In a surprising yet not unexpected turn of events, hundreds of thousands, if not over a million, Lebanese people protested in the streets on a daily basis since October 17. The main trigger of the protests was what is being called the “WhatsApp Tax” where users would have to pay for the free call service provided by the phone application. While somehow superficial on the surface, it reflected the cabinet’s policy of further taxing already impoverished lower classes rather than adopting progressive taxation policies and/or even better, pursuing the proper structural reforms requested by all local and international experts, rendering the need for additional taxes unnecessary. The underlying reasons however go much deeper to include the essence of the governance system poor provision of basic state services such as water and power outages, rampant corruption, third highest level of public debt in the world, political favoritism, rapidly declining socioeconomic conditions, and absence of trust in the ruling parties. Furthermore, the demonstrations came after a series of events starting in mid-August that include the downgrading of Lebanon’s Credit Rating, an economic crisis meeting that failed to bring any results, mismanagement of wildfires that ravaged the country only a few weeks ago, increase in unemployment rates especially among the youth, a currency crisis and unavailability of foreign currency (notably USD to which the Lira is pegged), and oil, bread, and medicine crises looming in the horizon. Even patronage networks used by political elites for decades to maintain control over their constituents have weakened in the past years as state funds, jobs, and financial support have dwindled.
While reminiscent of the 2015 You Stink protests, the geographic and participatory scale has far exceeded them. Key observations to point out are the mass participation of lower classes usually tied within party clientalist networks, cross-sectarian participation, large decentralized demonstrations in major cities beyond Beirut such as Tripoli, Baalbek, Tyr, Saida, Jal el Dib, and Zouk, and the first major mobilization of significant protesters against the Amal-Hezbollah alliance in decades.
A major point to be noted in that for the first time in 40 years, the barrier of fear was broken in Shia-majority areas whose support for Hezbollah is immediately tied to a sense of security against foreign aggression. Shrinking economic opportunities and hard social conditions have manifested in the current protests. It must be noted however that this sense of security is still present as the most protesters in Shia-majority areas continue to explicitly state their support for the “resistance” yet blamed resistance leaders for partaking in the corrupt system or covering it, calling Berri and some of Hezbollah’s deputies out. A differentiation is thus being made between internal socioeconomic demands and external aggression from Israel. Another differentiation is between Amal and Hezbollah whereby the former has been much more heavily criticized for corruption. This however did not shield Nasrallah from being included in the chants of protesters: “All of them means all of them, and Nasrallah is one them”. Such an act was considered a taboo and unthinkable only in the recent past. This reaction by Shia Lebanese put the Shiite Duo (Amal and Hezbollah) in front of a serious dilemma of either: reacting violently against the protesters, which was partially tried in several instances and was counter-productive every time; or let things go on, which will definitely lead unwelcomed results, within both their Shia support base and in the political scene of the country in general.
The first in the cabinet to announce the resignation of its ministers was the Lebanese Forces Party (LF) which called on its supporters to participate in the ongoing protests. The party’s stance within the cabinet has long been known of being unsatisfied with the decisions taken, especially the budget. Another point worth highlighting is their marginalization from state appointments, notably Christian-allocated posts monopolized by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). The LF leader Samir Geagea had already called, in the Baabda emergency economic meeting for political party leaders organized by President Aoun on September 2, for the immediate resignation of the whole government and its replacement by a government of technocrats that can regain people’s trust, implement the needed reforms, and put the country on the right track of recovery. The resignation received diverging reactions from protestors, with some considering LF partners in the corrupt system and accusing them of “riding the wave” while others viewed it more positively as a response to the people’s outcry and a significant leverage in pushing for a government resignation. Attempts to “ride the wave” also extends to other parties in government which used the mass protests to further their own political interests. This includes but is not limited to the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) against the FPM and the Future Movement following Hariri’s resignation.
The initial government reaction to the protests in Beirut was the use of tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters in the first couple of days before shifting towards a more peaceful handling of the situation. Reports linked this to the refusal of Minister of Interior Raya al-Hassan to violently quell the protests as well as Hariri’s insistence on the avoidance of bloodshed. PM Hariri gave himself 72 hours for inter-party consultations, at the end of which he announced an economic roadmap with no additional taxes on the lower classes, a contribution from the banking sector, and further privatization of several sectors. The plan received the praise of the ruling parties and of some experts, but fell very short from convincing the protesters who were not fazed as they continued to take to the streets. Regardless of the technical evaluation of the plan itself, which was generally regarded as a good first step, the trust in the current ruling parties to implement any proposed reform is critically low. Furthermore, other experts have questioned the feasibility of the roadmap as it unrealistically sets the budget deficit at 0.6% of the GDP, down from almost 7% in the 2019 budget, as well as settings goals only to appease the protesters, such as cutting down ministers of MPs’ wages and issuing a general amnesty law. The international response was more positive as the International Support Group which includes the US, UK, China, France, Russia, Germany, EU, and Arab League all voiced support for Hariri’s plan as a meeting the “aspirations of the Lebanese people”, along with a similar statement by the EU, EAS, and other embassies.
The army and security forces remained relatively tolerant of protesters, especially those blocking major roads, up until Hariri’s resignation. Half-hearted attempts by the army to break up demonstrations in Zouk and Jal el Dib were abandoned after a fierce response from protesters. While failing to intervene in certain instances of assault against peaceful protesters in Nabatieh and Tyr by Amal and Hezbollah affiliated groups, they have also protected the demonstrators in several occasions such as in Nabatieh the day after the attack and in Beirut. Thus, a balancing act was practiced by the security forces with the aim of preventing major clashes between demonstrators and party members. Reports circulated of Army General Joseph Aoun pushing back against political requests for forcefully opening the roads and restoring order. This was coupled with clear signs of sympathy shown by many soldiers to protesters at different times. If true, an assumption could be made about General Aoun carefully calculating and setting the ground for a possible role for the army in any transition which might occur or because of potential Presidential aspirations.
Prior to the resignation, Hezbollah remained firm in its backing of Hariri’s cabinet with reports pointing to the usage of a more heavy-handed approach in case the army and security forces do not mobilize to quash the protests. A sample of what possible escalation would look like occurred on Friday October 25. A small yet organized group of Hezbollah supporters entered into Riad el-Soleh square and assaulted both protesters and security forces. This coincided with Nasrallah’s second speech since the protests began. Hezbollah’s Secretary General adopted an aggressive rhetoric as he warned of a power vacuum and chaos. He also rejected the resignation of the current government and branded the unnamed “protest leaders” as foreign agents. Such portrayal of the protests falls squarely in line with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s statement on the unrest in both Lebanon and Iraq. The condescending manner through which Nasrallah delivered the speech and the accusations laid put the “resistance” at clear odds with socioeconomic demands. An environment of fear and intimidation was then imposed in Hezbollah-influenced areas as motorcades paraded in Sour, Dahiyah, Baalbek, and Nabatieh. The October 25 attack was repeated on a much larger, much more organized scale on October 29 by Hezbollah and Amal supporters. Hundreds of men beat protesters and ravaged through both Riad Soleh and Martyrs Square. Security forces and the army remained neutral for most of the attack before eventually dispersing them after the damage was done. The attack came after reports of Hariri’s resignation which came soon after. The political message by Hezbollah was clear regarding the resignation of a cabinet it enjoys a majority in as well as for the upcoming government negotiations: chaos in the streets unless our interests are preserved.
What Has Been Achieved So Far
The scale of popular mobilization is unprecedented as masses of protesters flooded major cities in Lebanon. The large numbers of people who took to the streets resurfaced the talks of a “silent majority” in the country which, if mobilized, can cause immense change. Unlike previous protest movements which remained limited to Beirut, this uprising is largely decentralized, yet unified in its goals. Inter-regional and inter-sectarian solidarity was seen between Tripoli, Sidon, Jal Dib, Beirut, Tyr, and Nabatieh, especially after violent attacks against protesters by Amal and Hezbollah supporters. Chants in Tripoli declaring support for Tyr marks a first in Lebanese history. Similarly, Jal Dib lit candles for those injured during the Nabatieh attacks. A sense of nationalism was felt on the streets as Lebanese flags covered the squares and the national anthem was consistently played. The main message was to portray an opposition to sectarian division tactics usually adopted by ruling parties. In spite of this, no racist chants were heard against refugees which is a noteworthy positive observation from the protests.
While a degree of violence was practiced by paramilitary groups against protesters, they have remained peaceful throughout the uprising with limited incidents of riots in Beirut the first couple of nights. The stressing on remaining peaceful with chants of selmiyye, selmiyye upon provocation has garnered further public support for protesters, gained the sympathy of security forces, and prevented a slide into dangerous chaotic confrontations.
In line with the rising trend of fake news dissemination in the world, the uprising was subjected to a systematic disinformation campaign on social media, WhatsApp, television stations, and even from party leaders with accusations of conspiracy. Admirably, the majority of the Lebanese population has shown good capabilities in filtering through these rumors. Protesters also maintained unified ranks in spite of several attempts of dividing them, one of which is President Aoun’s call for negotiations with representatives of the movements that was flatly rejected by protesters. The division tactics which worked in dismantling previous protest movements such as in 2011 and 2015 failed to achieve the desired results in the past weeks. In a similar line, Nasrallah’s conspiracy card, embassies funding, and intimidation techniques aimed at withdrawing sympathizers from the street. Even though relatively successful in decreasing the number of protesters in the Shia-majority South, protests remained in Sour and Nabatieh, and to a lesser extent, Baalbek.
Protesters have also displayed a high sense of social responsibility as organized groups conducted a clean-up of all protest sites every morning. Hundreds of volunteers sorted and recycled through the trash left from night protests. Public space in Beirut was also reclaimed, most notably the Dome City Center, also known as “The Egg”, which has been inaccessible to the public. The same applies to Solidere where lower class street and food merchants were able to set up temporary shops in Beirut’s luxurious and exclusive city center.
So far, protesters have been successful in blocking the initially proposed taxes for the 2020 budget, reshaping the political discourse in favor of the people, breaking down the barriers of fear, and forcing Hariri to resign.
It is not yet clear how demonstrations will develop; how long it will take the ruling parties to reach a compromise over the new government; and how long the streets can continue to mobilize in large numbers. The issue of road closures is also becoming increasingly sensitive as it is successful in paralyzing the country and putting immense pressure on the interests of those in power, but it also runs the risk of alienating supportive sections of the population hurt by the paralysis such as small business and daily-paid employees.
Binding consultations with parliament are expected to take place in the coming days by the President to name a new Prime Minister. Little information is present on whether an independent figure will be named, but Hariri’s return to his post is a serious option.
Several scenarios can be drawn regarding the future cabinet. One where the ruling parties attempt to prevent any meaningful change to the current modus operandi by dragging the life of the caretaker government and exploiting fears of a political vacuum. Another is the formation of a new government under Hariri whose members are politically affiliated but also experienced professionals. Such a technocratic government with Hariri as Prime Minster is also a tactic of delaying much-needed reforms, although it would be capable of minimizing the impact of a new round of US sanctions, obtain some of the CEDRE funds, and keep the economy afloat. While this could garner the consensus of political parties, it might not be able to appease the protesters and convince them to leave the streets. What matters to many protesters is the type of socioeconomic policy that this technocratic government will adopt rather than only the names of the ministers. Such an announcement could cause a division among opposition movements about whether to stay in the streets or not since a clear criteria over the names of the ministers and the policy of the cabinet is not a matter of consensus on the streets.
A third possibility is Hezbollah, Amal, and the FPM push for a one-sided government headed by one of Hariri’s political opponents. This would push the LF, PSP, and Future Movement to the opposition as they would attempt to ride the “revolutionary wave”. Such a scenario would lead to a renewed period of political confrontation with clear sectarian undertones. It would also make the government as a whole subject to US sanctions.
Fourthly, protesters build on their momentum and continue to push for an independent transitional government which implements progressive socioeconomic reforms and conducts early parliamentary elections. Fears remain that the opposition is not organized enough to offer a proper alternative for the people in case of snap elections. This runs the risk of recreating the current parliamentary balance of power and losing the gains of the uprising. The longer the crisis is, and the less protesters feel the ruling parties are responsive to their demands, the higher the risk of escalation. This also includes the segment of random protesters who have repeatedly voiced support for a military transitional government as the only way forward.
Whichever scenario plays out, the reaction of two key actors must be monitored: the ability of protesters to continue to mobilize in large numbers in case the new cabinet was not an accurate reflection of their demands; and the extent to which Hezbollah is willing to go to maintain its influence over the major political and economic decisions of the country. Whether the party will adopt a more violent approach vis-à-vis all other actors to make sure its interests are maintained remains to be seen, especially as it runs the risk of civil war.
A different yet just as serious risk is the possibility of economic collapse in case cabinet negotiations reach a stalemate and drag on for a long period of time. The country is in desperate economic conditions and requires a properly functioning government. Among both opposition and ruling parties, contradictory economic visions are present on how to move forward: left or right economics, role of the banking sector and Central Bank, peg of the Lira to the dollar, austerity or otherwise. The new cabinet must be homogenous and clear in both its priorities and approach so that it can properly implement its vision. Lebanon’s economy cannot afford the luxury of half-hearted or aborted attempts of weathering the crisis.
As it stands, the country is polarized between the streets on one hand and supporters of ruling parties on the other. The mass scale of the uprising does not indicate in any way the dilution of that support, even if it did suffer from a slump. While the people on the streets are underrepresented and need their voices to be heard, this cannot come at the expense of another significant segment of the population. The above mentioned dilemma is even more relevant in a country like Lebanon governed by sectarian consociationalism. Despite the national sense of unity portrayed in the streets, it would be simplistic and dangerous to assume that deeply engrained sectarian identities have disappeared overnight. The degree of willingness of the people to accept the ramifications of deeply needed structural reforms for the country to move out of the economic crisis such as cutting down clientalist and unneeded public sector jobs, combating tax evasion, and dismantling monopolies is also yet to be determined.
Nevertheless, the Lebanese have shown tremendous unity and character during the past two weeks and have clearly signaled their intent to hold those in power accountable. No matter what scenario of those proposed plays out, it is clear to both the people and ruling parties that Lebanon will never be the same again. The Lebanese people are learning that they can change their destiny and shape the future of their country. They demand a state that works for their best interests, an accountable government receptive to the demands of the streets, and a social contract where rights are protected.References
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