By Joe Macaron
It has been over a month since the Lebanese uprising began and there are no indications that the country’s ruling oligarchy is willing or ready to offer concrete concessions in giving up power. The political class seems united in buying time to weather the storm of public anger while seeking to disperse and divide the protesters and undermine their cause. Lebanon is on the verge of economic collapse with no end in sight to the crisis of public confidence in the country’s current political system.
What has been fascinating about these unprecedented developments in Lebanon is the cross-sectarian unity among both the protesters and the political class. Protesters have been demonstrating in squares from the north to the south of the country while coordinating their actions via WhatsApp. This remarkable civic awareness is heralding a new sense of belonging where citizens feel they have a stake in governance without going through the leading oligarch of their sectarian community. The protests in both rural and urban areas have yet to convert this newfound collective power into a political platform and policy-making process. Only in the past decade has Lebanon begun to witness new civil society movements and political parties seeking to provide an alternative to the traditional ones. But there is still a long way to go. Lebanon needs a major constitutional and economic overhaul, a task that cannot be accomplished overnight.
Moreover, the members of Lebanon’s ruling oligarchy are clinging to each other and employing almost uniform tactics to quell the popular uprising. So far, there were multiple speeches by President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri (who resigned on October 29 but is now heading a caretaker cabinet), and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. These speeches varied from embracing and acknowledging the demands of the protesters to condemning their behavior and insinuating they are receiving foreign support. Every speech by one of the oligarchs seems to incentivize the protesters to return to the streets while every move by the protesters seems to unite the political class. To sway the general public in their favor, the ruling class and their affiliates are warning of economic collapse and security deterioration if the protests continue. The lack of regret regarding their failures or empathy toward the protesters’ demands speaks volumes about how much the political class is disconnected from—or unconcerned about—the magnitude of these protests.
There are three crucial dynamics that will decide how this ongoing crisis will unfold: security, politics and the judiciary, and the economy.
The Security Environment
While the Lebanese military remains generally neutral and the interior ministry’s security forces have been largely idle during this uprising, paramilitary forces and gangs—officially and non-officially affiliated with the ruling political parties—have seldom assaulted the protesters. The Lebanese Army’s military intelligence, which is traditionally linked to the president1 and is now headed by Brigadier General Tony Mansour, has arrested and used force against protesters in recent weeks. The Republican Guard Brigade, also under President Aoun’s control, was deployed to deter the protesters’ march on the road leading to the presidential palace in Baabda. On November 12, a bodyguard for the military intelligence bureau chief, Colonel Nidal Daou (who is reportedly close2 to the Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt), shot and killed the protester Alaa Abou Fakher in Khaldeh, located near the highway connecting Beirut to south Lebanon. On November 13, a gunman opened fire on protesters in Jal el-Dib in the Mount Lebanon province. Previously, supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement assaulted protesters in downtown Beirut and broke their tents. All these coercive attempts, however, did not dissuade the protesters from continuing their actions. The sticking point among the Lebanese public has been the road blockades by protesters—whether this is part of civil disobedience or a violation of the basic right of citizens to move. Since these demonstrations succeeded in forcing Hariri’s resignation, the protesters’ case for blockading the roads was weakened.
After these chaotic couple of weeks, the commander of the Lebanese military, General Joseph Aoun, defended the army’s posture during the protests and set the tone for the coming period, saying that the army would continue to secure the safety of protesters but that it would no longer accept the blockading of roads. This stance by the army means the current impasse might be reinforced, with the political class under no significant pressure to compromise and the protesters under no pressure to leave the squares where they have been demonstrating across the country.
Political and Judiciary Dynamics
The dynamics of Lebanese politics have significantly shifted since the start of the uprising in October 2019. The 2016 presidential deal between Aoun and Hariri has fizzled under public pressure but has not yet fallen apart. In general terms, the deal allowed for the election of Michel Aoun as president on October 31, 2016—following more than two years of a presidential vacuum—in exchange for Hariri becoming prime minister. Hezbollah, which is President Aoun’s political ally, pushed for and approved the arrangement. Hariri is deflecting the blame to Aoun’s son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil––considered the real deal maker in the president’s camp––who in return is pointing a finger at Hariri for the government’s failure to combat corruption. Instead of heeding protesters’ demands, the oligarchs sought to reach a deal behind closed doors on the formation of a new cabinet. Hariri, who resigned but seems to be eager to return to power, is putting his own preconditions on leading a purely technocratic cabinet. However, Aoun and Hezbollah do not want Hariri alone to have a free hand in a cabinet of technocrats; they are insisting on a mixture of technocrats and politicians whose names would not provoke a negative reaction from protesters. The name of former minister Mohammad Safadi was floated as a potential premier, but this seemed to be primarily a political maneuver that was denounced by the protesters, which led to Safadi’s withdrawal from consideration. Safadi, who is close to both Hariri and Bassil, was meant to be a compromise that would keep the 2016 presidential deal alive.
While Hariri’s departure gave the impression that he resigned in defiance of Hezbollah and Bassil, the parties of this deal (Aoun, Hariri, and Hezbollah) seem to be invested in continuing to negotiate a new version of their power-sharing formula. Hariri will lose what is left of his political capital if he is out of power or if he is not at least the kingmaker of the new cabinet, while Aoun and Hezbollah need the international community’s support so that Hariri can navigate the current economic crisis and avoid further US sanctions. The challenge, however, is that reaching a deal among the ruling political class is no longer sufficient since whatever they agree on must meet the high bar of the leaderless uprising. Protesters have recently been buoyed by the election of one of their supporters, independent Melhem Khalaf, as head of the influential Beirut Bar Association. They also succeeded in preventing the parliament on November 19 from holding a session to pass controversial bills behind closed doors and before the formation of a cabinet that meets the protesters’ demands.
However, the protests are yet to achieve their goal of holding corrupt officials accountable in the courts. While the state financial prosecutor Ali Ibrahim has ordered some officials to appear for an informal investigation, no official has yet been prosecuted, nor has stolen money been returned—as protesters are demanding. Moreover, the Aoun-Hariri friction was reflected in the judiciary that largely remains under the control of the political class. When Mount Lebanon prosecutor Ghada Aoun, who is close to the president, charged Hariri’s ally, former Prime Minister Najib Miqati, for making unlawful profits through subsidiary housing loans, a week later, State Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat (who is close to Hariri) initiated disciplinary action against Judge Aoun and asked security agencies not to send her new cases. Unless there are fresh appointments of apolitical judges, the potential of accountability and reform remains limited.
The Economic Factor
Perhaps the most pressing situation is the looming risk of economic collapse with growing signs in both the private and public sectors. Lebanon has one of the highest debt burdens in the world, projected to reach 155 percent of gross domestic product by the end of this year. In addition, the country’s local currency has weakened against the dollar by about 20 percent on the black market. Lebanon’s Central Bank is gradually losing foreign currency reserves and the banking system is imposing a de facto capital control to block the potential flight of foreign currency. In fact, citizens’ access to their funds in the commercial banks is now limited to $1,000 per week. The commercial banks closed for long stretches since the protests began on October 17; on November 19, they reopened again after they were provided government security protection around their branches, which is an additional public cost. It is noteworthy that even during the civil war, Lebanese banks did not close for such an extended period. These institutions, which primarily own Lebanon’s overall national debt, are concerned about potential activities by protesters, hence they asked and were granted security protection from the caretaker government.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s Central Bank is still excluding any change in the country’s 22-year peg, which fixes the Lebanese pound at 1,507.5 to the dollar, asserting this move is crucial to stabilize the monetary crisis. However, the devaluation of the Lebanese pound might be inevitable since the black market is already doing so, and this will negatively impact the savings of a large segment of the population, most notably retirement funds. There might not be enough dollars in the Lebanese market to match the public demand for them.
If the political crisis persists and the country continues to be largely paralyzed, there might be an eventual economic collapse, including the state’s inability to pay wages. Containing the situation might need a default at some point and a bailout by monetary institutions like the International Monetary Fund. The suggested solution by protesters is that the wealthy who have benefited from the political system should pay the national debt either through a fair tax system or by returning stolen money. This mechanism is not in place and might not materialize given the current dynamics; therefore, there are open questions about whether a social safety net could mitigate the impact of the economic collapse and about who will end up paying for these social measures.
With a looming economic collapse and a deep political crisis, Lebanon requires an urgent implementation of genuine reforms and a fundamental shift in governance. These two preconditions are nonexistent at present. The ruling political class is settling scores and continuing business as usual while protesters are unable to shift the paradigm of power without having significant influence in the government or holding an early parliamentary election. Both these objectives are unattainable in the foreseeable future given the stated positions of the ruling political class.
Meanwhile, US policy in Lebanon remains ambiguous, ranging from withholding assistance to the Lebanese military to focusing statements on Hezbollah rather than on the larger context of the Lebanese crisis. The Trump Administration’s public rhetoric is typically counterproductive for protesters, as recent events have shown, given ongoing attempts in Lebanon to portray the protests as a US-funded plot. What Washington can do is to have the US embassy in Lebanon privately urge all Lebanese officials to acknowledge the gravity of the current crisis and heed the voices of protesters while encouraging the military to remain neutral. Beyond that, the Trump Administration could potentially aggravate an already protracted political crisis.
Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, where this article was originally published.