Makram Rabah | Lecturer in the Department of History and Archaeology American University of Beirut
Any talk or focus on economic measures at this moment in the Lebanese uprising is futile, simply because economic reform needs a fertile ground to be implemented and a willing government, both of which are nonexistent. The uprising, contrary to what some are saying, is not simply economic. People across Lebanon as well as the diaspora have gone into the streets to demand a change in the political system and not only a plan for economic reform. The economic reform plan presented by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri only masks further corruption as reform has fallen on deaf ears.
The only path forward to ensure that the protesters tune in and engage with the ruling elite in any form of dialogue is for the latter to announce its willingness to form a transitional government which would revisit the whole political system, as stipulated in Article 95 of the Lebanese Constitution. This would ultimately lead to the purging of any sectarian element in the Lebanese political system and thus lead Lebanon into a modern era of governance.
Simultaneously, in this transitional phase a capable and qualified cabinet would carry out a long-term economic reform plan that systemically tackles issues which are known to the public, starting with the ever-menacing electricity sector as well as telecommunications. Only then will the Lebanese leave the streets and resume their lives.
Maha Yahya | Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut
I do not believe that singular measures at this point, economic or otherwise, will alleviate the anger of Lebanese citizens and get them off the streets. While the tipping point leading to the protests was economic, the trust gap between political parties, all of which are in the government, and Lebanese citizens is large. For protestors, the political and economic mismanagement of the country by a sectarian political elite has only benefitted this elite, as the living standards of citizens from all sects have declined and their future prospects become uncertain.
The formation of a new government of experts is feasible, but needs consensus among the political parties. State institutions to a great extent are influenced by the different political parties that have the capacity to hinder or support the work of ministers. The parties may reach this consensus once they realize that the country could descend into chaos should they continue to ignore the protestors or attempt to exploit the situation to settle domestic scores.
Meanwhile, to address this trust gap the government could take some immediate steps that might not resolve the standoff, but could at least stabilize the situation. First, it could clarify how its economic reform plan will affect the lives of ordinary Lebanese and improve their access to basic services, especially health. It could also call for international oversight of its economic reform plan as it puts in place clear and implementable mechanisms that ensure transparency and accountability of all government transactions and contracts.
Another measure would be to put forward the most efficient, cost saving and environmentally friendly plan for addressing electricity shortages, including a clear timeframe and mechanisms for completion. This is a longstanding demand of the Lebanese and a necessary step to address the massive budget deficit. A third step would be to clarify which economic emergency measures, if any, will be taken to support the most vulnerable population groups that will be affected by a possible devaluation of the Lebanese pound. Indications are that the prices of some goods have already risen by 15–30 percent in the past week. A devaluation could drive a significant number of Lebanese below the poverty line as they see the value of their salaries and pensions disappear. It took decades for hundreds of thousands of Lebanese to finally revolt. So, restoring confidence in the country and in the system requires a long-term effort. But some immediate steps can get the ball rolling.
Mohammad al-Akkaoui | Economist at Kulluna Irada, a lobbying group for reform in Lebanon
Now is not the time for conventional measures. The emergency is to understand the gravity of the financial situation and to put in place an efficient government with executive and legislative powers that can manage the crisis while minimizing its impact on the social fabric.
The fact that banks are closed is a telltale sign that a run on the banks may occur once they reopen and lead to a financial collapse. A lot of money has already left the system and once the banks reopen, more will exit the system as people withdraw their dollars for reasons of security and firms will need to pay wages and foreign suppliers. As accessing the remaining liquidity is getting harder every day, it needs to be managed in an orderly manner. This means putting in place capital controls, restructuring the debt while deciding on key safety nets, and ensuring that hard currency reserves are used in priority to maintain core imports such as fuel, medicine, and basic needs.