Recent protests across Lebanon, sparked in October by a proposed ‘Whatsapp Tax’, have spiralled into a much broader movement calling for a political and economic overhaul to the country, having lost no momentum with the resignation of former PM Saad al-Hariri and the appointment of Hezbollah-backed, Hassan Diab. The new President has thus far failed to form a cabinet and despite numerous promised measures and the retraction of the Whatsapp tax, protests have grown, with renewed calls for an end to corruption and a government of experts to deal with the country’s looming economic catastrophe. With Lebanon holding one of the highest Debt/GDP ratios in the world, what does the near future hold for the Lebanese economic and political system?
Many protestors have been calling for a change to the country’s sectarian-based electoral system, which they say leads to pork-barrel politics, nepotism and corruption, with the position of Prime Minister needing to be a Sunni Muslim and the country’s various sectarian factions struggling to cooperate with each other. Indeed, the protests have had much more luck in helping different sectarian communities cooperate, in unison, against what they view as a bloated and self-serving government. PM Hassan Diab was close to forming a government this week, after his appointment in October, before talks fell with the Marada party. To many, this will emphasise the need for the politicians to put their differences aside and appoint a technocratic government of experts, as in recent days protests have intensified and become more violent. The demand for a non-partisan, non-sectarian government has succeeded in uniting Lebanon’s various sects, with the economic situation leading to informal capital controls, leaving many without being able to withdraw enough money to get by.
Recent economic troubles concerning a mounting debt and doubt as to whether or not the government will be able to pay it back, with speculation of a ‘Selective-default’, has seen the Lebanese dollar plunge to 2500/$1 over the past week on the black market, with the official rate pegged at 1507. This has led to restrictions on withdrawals as well as renewed anger over suspicions that corrupt officials in banking and government have secretly transferred funds out of the country in anticipation, a claim that is currently under investigation. Amid a crashing bond market, the country faces $1.2Bn in debt repayments in March, with the country still in the red, this has prompted fears that the country may default or enact widespread austerity. The economic outlook does not seem promising, with the Carnegie Middle East centre predicting a double digit recession without drastic measures enacted. It is the call for drastic measures that has found a voice through the protests, with the Iran-backed Hezbollah status quo being brought into question even by Shia communities, relied upon heavily by Hezbollah, and reported slogans of “We are one”, in a significant call for an end to sectarian politics.
Photo: Credit: AlJazeera, Hezbollah Rally against the US killing of Soleimani, wearing headbands inscribed الموت لأمريكا, ‘Death to America’
Thus it seems that a new form of politics could be on the table for Lebanon as an impartial government of experts would be incomparable to the country’s current political set-up, being largely influenced by sectarian loyalties. Hezbollah vowed retaliation for the killing of Soleimani, promising to target US forces across the region, though, significantly, expressly ruling out the targeting of civilians. It will be interesting to see whether the typical Hezbollah rhetoric holds any weight in a nation that is becoming increasingly united against the political establishment, of which Hezbollah is a big part. It appears that if the protestor’s demands are met, a massive blow would be dealt against Iranian influence in the country by a government indifferent to such sectarian power-plays. However, it is also the case, with any political establishment that has deep-rooted, often personal cliques and corruption, that the backlash against change can often be severe. Counter protests have become increasingly prominent this month, and more violent this week, injuring police and protestors alike. The government has very clearly shown its weakness in the face of protests, with the resignation of a Prime Minister and the promising of a technocratic government. Whilst this may seem like a win for protestors, it is a double-edged sword. Invariably, people opposed to anti-govt. protests will quickly realise that it is only in violent protest that tides can turn back in their favour and so the cycle will continue until there is little faith left in the country’s democratic institutions and decision-making powers are transferred from parliament to the street.
That said, aside from speculative comments, what is certain is quite a significant shake up to the country’s economic and political situation, for better or worse. It is possible that these protests unite the country and establish a technocratic government which solves the country’s economic woes and consigns sectarianism to the history books. Likewise it is equally possible that protests intensify to the point that government is influenced more by angry mobs than quiet voters. It will be interesting to see whether a technocratic government gets appointed but with an exhausting debt, the protestors may be the ones most disappointed by the solution provided.
Featured image: David Roberts, Ruins of the Temple of Bacchus, Baalbec.