Demonstrations in Lebanon are continuing despite a reform package which Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri had hoped would defuse the situation. Protesters were unimpressed with the Al-Hariri initiative. After years of economic and political mismanagement, they denounced the promised reforms as “sand in the eyes”.
The demonstrations were initially sparked by government proposals to plug Lebanon’s severe budget and trade deficit and shore up a plummeting lira by a number of measures that included imposing a tax on WhatsApp calls.
On Monday Al-Hariri promised salary cuts for current and past ministers and MPs and a tax hike on bank profits. He also supported calls for early general elections and announced that the coalition government had approved the reform measures he had proposed as well as the 2020 budget.
In an address to the public after a cabinet session presided over by President Michel Aoun, Al-Hariri said: “I had given my partners in government a deadline to adopt measures that are both desirable and necessary. These measures were adopted. Among them is the budget that we approved today. Other measures adopted are separate from the budget.”
The decisions were adopted shortly before the 72-hour deadline Al-Hariri had given his cabinet expired. He said that the budget would reduce the deficit “without raising new or additional taxes on the people” and pointed out that previous Lebanese governments had managed to engineer similar reductions in the past.
The prime minister stressed that the reforms were not part of a bargain to persuade the demonstrators to go home and end their protests against political elites and dire economic straits in which Lebanon is languishing. “These decisions are not part of a trade-off. I am not asking you to stop demonstrating or to stop expressing your anger. It’s up to you to take that decision and no one is giving you a deadline.”
Al-Hariri also said he supported the protesters’ demand for early parliamentary elections.
“You should know that your voice is heard. If you demand early parliamentary elections, then let your voice, alone, decide. I, Saad Al-Hariri, am with you personally on that demand.”
Lebanon last held parliamentary elections in May 2018.
In another response to protesters’ demands the government proposed new legislation to recuperate public funds that have been usurped and create a national authority to combat corruption. Al-Hariri also promised strict measures to halt tax evasion and to curb smuggling.
He told demonstrators that the government had agreed to abolish the Ministry of Information and a number of other government bodies deemed “unnecessary”, and that others would be merged. At the same time he reassured employees of the institutions that were to be dissolved that they would not find themselves out of work.
Following Al-Hariri’s speech and the announcement of the government’s measures large crowds gathered in downtown Beirut. The Lebanese National News Agency (NNA) reported that one of the most popular chants they raise was “Revolution! Revolution! The people want to bring down the regime.”
The size of the crowds increased well into the night as the city’s squares began to resemble large open-air parties with people swaying to the beats of loud music and patriotic songs.
“The demonstrations erupted spontaneously across Lebanon,” Mohamed Alloush, a Lebanese political analyst, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Never before has Lebanon seen such huge gatherings of demonstrators who are not affiliated with any political faction or party. No one is leading the protesters though the left, as divided as it is, is present. Some of them support the protests as a revolutionary act. Others harbour resentment towards the current political authorities. Civil society also has a powerful presence in the crowds.”
Alloush believes the spontaneous nature of the uprising, its lack of affiliation to any particular party and the consequent lack of leadership, could prove problematic.
“What it means is their demands are essentially utopian. They want to bring down the political establishment but they don’t have concrete alternatives. Some have voiced the idea of a six-month interim period led by a retired independent judge, under the protection of the military establishment. During this period a new electoral law would be drawn up on the basis of which early general elections could be held to elect a new parliament and a new president.”
As the crowds of demonstrators swelled following Al-Hariri’s speech, Alloush predicted even larger demonstrations in the next few days.
Some press reports have suggested there are political forces mobilising to oppose the protest movement, organise counter-demonstrations and even use force to break up the sit-ins.
The protesters have not only shunned traditional political affiliations and religious divides, they have also broken a longstanding taboo over criticising Hizbullah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah.
On the night of 21 October the Lebanese army prevented a convey of motorcycles carrying Hizbullah and Amal movement flags from entering Martyr and Riad Al-Solh squares, both of which host large crowds of demonstrators. Hizbullah and Amal deny any connection to the motorcyclists.
So what options do Lebanon’s political parties have in dealing with the demonstrations?
“They vary from one political camp to the next,” says Alloush.
What they are all desperately trying to do is gauge the pulse of the street. The longer the demonstrators remain in the street, the more the political elites will be ready to make concessions. But how long this will last, or how far the political elite will go in their concessions, it’s impossible to say at this point.”
Alloush doubts anyone will try to break up the demonstrations by force.
“The security agencies may resort to force to reopen blocked roads but that’s a very different thing from dispersing the sit-ins.”
On the question of early elections, Alloush says the challenge lies not in holding a poll but in drafting a new electoral law. “The real problem,” he concedes, “is the entire Lebanese political system”.
Under Lebanon’s confessional system of government, posts are distributed among the various religious communities on the basis of fixed formulas and quotas. Many believe it is the system itself that lies at the root of Lebanon’s problems since it gives clout to sectarian leaders determined to protect their influence and augment their fiefdoms. Yet the prospect of abolishing the denominational quota system alarms Lebanon’s Christians, who are now outnumbered by their Muslim compatriots but remain entitled to half of all government positions. It is a delicate issue, and any attempts to reform the system will have to be singularly aware of Lebanon’s complex demographic weave, and the sensitivities involved.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.