Is Lebanon still days away from economic collapse?

Lebanon: revolution against collapse

It is an uproar from below: a good six million people live in Lebanon. Around a quarter of them have been taking to the streets evening after evening since mid-October. The last time there were protests of this magnitude was in 2005, when hundreds of thousands demanded the withdrawal of the occupying power of Syria.

But there is something else that makes the recent protests extraordinary: the non-denominational political alliance that the unity government never succeeded in is now taking place on the streets: "We are the revolution, you [politicians] are the civil war!"

After the end of the civil war, which rocked the country from 1975 to 1990 and further intensified sectarian tensions between the individual social groups, the Taif peace agreement provided for power in parliament to be divided proportionally between all sectarian groups: to vote for Shiites, Sunnis, Christians or Druze since then representatives of 18 denominations in parliament.

However, because they mainly do business in their own pockets and persistently prevent social reforms, people of different denominations and origins are now showing solidarity for the first time on the streets of the country in order to protest together against government policy. Instead of the party flags that are otherwise omnipresent in Lebanon, the demonstrators wave the cedar flag - the national symbol of Lebanon. At the end of October, all denominational groups also symbolically formed a seemingly endless human chain that stretched from the Shiite south to the Sunni north of the country.

The social upheaval in Tripoli in the north of the country is particularly impressive: Tripoli is one of the poorest cities in the Mediterranean region and has an unemployment rate of over 50 percent. Since the civil war at the latest, the city has also been considered deeply conservative and a “terrorist hub”. However, this picture changed overnight during the recent protests: On the central square Sahat al Nour, which is generally known primarily for the meter-high "Allah" lettering, hundreds of people danced to techno music over several nights - in a city in otherwise there is hardly any nightlife.

WhatsApp tax and forest fires as triggers

The nationwide protests were triggered on the one hand by the planned WhatsApp tax of the equivalent of six US dollars a month. In Lebanon, the entire mobile network is nationalized and expensive, and poorer citizens in particular have long been unable to afford calls or text messages; they therefore use the WhatsApp messenger service. The planned taxation would have hit those of all people who already suffer most from the social imbalance, so that the planned reform aroused the resentment of broad sections of society.

On the other hand, the government has been criticized for its crisis management during the devastating forest fires in October: it had warned the population far too late about the fires, which it was difficult to control. Although the government has fire fighting planes, these were not operational due to insufficient maintenance, so that in the end the fires could only be extinguished thanks to the support of Jordan and other neighboring countries. In the Mount Lebanon region in particular, however, many people had to leave their homes, more than 70 people were injured and two died.

As a result, the citizens' patience was obviously finally used up. With road blockades, they paralyzed traffic across the country for days. Although the police initially used tear gas against the protesters, the demonstrations were largely peaceful - and they were ultimately successful: Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and his cabinet resigned at the beginning of November under increasing pressure from the protesters. [1] The interim government under President Michel Aoun, who belongs to the Maronite Christians, is now responsible for the formation of a new government.

Thirty years of mismanagement

But the protesters do not want to be satisfied with new heads at the top of the country. Because the real causes of their resentment lie far deeper, at the same time the inertia of the corrupt system is great.

The protesters denounce above all the mismanagement of the past 30 years, for which the rampant nepotism is responsible. For example, politicians mostly assign government posts to their families and favorites; and those who are well networked within Lebanese society can hope to receive a lucrative business area. The inadequate state infrastructure - from electricity and water supply to waste disposal - has also created a parallel economy with mafia-like structures.

The basic supply is correspondingly inadequate: even residents of the capital Beirut have to go without electricity for hours every day; In rural regions, the power goes out for up to 18 hours a day. For this reason, many citizens pay not only for state electricity, but also for generators from private companies that take over the power supply in an emergency. Large parts of the Lebanese population are convinced that the profits of these private companies also flow into the pockets of corrupt politicians, so closely are the links between politics and business.

Young people in particular also protest against the expensive education system. Students who do not receive a scholarship have to pay the equivalent of up to 9,000 US dollars per semester - while the minimum wage is just 450 US dollars per month. Whether you will get a job after your studies is anything but certain: The unemployment rate in Lebanon is 25 percent, and for those under 25 it is even 37 percent. [2] Because of the low wages, many people are also forced to do several jobs at the same time.

The frustration with the social and economic situation grew even further when it became known during the protests that Saad al-Hariri - who had imposed tough austerity measures on the Lebanese population because of the threat of national bankruptcy - treated a South African model after a joint stay in a luxury resort sent US $ 16 million to the Seychelles. [3]

The demonstrators then demanded not only the resignation of the prime minister, but the entire government elite. This includes Gebran Bassil, the chairman of the “Free Patriotic Movement” party and the president's son-in-law. Bassil is known for his agitation against Syrian refugees, for which he was repeatedly criticized by parts of the population. [4] But the protests are also directed against Nabih Berri from the Shiite Amal party. Berri has been speaker of parliament for almost thirty years. During the protests against the so-called garbage crisis in 2015, members of his party cracked down on demonstrators. Today they sympathize with the protesters on the street, so this time Berri cannot count on their support. [5] And even Hassan Nasrallah is coming under increasing criticism. He chairs the Shiite Hezbollah, the only party that did not have to surrender its weapons after the civil war. The demonstrators demand that all of you resign should go hand in hand with a fundamental reorganization of the country. This is to initiate a transitional government made up of experts, who should take over government affairs by the planned new election within six months at the latest.

This government of experts is supposed to improve Lebanon's disastrous economic situation and thus save the country from economic collapse. With a national debt of 86 billion US dollars and a debt ratio of around 150 percent, Lebanon is one of the most indebted countries in the world.

The Lebanese pound is pegged to the US dollar and thus enjoys a high level of trust within the population. [6] However, during the weeks of protest the banks had closed, whereupon a black market developed as a result of the dollar shortage and the Lebanese pound lost value against the dollar. As a result, imported resources such as grain and gasoline, which are traded in dollars, became more expensive. The insecurity within the population increased again significantly when some Lebanese banks limited cash withdrawals in US currency and at the same time more and more landlords accept rent payments exclusively in dollars - although they are legally obliged to accept the local currency. [7]

Problem Hezbollah

An economic collapse in Lebanon would have fatal consequences not only for the country itself, but for the entire region.

The UNHCR estimates that around 1.8 million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon - most of them in dire conditions. Many of them are discriminated against in Lebanon and repeatedly pressured by the Lebanese authorities to go back to Syria - where they fear for their lives. Syrians are already serving as a scapegoat for the government to divert attention from their own failures. However, many protesters show solidarity with them and denounce racist statements such as those by Gebran Bassil. An economic collapse would further exacerbate the situation of Syrians in the country, likely lead to riots and, in the worst case, increase the number of deportations to the neighboring war country.

In the view of the demonstrators, a fundamental overhaul of the political and economic system is necessary in order to prevent the economic collapse. And civil society wants to be involved in this process. It has been ignored for far too long. The coming weeks will show to what extent the political leadership will accept the demonstrators' demands. But it is already clear that a symbolic act such as during the garbage crisis in 2015 will not be enough: At that time, the government only removed the gigantic mountains of garbage in those areas where the demonstrators lived, but ignored the basic problem of waste disposal. The protesters who are taking to the streets these days will certainly not engage in similar “reforms”. Their unequivocal demand is: "Thawra!" - "Revolution!"

So far, however, the Shiite Hezbollah has stood in the way of a fundamental reorganization of Lebanese politics. Their leaders refuse to resign and their general secretary Hassan Nasrallah strongly condemned Hariri's resignation. The militant party, which originally developed out of resistance against the Israeli occupation and is classified as a terrorist organization in Europe, is an integral part of the party landscape in Lebanon. It was also your supporters who attacked the protest camps in Beirut a few weeks ago and hit demonstrators with clubs.

Despite Hezbollah's violent action, the protesters stuck to their peaceful strategy; they want to overcome the irreconcilability between civil society and politics. Hezbollah, on the other hand, has no interest in changing the status quo. The militia is considered to be the best armed non-state actor in the world and acts as an extension of Iran in Lebanon. In the Syrian civil war, she supported the troops of ruler Bashar al-Assad.

The protesters criticize Hezbollah's violence and its active support for the ruling elite and the corrupt system. Nasrallah has so far refused to resign; however, the demonstrators insist on their demand: "Everyone means everyone!"

The demonstrators don't just want to kill the old elites, they want to take their political fate into their own hands in the future. With campaigns such as “Beirut Madinati” [8] at the local level and “LiBaladi” at the national level, representatives of the civilian population have run as candidates in recent years in order to help shape Lebanese politics from below. In 2016, “Beirut Madinati” (“Beirut is my city”) failed in its attempt to take on political responsibility - despite broad popular support. At that time, Hariri set up a broad electoral alliance, the “Beirutis‘ List ”, and thus prevented the opposition from being successful in the elections.

After the protests of the past few weeks, however, the power of the political elite has weakened considerably. A “revolution from below” could actually succeed this time.

[1]It is noteworthy that predominantly women took part in the protests and bravely stood between the protesters and the police. In parliament, female MPs only make up less than five percent. See Why do few Lebanese women make it into parliament ?, www.aljazeera.com, January 21, 2018.

[3]See Ben Hubbard, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Gave $ 16 Million to South African Model, www.nytimes.com, September 30, 2019.

[4]See Bassam Zaza, ‘Racist’ Lebanese foreign minister sparks Twitter storm, www.gulfnews.com, June 10, 2019.

[5]See Christoph Reuter, Protests in Lebanon - “Overthrow everything!”, Www.spiegel.de, October 22, 2019.

[6]See Lebanese millers say wheat reserves fall due to ‘dollar problem’, www.reuters.com, 24.9.2019.