, including Hassan Nasrallah. In Sunni-dominated areas, people have torn down posters of Mr. Hariri, the country’s most powerful Sunni. In largely Shiite parts of southern Lebanon, slogans have been raised against Nabih Berri, the Shiite speaker of Parliament while in the Hezbollah stronghold in the southern suburb of Beirut offices of Hezbollah members of Parliament have been attacked. Sunnis, Shias and Christians appear united in the cause. Protesters have demonstrated outside the government palace in downtown Beirut and at the presidential palace in Baabda, blocking the airport road and burning posters of Christian, Muslim and religious minority politicians from Tripoli in the north to Tyre in the south. Shi’ite protesters also were to reported to have attacked the offices of their deputies from the Hezbollah and Amal movements in southern Lebanon- something unthinkable in the past.
The main ire of the protestors is focused on the economic hardship that Lebanon is facing and the government’s moves to raise taxation. Public anger had flared over an austerity budget hiking multiple taxes and curbing government pensions and employment benefits at a time of high prices and unemployment. The immediate spark was the government’s proposal to impose a $0.2 tax on calls via messaging apps such as WhatsApp—the primary method of communication for many Lebanese. Although the government abandoned the idea the demonstrations quickly swelled into the largest in years.
International developments had added to Lebanon’s economic woes. The country had to bear the burden of accommodating nearly 1 million Syrian refugees following the civil war in Syria. Since 1948 when Israel was created Lebanon has been one of the countries providing refuge to a substantial number of Palestinians. The total number accommodated by Jordan, Syria and Lebanon had been out at nearly 5 million. Lebanon's public debt stands at around $86bn - more than 150 percent of gross domestic product. Early this year Qatar had provided Lebanon with some short term relief saying it would invest $500 million in Lebanese government U.S. dollar bonds. The IMF has said that tough austerity measures such as tax hikes and levies on fuel are required -steps the country’s politicians have publicly vowed not to take. Lebanon’s economy registered just 0.3 percent growth last year. Without a foreign funding boost, officials and economists predict a currency devaluation or a debt default within months. The Hariri government, which includes nearly all Lebanon’s main parties, has repeatedly failed to implement the reforms needed to fix the national finances.
Saad Hariri, one of the most powerful Sunni politicians of Lebanon, has had three terms as Prime Minister. The latest elections were in May 2018 when actually they should have been held in 2013 but were postponed as MPs voted to extend their own term because leaders could not agree on a new parliamentary election law.
The May 2018 elections were preceded by some drama when Hariri, visiting Saudi Arabia in November 2017, was detained, reportedly cursed and beaten, and forced to resign the Lebanese Prime Ministership on Saudi Television. There was considerable anger in Lebanon at the detention of their Prime Minister and Lebanese President Michel Aoun refused to accept the resignation. Hariri was released following intervention by French President Macron and on return to Lebanon withdrew his resignation. There was speculation that the episode had been engineered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Sultan-who denied any involvement- as the Saudis were angry with Hariri for not standing up to Iran and Hezbollah and not conveying a message to Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative to get Iran to stop interfering in Lebanon. An anti-Hezbollah alliance led by Hariri and backed by Saudi Arabia had won a majority in parliament in 2009.
Hariri however saw his party decimated in the May 2018 elections to the 128 seats in Parliament. His Future Party won 20 seats, down from the 33 in the 2009 elections. Hezbollah was a prime winner with 67 seats along with its allies which included the Shi’ite Amal Movement led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement established by President Michel Aoun and others who looked with favour on Hezbollah’s armed strength. The staunchly anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces, a Christian party, had doubled its MPs to 15 from eight. But for months till January 2019 no government could be formed because of contentious differences about the assigning of Cabinet posts particularly between the Lebanese Forces (LF) party of Samir Geagea and President Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) - both Christian groups. It was only when the LF agreed to join a new national unity government led by Saad Hariri did the matter get resolved.
PM Hariri had been blaming his rivals of obstructing his reform measures that could unlock $11 billion in Western donor pledges and help avert economic collapse. The reform decisions would involve a 50% reduction in salaries of current and former presidents, ministers and MPs plus cuts in benefits to state institutions and officials. They would also oblige the central bank and private banks to contribute $3.3 billion to achieve a “near zero deficit” for the 2020 budget. There was also a plan to privatise the telecommunications sector and an overhaul of the electricity sector, which posed one of the biggest strains on the country’s finances.
The present Hariri Cabinet has been dominated by Hezbollah and its allies. Following the recent protests both Nasrallah and Saad Hariri spoke on TV stating that they supported the protesters’ aims but that others in the government were blocking a reform agenda. The absence of any coherent approach to the demonstrators’ demands had led four ministers from the Lebanese Forces Party, a traditional ally of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to resign from his cabinet. Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces party, said on 19th October 2019 that he no longer believed the current national unity government headed by Premier Saad Hariri could steer the country out of the economic crisis. Labour Minister Camille Abousleiman, told the media that they had "lost faith in the government’s ability to effect change and address the problem". But Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah opposed any resignation of the government and said the unity government should adopt a new approach to tackling the economic crisis. His comments did nothing to alleviate the public anger and the protestors included him in their list of senior figures they blamed for corruption and mismanagement.
Till the protests escalated the government’s approach had been the old feudal one- which the Lebanese polity resembles-, of using the carrot and the stick. But with no let up in the demonstrations, Hariri had given a 72 hour deadline to his partners in government to agree on a solution to the economic problems without imposing new taxes. On Monday 21st October the Prime Minister unveiled a reform programme that would halve the salaries of officials, overhaul the electricity sector and eliminate a ministry and other governmental bodies. He said in a televised conference that financial advisers would study the privatization of telecommunications, a law would be drafted to return stolen government funds and an anti-corruption committee would be set up. He also announced that the government had approved a 2020 budget with a deficit of 0.6 percent and that there would be no new taxes.
What comes next? Would Hariri’s reform project, which had been rejected by the protestors who continued to demonstrate demanding the resignation of the government, be adequate to make Lebanon conducive to aid flows and financing and stem the protests which have no political or clan Godfather unlike in the past ? Or will he, despite Nasrallah’s warning, be forced to resign. Lama Fakih, the director of the Crisis and Conflict Division at Human Rights Watch, warned about a "trust and accountability deficit" in Lebanon due to "the government’s perennial failure to hold officials and other perpetrators to account despite credible allegations of abuse and misconduct". Fakih, citing a history of alleged human rights abuses, added that protesters were right to doubt the government's promised reforms unless there is a "genuine commitment to accountability for abuses".
In case fresh elections are forced upon the country theywould probably throw up a parliament with an even more substantial Hezbollah-cum-allies presence. This would definitely anger both the Americans and Saudi Arabia and could make it even more difficult for Lebanon to secure international financial resources. If eventually the Lebanese do reconcile to the reforms-provided the anti-corruption elements are implemented seriously- and with international funding beginning to flow into the economy, then people may leave the streets and get on with their lives. Otherwise the specter of political and economic instability would continue to haunt Lebanon.