Radical Reform or Total Chaos for Lebanon?

Lebanese of all sectarian, political, and regional affiliations took to the streets starting on October 17 to protest rampant corruption and the collapse of services. Unlike previous protests, these sprang up across the country and seem to be driven by genuine popular anger against the entire political class and not by narrow political interests. One popular slogan said, “All of you means all of you—a government of thieves.” It remains to be seen if this movement stays unified and on course to genuine reform.

Old and Endemic Problems

There are popular and political dimensions to the new wave of protests. Corruption among politicians and in state institutions has increased the suffering of Lebanese of limited income as well as others. Raising taxes and fees on commodities and services that are poorly run or unavailable has simply added to people’s frustrations.

The position of political forces in the country is crucial to the fate of the protests and that of the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Some parties and personalities have already sent their supporters to join the protests to add pressure on Hariri to resign because of what they say was his betrayal of them when he entered an alliance with President Michel Aoun, coupled with his reluctance to give them sufficient patronage. But once he falls, they are likely to end their participation in the protests. If, however, Hariri is willing to play ball and give them what they need, they will support a political accommodation for some changes in the cabinet and a compromise reform plan they could all live with, after which they would jointly put an end to the protest movement.

The spark this time coincided with the announcement by the government of an internet tax affecting mainly WhatsApp and Facebook users.

The October 17 protest is reminiscent of similar civil society-inspired protests in 2015, sparked at the time by the government’s failure to agree on who would collect and recycle the country’s trash––leaving much of it in the streets and overfilled garbage bins. The spark this time coincided with the announcement by the government of an internet tax affecting mainly WhatsApp and Facebook users. Admittedly, and like so many living in the high-tech world, the Lebanese have become addicted to chatting, texting, and sending videos on social media, all while cooking at home, walking on crowded streets, or even driving on dangerously chaotic roads. This tax, however, was symptomatic of a pattern of behavior from a government that has failed to deliver such basic services as water, electricity, and the collection and treatment of waste—while trying to balance the budget by cutting pensions and raising taxes. That Lebanon has been drowning in its own trash has become a sick joke, literally, given the polluted air and water and the compromised food supplies for a population that has been pushed to the limit.

This summer alone witnessed demonstrations by military pensioners who were objecting to cuts in their pensions in the name of balancing the budget. A fuel crisis followed when gas station owners said they could no longer afford to buy fuel in dollars and get paid with Lebanese pounds. A dollar crisis, which people strongly suspected was artificially manufactured by profiteering bankers, saw angry clients lining up to withdraw money from their accounts only to be told only Lebanese pounds would be given out. Topping all the frustrations, widespread and deadly fires erupted and spread over large swaths of land in October, consuming pine forests and threatening homes and factories. Ultimately, it took divine intervention in the form of unexpected torrential rains to put them out when state equipment and resources proved inadequate for the job.

As happened with the question of garbage however, the failure of successive governments to resolve one crisis after another has not been due to a lack of technical expertise. Rather, the basic problem continues to be one of corruption. Quite simply, although Lebanon’s political elites (or the leaders of sectarian, political, and paramilitary groups) have agreed to plunder public coffers and allow others to do the same, they have not always agreed on the specifics—i.e., which corrupt portfolio belongs to which corrupt official. Successive failures to resolve a deteriorating economy and a collapsing environment have resulted in a shrinking GDP, a burgeoning debt, and persistent international pressure for more transparency in Lebanon’s banking sector and for structural reforms to balance the budget. Assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is now conditioned on such fiscal reform. The IMF has historically focused on structural reforms, mandating income raises by levying taxes and cutting expenditures by removing or reducing subsidies. Prime Minister Hariri mentioned that a plan to do exactly that was approved in private talks with other Lebanese factions; however, they hastily denied it when the troubles started. Directing comments more to his political rivals than to the protesting crowds, Hariri suggested a period of 72 hours for them to either accept his reform plans or find someone else to lead the government based on an alternate strategy. At the end of this period, he and his cohorts in the government have agreed to a new plan that they hope will mollify the protesters.

Successive failures to resolve a deteriorating economy and a collapsing environment have resulted in a shrinking GDP, a burgeoning debt, and persistent international pressure for more transparency in Lebanon’s banking sector and for structural reforms to balance the budget.

The Extent of Corruption

In 2018, Lebanon ranked 138th out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index. The World Bank assessed Lebanon among the lowest in its world governance report, giving it a score of about 12 on a scale of 0 – 100 in terms of control of corruption. Corruption touches almost every aspect of life in Lebanon, from petty bribes citizens have to pay to get anything done in public bureaucracies to grand larceny embedded in all state contracts. The basic services are all tainted with this corruption. For example, electricity used to be available 24/7 before electrical facilities were bombed and destroyed several times during and after the civil war. To compensate, electric generators emerged, first in the form of small units one could put on a balcony and then on a larger scale when entrepreneurs supplied entire neighborhoods and villages with larger diesel-powered generators that spewed black smoke into already polluted air throughout the country. Powerful political party hacks, some of whom are well-known parliamentary leaders, protect the owners of these generators from having them outlawed or even regulated by the state. Those benefiting from this arrangement are obviously threatened by attempts to fix the country’s electric grid since that would deprive them of enormous profits. Hence, a citizen who wants electricity now pays the state the official fee for the several hours of power provided, varying from three to 12 hours depending on location. At the same time, this citizen also has to pay the local generator owner an even larger fee for supplying power beyond the allotted hours. This is but one example—albeit a major one—of racketeering and profiteering supported and/or sponsored by members of the political elite.

What Is the Way Forward for Lebanon?

In a Hobbesian world where a society is ruled by one abusive dictator, the people ultimately rise up and remove that dictator, either replacing him with another one or transitioning to an accountable democratic government. Witness, for example, the Arab uprisings of 2011 and the variety of results they have produced thus far. In Lebanon, a country touted in the past as the only democracy in the Arab world, there has never been one center of power to oppose. The 18 religious sects and dozens of political parties that share power each have devout followers who benefit from the patronage system and rise to its defense when threatened. The dilemma of civil society reformers who exist outside the system is that they face well-defended multiple and abusive dictators.

In Lebanon, a country touted in the past as the only democracy in the Arab world, there has never been one center of power to oppose. The 18 religious sects and dozens of political parties that share power each have devout followers who benefit from the patronage system and rise to its defense when threatened.

Fifteen years of civil war in Lebanon ended with the Taif Accords of 1989 that introduced a new political arrangement. But the accords left the country where it had started structurally and electorally and with an untouched corrupt political elite. To be sure, it is no exaggeration to state that Lebanon today is at a crossroads. Daily developments indicate a vibrant street that rejects the old compromises but simultaneously has not offered a clear way forward. Hariri’s second attempt at a reform plan suggested slashing the salaries and benefits of ministers and members of parliament. This will likely not change anything, nor will simply reshuffling the cabinet. Lebanon’s political elite must accept the blame for the morass the country is in and seek radical solutions from civil society leaders leading the protest. Perhaps a council of advisors might be set up for that purpose and tasked with a multi-year plan. It is clear that radical reform is what stands between a safe and gradual transition to an accountable government, on the one hand, and total chaos, on the other.

Nabeel A. Khoury is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. A retired foreign service officer, he most recently served as director of the Near East South Asia office of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.