On October 28, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned from office following two weeks of nationwide protests. While the spark was a proposed tax on the use of internet telephone calls, the protests quickly turned into a more general condemnation of the country’s political leadership, its escalating economic crisis and its sectarian power sharing system.
A country in crisis
Lebanon’s economic crisis has reached a breaking point. Public debt is estimated at 150 percent of GDP, economic growth is negative, the dollar peg for the Lebanese pound is wavering on the black market, and there are signs of inflation as the prices of some basic goods have increased between 15 and 30 percent.
Meanwhile, perceptions of corruption are at an all-time high. Lebanon is ranked by Transparency International as the 138th most corrupt state globally. While the tipping point leading to the protests was economic dissatisfaction, there is an abysmal trust gap between Lebanese political parties and the citizens they represent. Protesters believe the country’s political and economic mismanagement by a sectarian political class has only benefitted the elite. Living standards have declined for citizens from all sects, along with their future prospects.
Protesters also denounced the sectarian power sharing system that prevails in the country. This system distributes government positions among the country’s different sects and ethnic groups in order to guarantee the representation of diverse communities in government and mitigate the prospect of communal conflict. However, the system has enabled sectarian political elites, mainly warlords turned politicians, to hijack communal representation and create patronage networks at the state’s expense.
Why these protests were different
What was distinctive about the protests is that for the first time protesters across the board were criticizing the leaders of their own sect. For the political elite, the breadth of discontent was startling. No political leader or party was spared.
Most surprising, perhaps, was the dissent that emerged from within the Shiite community, who rarely publicly criticize the leaders of the two key political parties, Hezbollah and Amal.
Hezbollah’s response to the protests was expressed in two speeches by its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. He initially voiced understanding for the protesters’ frustrations, but he rejected demands that the government and president resign and that early elections be held on the basis of a new law. He went on to depict the nationwide protests and public anger with the status quo and deteriorating economic conditions as part of a conspiracy to undermine Hezbollah and its legitimacy. As such, he chose to perpetuate the status quo and a political order that has protected Hezbollah, a reaction that pro-Iran parties have also demonstrated in Iraq, where over the past few weeks, hundreds of demonstrators have been killed.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s regional patron, Iran’s supreme leader Sayed Ali Khameni, is portraying the demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq as an external plot against their respective countries.
The political fallout
Hariri’s resignation—under pressure following the street protests, and because of his partners’ unwillingness to find a political solution to the crisis—has allowed him to recover some of his political capital.
However, the cost to Hezbollah and their key partner, Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, foreign minister Gebran Bassil, was significant. For Aoun, the government’s resignation posed a significant blow to his legacy as did the palpable antipathy on the streets to Gebran Bassil. For Hezbollah, it weakened their key Christian partner in Lebanon.
Becoming a champion of the status quo also tarnished Hezbollah’s preferred image as a defender of the poor and downtrodden. While the party holds power in government, it has managed to dodge any accountability for the sorry state of affairs in the country. Yet, its status as a defender of the rights of the Shiite community within Lebanon has been eroded. Like other Lebanese, they believe this sorry state of affairs to be the result of patronage politics and clientelistic networks facilitated by Lebanon’s governance system that includes Hezbollah.
For Hezbollah, addressing internal dissent is a difficult road to maneuver. It is a military and religious party that is paternalistic and strictly hierarchical in nature. The party has had to reduce salaries and curtail social service provision as a result of dwindling finances. Faced with widespread protests, its initial reaction was to deploy force and intimidation tactics.
The question now is how far Hezbollah is willing to go to prevent dissent. So far, the party has restricted itself to dispatching thugs to break up protests in Beirut and southern Lebanon. Along with the other major Shiite political party, the Amal movement, it has also prohibited protests or signs of dissent in the villages and towns of southern Lebanon. As one of the young protesters in the area told me, “What is wrong with letting people voice their opinion? You say you are hungry, and they respond you are a foreign agent.”
President Aoun and Hezbollah are faced with a dilemma. Granting concessions to protesters risks creating a perception that they are weak. Yet resorting to more force will only accelerate Lebanon’s economic collapse and its social repercussions.
Given the economic situation, the Lebanese political class needs to move quickly to name a new prime minister who is acceptable both to them and to the protesters. The country cannot afford the time-consuming horse trading that usually occurs when governments are formed. If there is an economic collapse and the Lebanese pound loses value, Lebanese citizens could see their incomes, pensions, and savings disappear, and half the population could fall into poverty. The fallout in terms of public anger could pale in comparison to what we’ve seen thus far.
In this context, Hezbollah and its allies are likely to negotiate with Lebanon’s other political parties one of three choices. One option is to ask Hariri to form a new government, where the ministers would be apolitical technocrats or a mix of political and independent appointees named by the various political parties. This option is unlikely at this point, since they already rejected a change of cabinet under Hariri at the height of the protests.
A second more likely option is to endorse a national salvation government headed by an independent Sunni, one acceptable to Hariri. This cabinet would also be composed of independent candidates not mired in corruption, or a mix of experts and political appointees. The mandate of such a government would be an economic reform plan, but it would not necessarily organize early elections, as demanded by the protestors. Consensus among the political class for such a cabinet is necessary. State institutions are greatly influenced by the different political parties, as they have the capacity to hinder or support the work of ministers. Political parties may be forced to reach such a consensus, once they realize that the country could descend into chaos should they fail to take action.
A third, least favorable option at this point, is that Hezbollah adopts a rejectionist position, in coordination with the Amal Movement and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. This would place the country in even more jeopardy as it could include forming a cabinet without Hariri’s bloc, something that would be badly received by his supporters and by an international community that is likely to interpret such a move as a Hezbollah takeover of the country. It could also include a stronger show of force against unarmed protesters, which would only destabilize the country, and possibly slide Lebanon into a civil conflict. This is unlikely at the moment, as Hezbollah is keen to maintain stability in its own back yard, given regional challenges.
A national awakening
History in Lebanon is being made. The country and its people are standing at one of the most significant historic junctures in its one-hundred-year history. A sense of national awakening is driving the demand to move from identity-based politics to a government focused on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. This reflects a fundamental societal change, which will impact Lebanon’s future. Its political leadership and Lebanese citizens on the street can either steer the country onto a brighter and more sustainable path—or end up trapped once more in a bitter civil conflict.