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2019: Lebanon on the precipice

Rooting out sectarianism in Lebanon is a public demand. But for the regime, a facelift in order to receive foreign financial aid is about as far as it wants to go

Hassan Al-Qishawi , Wednesday 1 Jan 2020
Lebanon
Lebanon
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Lebanon’s history is the fullest in the Arab world of conflicts and civil wars, and looking back on the incidents of this year, two factors make 2019 different from Lebanon’s norm. 

The first is that the herak, or protest movement, the country witnessed this year was non-sectarian, which is a rare occurrence in the complicated history of Lebanon. 

The second is the unprecedented economic deterioration. Lebanon was mired in a civil war for 15 years, but never had its economy been so critically on the precipice of collapse.

Although the herak emerged as a result of the economic crunch, it also contributed to its deterioration.

The protest movement erupted as a reaction to a government plan to tax WhatsApp calls to alleviate the economic crisis. Lebanese people rely heavily on the application due to the expensive price of mobile phone calls.

The demonstrations were spontaneous, but they carried intense rage, some of the reasons of which go decades back. The herak appeared as a continuation of the protests that broke out across Lebanon during the 2015 waste crisis.

Many of the herak leaders were introduced to Lebanon’s political scene recently. In the past few years, the country saw the emergence of political leaders that function outside the sectarian official norm.

The new political leaders are a mixed bag of current and former leftists, liberals, activists, former sectarian party members, middle class laymen who grew sick of favouritism and sectarianism, in addition to the offspring of sectarian party members who don’t completely differ from their fathers but who want to decrease the tone of sectarianism that grew increasingly ugly, even in the eyes of those who contribute to it.

Disagreements between the new generation of leaders are not much different than those between the ruling elite. Some of them are close to Hizbullah, others to Western NGOs, the Future Movement or the Lebanese Forces political party.

However, as with other Arab revolutions, when demonstrations break out against regimes, parties bury their differences, until they resurface at a later stage.

What the herak did was shine a spotlight on Lebanon’s crises. The country with the highest income in the Arab world outside the Gulf has been suffering from chronic power outages for decades. The reason of the power cuts is that the ruling parties benefit from providing people with electricity generators when the power is out.

The herak shed light on the fact that the upper hand in this complex, sectarian country belongs to Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, the president’s son-in-law who has the backing of Hizbullah. Bassil has repeatedly failed in parliamentary elections, showed weak performance in the Ministry of Energy, and has on many occasions released provocative, sectarian political statements.

The herak refused to respond to the promises of political elites to solve the crisis, because the Lebanese street has heard these promises before. The people know that the political and economic crises have been accumulating for years and none of the governing bodies stepped up to solve them although many rang the alarm bells, including the ruling sectarian political elites.

Despite Hizbullah’s threats to the herak and harassments of its supporters, the protesters stood their ground by holding sit-ins in squares.

Their most powerful weapon, however, remained blocking roads. It’s an effective weapon, but it was the people and the economy that were most harmed as a result.

With the Lebanese lira crisis continuing, the turmoil and political vacuum, the unofficial lira exchange rate rose to 2,000 liras for every dollar. The increase represents one third of the official rate, set at about 1,500 liras per dollar.

In a country that relies on the dollar and where people trust the banking system — which primarily depends on foreign dollar deposits — Lebanon is inching closer to a series of catastrophes on all fronts. 

Moreover, fuel and wheat distribution are affected by the dollar crisis and roadblocks.

With the continued plummeting of the economy, political elites started offering concessions. These remain slow, however, in light of the fact that Lebanon needs quick solutions to the economic crisis.

Disagreement between then-Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri, on the one hand, and Hizbullah, the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun and the Amal Movement, on the other, revolved around forming a technocratic government.

Hizbullah and its allies want to form a technopolitical government, because they don’t want to leave the government they dominate for fear of foreign intervention in Lebanon’s politics.

Growing sick of provocative sectarian figures, such as Bassil, the herak wants a completely technocratic government to fix the economic crisis, fight corruption and draft a non-sectarian elections law.

These are more or less the demands of the West and the international community. But to Hizbullah and its allies, the demands mean the end of the era of the ruling party led by Aoun, a waste of their electoral victory in the last parliamentary elections, and a siege of sorts.

To the protesters, Hizbullah is one of the parties in the formula they reject, but not the main factor, however. Probably, the bigger part of the Lebanese people’s frustration is due to corruption, and is primarily directed at some of Hizbullah’s allies, such as Bassil, and to a lesser extent the Amal Movement.

But it was Hizbullah that decided to respond to the protesters’ demands dismissively, making the people their enemy.

The problem is, resorting to force in dispersing the herak, either by Hizbullah or state bodies loyal to Hizbullah or Aoun, not only threatens the outbreak of civil war or internal conflicts in a country whose military and security institutions are divided over sects. Using force also weakens Lebanon’s opportunity to receive international economic support, which is the only means to save the country’s ailing economy.

“The bankruptcy of Lebanon has become nearer than expected,” said Hanin Ghaddar, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, in a report to the Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa Affairs and International Terrorism in the US House of Representatives.

At that point, the state will not be able to pay the salaries of public sector employees, including members of the army and security forces. Foreign aid is necessary to save the country from total collapse and utter chaos.

However, Ghaddar said, “the aid should be conditional upon guarantees of the sovereignty of the state and the arrival of new, uncorrupt politicians in power.”

In her report, Ghaddar calls for the formation of a government of independent technocrats and holding early elections as the two main conditions for Lebanon to obtain financial assistance.

Although Hizbullah and its allies rejected the idea of ​​a technocratic government, the protesters’ insistence on their demands, and more importantly, financial pressure that cannot be resolved without foreign interference, may change Hizbullah and its allies’ minds.

Now there is a new candidate for the Lebanese government: businessman Samir Al-Khatib.

Al-Hariri announced his support for Al-Khatib as the new prime minister, but he said, “there are still some details to be discussed. Everyone is trying to overcome this difficult stage.”

In an official statement, Al-Hariri said his party, the Future Movement, “will not be part of [a government] by political figures, but by experts”.

Unnamed political sources told Reuters that negotiations are moving ahead quickly to form a government led by Al-Khatib, a businessman close to Al-Hariri, and who is known for his business partnership with late prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri.

Bassil told the media it was agreed to form a government led by a reliable, competent man whom Al-Hariri backs. “The government should be open to anyone to participate in.”

There are conflicting reports over several points of contention, nonetheless. Will Bassil be part of the new government? And will it be tasked with preparing a new elections law?

As far as Bassil is concerned, it appears the matter hasn’t been decided yet. Some reports say he won’t, others say he insists to.

There are leaked reports that Hizbullah and its allies are determined not to be stripped of their electoral victory, meaning the government will not be tasked with preparing a new elections law.

The matter is Lebanon’s thorniest issue, since the method of preparing the law will determine who will win the elections. The law is also regarded from a sectarian perspective, the elections not only being political or partisan.

To spare the sensitivities, Lebanese reformists are suggesting an elections law that maintains the number of seats for each sect, while widening the electoral municipalities. The suggestion aims to preserve votes for non-sectarian parties from going to waste.

However, this is all in just in theory. Despite the Lebanese people’s anger at their political representatives, the herak hasn’t offered an alternative. In addition, the deeply rooted sectarian formula in Lebanon makes plucking out sectarian parties a difficult mission.

Most likely, Lebanon’s politicians want to give Lebanon a facelift only, to let in foreign aid to save the country from its economic crisis.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly. 

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