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Lebanon's protests prompted by economic conditions, not politics, despite recent violence

Bassem Aly , Tuesday 3 Dec 2019
Lebanon
Lebanese protesters wave their national flag, as they march in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019. AP
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Lebanon’s anti-government protests, which started on 17 October, have recently seen several incidents of violence between protesters and supporters of political forces.       

Acts of contention also involved confrontations between army forces and protesters.

Meanwhile, protesters used some of the slogans that were seen in the 2011 Arab uprisings, including "the people demand the fall of the regime."

They even created new ones such as, "all of them means all of them," in reference to the country’s political elite.   

But, according to experts, the protests remain a reaction to the country's worsening economic conditions.

As an example of violence, clashes erupted last month between Lebanese security forces and protesters as the latter attempted to prevent MPs from attending a parliamentary session.

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Lebanese protesters carry an Arabic banner that reads, "Lebanon uprising," as they march in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019. AP

One week later, protesters clashed with supporters of Hezbollah—which has said that protests are backed by foreign powers—and the Amal movement on Beirut's ring road, which led to the injury of at least ten demonstrators. The two sides threw stones at each other for several hours, and security forced created a barrier to separate them.

By the end of November, clashes between supporters of the country's political forces and anti-government protests spread across the ethnically-diverse state.

The Shia suburb of Chiyah, the Christian area of Ein Rummaneh in the northern city of Tripoli, and the mountain town of Bikfaya all saw violent clashes and stone-throwing between protesters and backers of Lebanon's existing political forces.

Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, told Ahram Online that—in terms of acceptable concessions to be made—the protesters need the nomination of a new premier who would form a government of experts that can operate "as an economic emergency cabinet empowered with exceptional powers to regain trust and legitimacy."

"It is doubtful that violence would serve either the protestors or the political establishment. But in the case that the crisis is prolonged and economic collapse becomes a reality, then hardship may stir up violent strife that is economic rather than politically driven," he stressed.

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Lebanese demonstrators carry pictures of Iraqis killed during protests as they stage a candlelight vigil outside Iraq's embassy to denounce the excessive use of force against demonstrators there, in the capital Beirut on November 30, 2019 AFP

Lebanon's political system is a power-sharing one. It requires a Maronite Christian as president, a Sunni Muslim as prime minister, and a Shia Muslim as parliament speaker. This formula dates back to a 1943 agreement.

It was re-asserted in the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended the country’s 15-year civil war. The agreement also gave more powers to the prime minister than the president.

It is normally an extremely challenging task to achieve political consensus among political forces on any issue. For instance, it took the parliament two years to secure enough votes for Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, to become president.

But political deadlock did not lead to protests; a recent heatwave and wildfires that raged across the country on 16 October did. A large number of homes located near the fires were destroyed, and families were evacuated.

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Residents of the Lebanese capital carry national flags as they take part in ongoing anti-government demonstrations in central Beirut on November 30, 2019.AFP

Anti-government protests took place in different parts of the country the following day.

Longer-term factors were also important factors: deteriorating economic conditions, the war in Syria, turmoil in different parts of the region and reduced capital flows from outside Lebanon led to this situation, according to a Reuters report.

The report added that economic growth, estimated at 1-2 percent for many years, was zero in 2019, while the country’s level of public debt is among the highest in the world, at roughly 150 percent of GDP.

Interest rates, already high, are rising, and the country is experiencing a currency crisis, having had to impose limitations on withdrawals of dollars since protests began.

Other problems include weak infrastructure, regular power cuts and a 37 percent unemployment rate for those who are under the age of 25.

"It is clear that what is more dangerous than the major national crisis and sharp economic crisis our country is passing through--and which is preventing us from dealing with these two intertwined crises--is the state of chronic denial being expressed on several occasions over the past few weeks," Sunni Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri, who resigned on 29 October, said last month.

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Lebanese anti-government protesters light a flare and wave a national flag during ongoing demonstrations in the capital Beirut's downtown district on November 30, 2019. AFP

Al-Hariri resigned because he reached a "dead end" amid the protests, believing he "tried, during this period, to find a way out, through which to listen to the voice of the people."

Since then, political forces have been struggling to form a new coalition government and find a new Sunni cabinet leader.

Al-Hariri, almost ten days before his resignation, agreed on reforms, in an attempt to contain the angry protesters, though demonstrations did not stop.

The reforms included 50 percent cuts in benefits to state agencies and the salaries of current and previous presidents, ministers and parliamentarians, in addition to a $3.3 billion fund from the central bank and private banks to reach a "near-zero deficit" in the 2020 budget.

"The demands of the largely leaderless protests are clear and largely relating to the economic crisis: small technocratic government to enact reforms, put an end to rampant corruption and wastage, tax profiting banks, tackle youth unemployment which is nearly 40 percent. Questions relating to the lira peg may also have to be resolved soon. Whether those demands will be fulfilled is another question," said Sarah El-Richani, assistant professor of mass communications at the American University in Cairo.

"The political-sectarian cartel have been fear-mongering from the first days of the movement. When they noticed this hasn’t worked they sent their thugs to destroy tents set up in squares in Tyre and Beirut and assault peaceful protestors. Apart from these few tussles and two fatalities committed by individual assailants, the protests have been largely peaceful and indeed awe-inspiring," she argued.

El-Richani said that there is an ever-growing number of Lebanese people who identify first and foremost as citizens of the state rather than subjects of one of the country’s 18 recognised sects. There is a desire for a stronger state, she said, though the priority is "reforming our dysfunctional economic system and extricating the country from those dire straits."  

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Anti-government protesters chant slogans during ongoing protests against the Lebanese political class, as riot police stand guard in front of Finance Ministry building in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Nov. 29, 2019. AP

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