By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
When a wide Lebanese popular protest starts, inclusive to all sects, trends and political parties, then it is an exceptional historical moment in the history of Lebanon. It is a state of people united by “pain,” suffering, pressure build-up, and anger at the political class accused of economic, political and social failure, and anger at the spread of corruption, that plagues the state bodies and institutions. Lebanon, which, throughout seventy years, was characterized by sectarian and partisan alignments, has re-aligned these days, and all of its angry masses have united against their figures, leaders and symbols chanting “All of them means all of them.”
The government’s introduction of tax on WhatsApp calls and other online free communication apps ($6 monthly), has sparked mass protests. People have felt that the government is after them to the last breath, while at the same time financial waste, wastefulness and depletion continue, taking advantage of leading and administrative positions to serve the interests of the political elite.
The Aspects of the Protests:
The Lebanese popular protests are characterized by the participation of all segments of society, especially youth, being extremely bold towards the symbols of the political system, using all forms of criticism, even hurtful insults and satirical comedy. The sectarian and partisan political system was harshly criticized, since it is considered the cause and protector of corruption, and a real obstacle to any revival movement in the country. The protests had a distinctive Lebanese flavor, since they included singing, joyful atmosphere and Dabke dance (Lebanese traditional dance), thus adding a “human” aspect to the protests. They are peaceful and reflect the Lebanese love for life. Some media outlets tried to generalize some exceptional cases, which were not the general trend.
During these protests, banks and schools were closed, the streets connecting various cities and areas were closed, thus almost paralyzing the economic life and transportation, which have put enormous pressure on the government.
Interestingly, political and party leaders are also attacking corruption and financial waste, while they themselves are the ones who are in charge of managing the government and the political system accused of corruption.
Corruption, the High Cost of Living and Debt:
According to Transparency International, Lebanon is ranked the 138 among the most corrupt nations out of 175 countries, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index 2018, scoring 28 points out of 100. Studies indicate that annual “cost of corruption” in Lebanon has reached $3 billion and 92% of Lebanese think that corruption has increased in their country. Corruption has caused a country full of rivers and springs to suffer water shortages and salty water in many Lebanese areas including the capital Beirut. It has made the country suffer Power outages for up to 12 hours per day in some areas.
Although Lebanon is full of people with potentials, competencies and expertise, and characterized by vigor and vitality, it suffers from underdeveloped infrastructure, poor services, overcharges in prices making Beirut the second most expensive Arab capital. Consequently, causing widespread frustration, driving the Lebanese to immigrate to where he would find a great chance for creativity outside his homeland. According to experts, the structure of the sectarian political system, the quotas, and buying loyalty, have provided a suitable environment for corruption, while protecting those accused of it. Therefore, since the establishment of the Lebanese state, no senior official has been held accountable for corruption.
Financial waste and poor economic performance have plunged Lebanon into a choking debt crisis, reaching $85 billion (whereas in 2007, it was $40 billion). In other words, every Lebanese is born with a debt of $15,450 (Assuming there are 5.5 million Lebanese nationality holders). The public debt ratio is around 140% of GDP, making Lebanon the third-highest indebted country in the world. Lebanon’s debt-servicing costs consume huge amounts of money, at a time when the debt is increasing by about $ 6 billion a year.
Difficulties and Challenges:
The protests suffer from a number of challenges, most notably the country’s political sectarian structure, which is deeply rooted in the political system; the parties based on sectarian foundations have strong infrastructure and large mobilization capabilities, which makes them able to reproduce themselves in any future free and fair elections.
Second, the protests have neither a leader nor a platform. At first, it was one of their strong points, however, if these protests were not led by genuine popular leaders, who are accepted by the masses and who express their concerns, the protests may gradually deteriorate and finish before the demands are fulfilled.
Third, there is a lack of confidence in the government and its parties that it will implement the reform demands, at the same time, the protests are not ready to replace the government. This would lead to a state of vacuum or would open the door to the risk of unrest and chaos.
Fourth, people have come out mainly to address their economic woes. Anyone who will take over- no matter how efficient and sincere they are-will need a long time to reform the economy. In this case, the forces of the “deep state” may try to disable the reforms seen detrimental to their interests, and other corrupt forces would try to maintain their influence or divert their capitals to foreign banks. Moreover, international and regional powers would intervene in domestic politics, and exert different economic and political pressures to serve their own interests.
The fifth challenge is linked to maintaining the goals of the protests, and blocking the way against any force seeking to ride the wave or change the goals to settle political accounts or serve anti-Lebanon foreign forces agendas.
To Where Will These Protests Lead?
The government-that recognized the crisis and the rightful demands of the demonstrators-tried to introduce a rescue plan to prove its seriousness in responding to the demands of the demonstrators. It included reducing spending, scrapping any new taxes, solving the electricity problem, establishing the National Anti-Corruption Commission, a law to retrieve stolen public funds, and halving the salaries of top officials, including ministers, deputies and presidents. The Lebanese president adopted many of the protesters’ demands and asked them to present their reform visions, in order to reach an understanding on them.
It was clear that many of the powerful forces in the state and society (Hizbullah, Amal, and the Free Patriotic Movement…) adopt many of these economic and social demands, however, they refuse to overthrow the government and the presidency, they also refuse to close the streets and disrupt public life. There are even internal debates about letting their public and supporters go into the streets, to counter what is seen as targeting these forces and their programs and political positions.
Thus, the movement is moving towards one of the following scenarios:
First Scenario: Responding to the demands of the demonstrators regarding the package of economic and social reforms, linked to fighting corruption and retrieving stolen public funds, improving services and alleviating the suffering of the people, while providing guarantees of their implementation, such as forming a new government and adding to it new figures.
Second Scenario: Answering the high demands of a considerable active sector of the demonstrators, i.e., overthrowing the presidency and the government, forming a new transitional government, holding early elections on non-sectarian grounds, in addition to an economic and social reform package.
Third Scenario: The two sides would insist on their positions, and the pro-government party would push its supporters into the streets, which could threaten the country with disruption or chaos, and more economic and financial collapse.
Fourth Scenario: Decline of the protest movement, and the official forces would contain it. Then, the ruling parties would return to their usual policies, but with a few new decors; while the core of the crisis remains in the confessionalism of Lebanon.
It is worthy to mention that this article is written in the midst of protests, in unpredictable agile conditions. Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned, and his government has become a caretaker government, but this did not stop the protests, of which some sectors have demanded the resignation of President Aoun. The protests have continued to put the ruling power under constant pressure in order to answer their demands. As for the forces targeted by the protests, they tried to prove themselves and sought to rally their supporters, in order to take a better negotiating position.
Many major roads have been reopened, and some aspects of normal life have returned, albeit partially, such as opening the schools. Until now, the first scenario seems to be the most probable, but what may hinder it is that there is a crisis of confidence among protestors in the political leadership. For the latter, who are either responsible for the corruption or keep silent about it, are incapable or unqualified to fight it or provide radical remedies for the country’s problems. Perhaps if the protestors had succeeded in continuing with their pressure and in enhancing their program and negotiations, their chances of achieving some of the demands in the second scenario would improve, such as holding early elections, forming a new transitional government, and laying new foundations for elections, by going partly beyond sectarian quotas, hence providing an opportunity for better foundations of the modern state.
It is also worth mentioning that the Lebanese political mentality is good at “playing near the brink,” and that it is not easy to force any significant power (especially the ones based on sectarian grounds) to concede, unless there are certain calculations, consensus and difficult overlapping alliances, which could take a long time. Despite all the above, the protests have provided an exceptional opportunity for political and economic reform.
This article was originally published in Arabic on TRT Arabic “trt.net.tr/arabic” on 27/10/2019.