Lebanon Protests amidst Covid-19 Crisis
Hirak Jyoti Das, Research Associate, VIF
Political Blocs in Lebanon
March 8 Alliance:
  • Development and Resistance Bloc
  • Free Patriotic Movement
  • Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc (includes Hezbollah)
  • Nasserite Popular Movement
  • Popular Bloc
  • Syrian Ba'th Party
  • Syrian Social Nationalist Party
  • Tashnaq
March 14 Alliance:
  • Democratic Left
  • Democratic Renewal Movement
  • Future Movement Bloc
  • Kataeb Party
  • Lebanese Forces
  • Tripoli Independent Bloc
Independent Blocs:
  • Democratic Gathering Bloc
  • Metn Bloc
18 Religious sects in Lebanon
12 recognised Christian sects:

Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Coptic Christians, Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians including Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists.

4 recognised Muslim sects:
  • Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Ismaili Shiite orders.
Other groups:
  • Druze and Jews

The protests in Lebanon began on 17 October 2019 to resist against the government’s decision to introduce new tax measures on gasoline, tobacco and online phone calls. The Ministry of Information intended to introduce 20 cent per call fee for internet calls including Facebook and Whatsapp. There was also proposal to increase the Value Added Tax to 15 percent by 2022. The tax and additional fees were revoked within days. The so called ‘Whatsapp tax’ however served as trigger for the protestors to address government corruption; penalizing corrupt officials; recovery of stolen funds; implementing fair taxation and financial procedures and the formation of an independent and non-political technocratic government for problem-solving. Prime Minister Saad Harari, as a consequence of the protest, resigned after 12 days on 29 October.1,2

The demand for non-partisan and accountable technocratic governance led to the appointment of former Education Minister and Vice-President of the American University of Beirut, Hassan Diab as the new Prime Minister on 19 December. Diab appointed a 20 member cabinet and promised to set up an expert committee in six weeks to identify the issues and cope with the economic challenges.3 Economy Minister Raoul Nehme assured that the government would initially emphasise on meeting the basic needs of the citizens and boost investment and infrastructure development to revive the economy.4

However, the appointment of the new leadership was essentially seen as an unfair compromise arrived at among the political parties. Several protestors on 28 December demonstrated outside the house of the new Prime Minister questioning his legitimacy. The politicians until January 2020 were contesting over cabinet positions rather than implementing the much needed economic reform. The protestors insisted that the new Prime Minister must be named by the ‘revolution’ and saw the new government as the extension of the corrupt ruling elite.5

The technocratic government, failed to overcome the deep-seated economic instability in the state. On the day to day level, the failure of the state machinery is reflected in poor public services including power shortages; irregular water supply and notably, stalling work in sewage treatment and waste disposal facilities. In July 2015, 20,000 tons of garbage filled the streets of Beirut leading to violent protests.6 Notably, in the current decade, Lebanon has witnessed varying range of protests in 2011, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 broadly focussing on longstanding concerns of economic instability, political mismanagement, corruption and sectarianism. The October 2019 protest after a brief pause due to the COVID-19 crisis has re-emerged since April 2020 demanding complete overhaul of the political structure.

Understanding Confessionalism in Lebanese Politics

The continuing economic as well as the political crisis facing the Lebanese state stems from its unique political structure namely the confessional system in which political representation and offices are proportionally reserved among the 18 religious sects. The current structure of proportional representation was agreed during the Taif Accord approved by the Lebanese parliament on 4 November 1989.7

The accord was implemented to re-adjust the religious confessional framework of job and power allocation determined in the 1926 National Constitution, during the French mandate. This structure was reinforced in the 1943 National Covenant among the sectarian groups and power was distributed on 6:5 ratios between the Christian and the Muslim groups. The position of the President, the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the parliament are reserved for the members of the Maronite, Sunni and Shiite communities respectively, the three largest groups.8 The power imbalances as well as the entry of foreign actors, Syria and Israel triggered and shaped the civil war between 1975 and 1990. The accord was instrumental in ending the conflict and shaping the post conflict political reality. The power ratio was also altered to half and half between the Christian groups and the Muslim groups.

The prevalence of the confessional system, however, encouraged sectarian loyalty for political goals. It nurtured a system of patronage by granting rewards in exchange of votes. There are several instances of proliferation of political parties tussling for support within the same sectarian demography. The sectarian political parties ally with parties of different sects to serve their interests. The contemporary politics is broadly divided between the March 8 Alliance and March 14 Alliance. The alliances emerged in 2005 over differences about Syrian control in Lebanon.9

The March 14 Alliance includes Saad Harari’s Future Movement which is largely pro-western and pro-Saudi Arabia. The March 8 Alliance, comprising of Hezbollah and Maronite predominant, Free Patriotic Movement, is more accommodative towards Iran and Syria. The geopolitical competition between the two regional rivals i.e. Iran and Saudi Arabia has affected the domestic politics and added to the mutual suspicion between the Shiite predominant Hezbollah and the Sunni predominant Future Movement.

Clientalism and the Role of Neo-liberal Policy Measures

Besides the confessional system, the politics in Lebanon is highly personality driven and influential families play a key role in influencing local and national electoral behaviour. Lebanon’s feudal social system has been translated into the current political system in which the leader of the influential families, Zaim pursues its political and financial interests by controlling its support base.10 Therefore, the Taif Accord was aimed at resolving the inter-religious and inter-sectarian tensions and readjusting the power imbalances within Lebanon’s diverse society. However, the current system has emboldened the culture of clientalism and old patronage networks have continued.

The role of global financial institutions in the post civil war economic recovery is also pertinent to analyse the current crisis. The government under then Prime Minister Rafik Harari liberalised regulations and lowered corporate taxes in order to attract foreign investment and encourage privatisation. The reconstruction measures however have increased the national debt. Habib Battah, the founder of news site, Beirut Report has argued that the market-driven tendencies that prioritise profit over workers, social welfare measures and environmental concerns have proved unsuitable for a post-conflict state lacking political stability, natural resources, large manufacturing bases and reliable bureaucratic structure.11

Earlier in April 2018, the Conference for Economic Development and Reform through Enterprise (CEDRE), consisting of international institutions and countries such as France, Germany and Saudi Arabia promised US$ 11 billion in form of grants, donations and loans in exchange of economic reforms.12 The financial package sought commitment from the Lebanese government to direct US$ 7 billion towards privatising government assets and pursuing austerity measures such as raising tax, reducing wages in public sector etc. Therefore, the high degree of privatisation of financially viable assets has translated into poor government revenue and affected the quality of essential services contributing to the current crisis.13

Presently, Lebanon’s public debt is at US$ 89.5 billion.14 It is the most indebted state after Japan and Greece with 152 percent debt to GDP ratio.15 The Prime Minister in March 2020 announced that it would be unable to repay bond payment of US$ 1.2 billion. It was the first time that the state defaulted on a foreign debt payment.16 The value of Lebanese pound is plummeting against the dollar for months and lost 70 percent of its value from October 2019 to June 2020. The credit score of the state has also been lowered in the successive months.17 In terms of the Below Poverty Level indicators, the share has increased from 33 percent in September 2019 to almost 50 percent in March 2020 and Social Affairs Minister Ramzi Moucharafieh stated on 14 April that between 70 and 75 percent of Lebanese citizens are in need of financial assistance.18

Continued protest amidst COVID-19 crisis

The COVID-19 crisis entered Lebanon after the first case appeared on 21 February 2020. The suspension and lockdown measures were implemented in the second week of March. The government, due to the economic crisis, faced difficulties in procuring medical supplies and upgrading the health sector.19 The dollar shortage has reduced the import capability of essential items such as masks, gloves, and other protective gear, as well as ventilators and spare parts. The government has failed to reimburse hospitals and replenish the National Social Security Fund and military health fund. It has slowed down the purchase of medical supplies and training and employment of additional stuff.20

The lockdown measures had temporarily quietened the protests; however sporadic gatherings continued to emerge in different cities throughout March. The constraints compounded by the poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic further aggravated the domestic crisis. The protestors are unconvinced with the quality of governance of the technocratic cabinet and are currently calling for complete overhauling of the sectarian political and the neo-liberal financial structure.

The ongoing economic instability has prompted people to continue their protests currently. Moreover, the funding promised in April 2018 by international donors has been repeatedly delayed due to conditions imposed by foreign donors to implement series of reforms by the government including the containment of political and financial activities of Hezbollah. Hassan Diab however is supported by the March 8 Alliance that includes Hezbollah. Therefore, it would be difficult for Diab to seek international aid due his dependency on the Iran backed group.21

Few Anti-Hezbollah political groups are blaming Hezbollah for inciting violence especially on financial institutions in order to take control of the central bank that implements the US sanctions against the group.22 The supporters of Saad Harari have insisted that only he can convince the international donors to release the sum. Harari’s supporters expressed angered about Hezbollah and its alllies’ control over the appointment of Hasan Diab for the state’s top most Sunni post.23

Hassan Diab government has introduced measures against corruption, financial assistance to low income groups, banking reforms etc. There is however absence of national consensus to resolve the problems. Even in the case of serious reforms, the result would not be immediate. However, the protestors facing dire economic challenges are looking for urgent result.24

The protestors’ demand for complete political overhaul in unlikely to be met in the near future. The political parties are unwilling to give up power at the expense of a purely technocratic government especially in light of the regional developments. Hezbollah and FPM members have suggested division of ministerial portfolios in which crucial posts such as foreign affairs, defence, and interior would remain under the control of the political parties and independent technocrats could manage service related ministries.25 At the same time, there is still high support for the sectarian based system due to ideological reasons and large number of Lebanese citizens benefit from the system of patronage. Therefore, the demands by the protestors would continue to face hindrances due to lack of political will and national consensus and refusal to subvert the prevalent unequal power structure.

Conclusion

The public grievances over the ill effects of sectarianism, clientalism and failure of neo-liberal economic reforms have prompted the current demand for complete political overhaul. The crisis is further complicated by the interference of regional actors such as Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally favoured Harari. Hezbollah on the other hand is a close ally of Iran. Therefore, Lebanon has continued to remain as a battleground between the two regional rivals.

Besides the immediate economic challenges, sectarianism in governance and corruption emerging for the clientalism would continue to exist. At the same time, the continuation of neo-liberal policies by focussing on foreign investment would be counter-productive. The Lebanese government due to its dependence of the global financial institutions is unwilling to bring drastic pro-people economic reforms. At the same time, investors’ confidence is intertwined with social stability that would require genuine reforms to alleviate the conditions of the citizens and reduce the wealth gap. However, the current government as a result of political compulsions and dependence on international donors are looking for short-term reforms. Therefore, in the absence of political will, the crisis is likely to continue and protest would remain a continuing phenomenon in the Lebanese state.

Endnotes
  1. Khaleej Times, “How the Lebanon protests unfolded: Key dates,” Khaleej Times, October 19, 2019, at https://www.khaleejtimes.com/region/mena/how-the-lebanon-protests-unfolded-key-dates (Accessed June 20, 2020).
  2. L. Maalouf, “Lebanon Protest Explained,” Amnesty International, January 17, 2020, at https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/11/lebanon-protests-explained/ (Accessed June 10, 2020).
  3. The National, “Lebanon’s new PM promises a government of experts in nod to protest movement,” The National, December 21, 2019, at https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/lebanon-s-new-pm-promises-a-government-of-experts-in-nod-to-protest-movement-1.954388 (Accessed June 18, 2020).
  4. The National, “Minister: Lebanon has limited means to halt 'catastrophic' poverty rise”, The National, June 4, 2020, at https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/minister-lebanon-has-limited-means-to-halt-catastrophic-poverty-rise-1.1028503 (Accessed 20, 2020).
  5. The Guardian, “Protesters call for Lebanon's new PM to quit as crisis deepens,” The Guardian, December 28, 2019, at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/28/protesters-call-for-lebanons-new-pm-to-quit-as-crisis-deepens (Accessed June 27, 2020).
  6. Al Jazeera, “Lebanese protest against waste-disposal crisis,” Al Jazeera, July 26, 2015, at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/07/lebanon-beirut-trash-rubbish-crisis-150725060723178.html (Accessed June 21, 2020).
  7. UN, “Taif Accord,” United Nations, 2020, at https://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/LB_891022_Taif%20Accords.pdf (Accessed June 14, 2020).
  8. Global Security, “Lebanon: Political Parties,” Global Security, 2020, at https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/lebanon/political-parties.htm (Accessed June 15, 2020).
  9. Global Security, “Lebanon: Religious Sects,” Global Security, 2020, at https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/lebanon/religious-sects.htm (Accessed June 16, 2020).
  10. A. D. M. Henley, “Religious Authority and Sectarianism in Lebanon,” Carnegie Endowment, December 16, 2016, at https://carnegieendowment.org/2016/12/16/religious-authority-and-sectarianism-in-lebanon-pub-66487 (Accessed June 18, 2020).
  11. H. Battah, “Who is to blame for Lebanon's crisis?,” Al Jazeera, May 23, 2020, at https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/blame-lebanon-crisis-200520161851075.html?utm_source=website&utm_medium=article_page&utm_campaign=read_more_links (Accessed June 21, 2020).
  12. DW, “Donors pledge Lebanon over $11 billion for reconstruction”, DW, April 6, 2018, at https://www.dw.com/en/donors-pledge-lebanon-over-11-billion-for-reconstruction/a-43275558 (Accessed June 17, 2020).
  13. M. Fakhri, “Lebanon needs to free its economy from international lenders,” Al Jazeera, October 25, 2019, at https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/lebanon-free-economy-international-lenders-191025103531910.html (Accessed June 23, 2020).
  14. D. Halawi, “Roundup: Lebanon needs IMF's technical assistance: experts,” XinhuaNet, January 28, 2020, at http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-01/28/c_138737862.htm (Accessed June 22, 2020).
  15. H. Shawish, “How did Lebanon become the third most indebted nation?”, BBC News, October 25, 2019, at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50183895 (Accessed June 24, 2020).
  16. D. Khraiche, “Lebanon to Default on $1.2 Billion Payment, Seek Restructuring,” Bloomberg, March 7, 2020, at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-07/lebanon-won-t-repay-maturing-eurobonds-with-economy-in-turmoil (Accessed June 22, 2020).
  17. France 24, “Lebanese pound plummets to record low, sparks mass protests,” France 24, June 12, 2020, at https://www.france24.com/en/20200612-lebanon-pound-economic-crisis-protests-imf-aid-bailout-hassan-diab (Accessed June 21, 2020).
  18. A. Majzoub, “Lebanon's Protests are Far from Over,” Human Rights Watch, April 27, 2020, at https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/27/lebanons-protests-are-far-over (Accessed June 21, 2020).
  19. Hindustan Times, “First Covid-19 case confirmed in Lebanon,” Hindustan Times, February 21, 2020, at https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/coronavirus-outbreak-updates-first-covid-19-case-confirmed-in-lebanon/story-YFh6Zg7crbqVUlc3il2E7K.html (Accessed June 22, 2020).
  20. Human Rights Watch, “Lebanon: COVID-19 Worsens Medical Supply Crisis,” Human Rights Watch, March 24, 2020, at https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/24/lebanon-covid-19-worsens-medical-supply-crisis (Accessed June 21, 2020).
  21. Al Jazeera, “Why are people protesting in Lebanon? Start Here”, Al Jazeera, February 2, 2020, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtZC4vvZK8k (Accessed June 17, 2020).
  22. France 24, “Clashes in Lebanon over price hikes turn deadly,” France 24, April 28, 2020, at https://www.france24.com/en/20200428-banks-smashed-during-protests-in-lebanon-over-ailing-economy (Accessed June 15, 2020).
  23. S. Moubayed, “Is Lebanon’s prime minister-designate Hassan Diab doomed to fail?,” Gulf News, December 22, 2019, at https://gulfnews.com/world/mena/is-lebanons-prime-minister-designate-hassan-diab-doomed-to-fail-1.68630806 (Accessed June 23, 2020).
  24. V. Gatenby, “Lebanon protests turn violent over failing economy”, Al Jazeera, April 28, 2020, at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/lebanon-protests-turn-violent-failing-economy-200428060704954.html (Accessed June 24, 2020).
  25. D. Enders, “Lebanon's leaders and the marathon task of cabinet formation,” The National, June 4, 2018, at https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/lebanon-s-leaders-and-the-marathon-task-of-cabinet-formation-1.736823 (Accessed June 24, 2020).

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://www.thenational.ae/image/policy:1.926254:1571747407/image/2019-10-20T185419Z_737598269_RC11EB6BFB80_RTRMADP_3_LEBANON-PROTESTS.JPG?$p=eef7398&w=1136&$w=ec52ab9

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
14 + 1 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us