Lebanon’s Protests Cannot Be Ignored

Although sporadic demonstrations by disaffected youth and others had broken out over the last few weeks in Beirut and other cities, the latest wave of serious and mass protests in Egypt and Iraq has found its way to Lebanon. The current protests have been triggered by the government’s levying additional regressive taxes on consumption, especially a new fee on the use of the popular, and free, WhatsApp and Facebook services on which many Lebanese depend for news and to connect to each other. But other deeper underlying causes pushed thousands all over Lebanon to come out in spontaneous popular actions that have practically shut the country down. To be sure, these protests show that Lebanon is not immune to the continuing and dynamic Arab Spring that has lately hit the streets of Egyptian and Iraqi cities to demand radical change in the deteriorating status quo.

The three men who epitomize political power in Lebanon—President Michel Aoun, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, and Prime Minister Saad Hariri—have become symbols of a collapsed political and economic order that has failed to correct numerous ills that have intensified since the civil war ended in 1991. Even the powerful symbol of the so-called resistance to Israel, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, has not been spared blame for the conditions in the country. Many political personalities, perhaps to ride the wave, have called for collective resignations. Premier Hariri may very well do so in a scheduled speech to the nation.

What is obvious is that these protests, like those in Egypt and Iraq over the last couple of months, are leaderless yet uniform in their demand for radical political change, including that of the confessional regime.

What is obvious is that these protests, like those in Egypt and Iraq over the last couple of months, are leaderless yet uniform in their demand for radical political change, including that of the confessional regime. Protesters have cut off roads and laid siege to government buildings in Beirut and the provinces: the south, the north, the central Mount Lebanon, and the eastern Beqaa Valley. The main refrain is not only a demand that the government rescind its newest levies but that it root out the corruption and nepotism that have destroyed the economy.

Importantly, the protesters are nonpartisan and nonsectarian, embodying a new generation of activists who have grown to resent the political arrangements that have kept politicians unaccountable as the state showed more signs of failure and collapse. In fact, they appear to be an expanding pool of civil society activists and supporters who have lost confidence in Lebanon’s multiple political parties that now have become essential elements in sectarian compromises. They are protesting against the current cabinet and previous ones that have shown wanton disregard for basic requirements of governance such as collecting trash, putting out fires, securing supplies of electricity, and ensuring water and environmental safety, among other vital functions.

Lebanon’s protests can be seen as an attempt to force the government and the political class to work to address the downward national slide or to get out of the way. Many also fear that the political and economic troubles may threaten to unravel whatever civic peace there exists in the country. Divisions over a slew of issues––from responsibility for corruption to economic collapse to what to do with an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country––are increasing and mutual sectarian fear and mistrust among the country’s communities are rising. Lebanon is nursing a dangerous dose of nativism against the refugees just as it becomes clearer every day that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the primary reason for their displacement from Syria, will continue to rule that country. And as Assad restores his old connections with loyal Lebanese factions such as Hezbollah and its affiliates, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil––son-in-law of President Aoun––advocated for Syria’s return to the Arab League at the group’s latest meeting, thus helping to facilitate the Syrian president’s influence in Beirut.

If Lebanon’s political and sectarian elites do not act quickly to address the accelerating drift toward the unknown, the country could find itself unable to step back from the brink.

If Lebanon’s political and sectarian elites do not act quickly to address the accelerating drift toward the unknown, the country could find itself unable to step back from the brink. To be sure, the country has experienced wrenching civic, political, and economic pain for over four decades; but what is dangerous and unwarranted today is that Lebanon appears to have run out of opportunities to redress some serious economic conditions that are likely to negatively impact political arrangements essential for the survival of the confessional system.

It is clear that Lebanon’s politicians and interested elites whittled away possibilities for reform and change, thinking that the country’s friends in the region and around the world would not let it fail. Today, as the region spins in its own whirlwind of uncertainty, instability, and war, those chances and opportunities have practically disappeared and Lebanon’s politicians find themselves almost bereft of means to avoid national disaster. A meeting of donor nations in Paris last April pledged an $11 billion assistance package for the country; however, the package was contingent on Lebanon undertaking serious efforts to reform its economy and address rampant corruption.

Lebanon’s economic conditions have become a bellwether of how the country’s civic peace will fare, considering the many political and social problems it faces. Corruption and a misplaced economic philosophy continue to stymie efforts at redress. Indeed, Lebanon ranked 138 out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index in 2018. Its public sector is known to be highly unscrupulous and its bureaucracy is inefficient. An October 2019 report by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies lays bare the conditions of Lebanon’s economy as a result of having fallen victim to politicians’ desires and whims. Public debt is expected to rise to 158 percent of GDP by 2021 due to unsustainable levels of spending. According to the report, the country’s budget, passed in July, barely addressed economic priorities and in effect kept intact the same “structural conditions that gave rise to the economic deterioration in the first place.” Further, politicians are reluctant to make serious changes in these conditions because reform affects their economic interests as a result of “their entrenchment with the private sector.”

Such a difficult economic situation has combined with the breakdown of traditional political compromises and the influences of an unstable neighborhood to produce a toxic public atmosphere that requires serious remedies. The protests engulfing Lebanon’s streets may not produce the required change or force the necessary solutions, given the entrenched political class and its reluctance to change course. After all, the protesters do not represent any specific political trend and do not have a specific and organized program for change. But the mere fact that the protests have erupted in all parts of Lebanon indicates that the country’s political class has no option but to finally listen to the voices from the street. Lebanon’s masses appear to have finally joined the wave of the Arab Spring.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here

Photo credit: Sara Hteit/Twitter