Tripoli, the northern city in Lebanon, was surrounded by Lebanese troops on Sunday as protesting civilians and military personnel were injured during riots and protests held due to worsening living conditions. The country’s economic crisis, which has lasted 20 months, has worsened causing sporadic protests across the country. In its assessment of the crisis, the World Bank said it was among the worst in the last 150 years. Furthermore, Lebanon has been without a government since August due to a political deadlock. The height of the protests was seen in Sidon in the south of Lebanon and Tripoli in the north. There has been a severe shortage of the country’s most valuable products including fuel, medicines and medical supplies, which has outraged the public.
As Foreign Policy notes, on October 17, 2019, protesters responded to a series of regressive tax proposals – particularly, a tax on internet-based services like WhatsApp – which was quickly rescinded since regular phone services are expensive in Lebanon. At the time, citizens were concerned about the impending currency crisis and were tired of a political system dependent on nepotism and sectarian identity that failed to provide even the simplest of services. There have been chronic shortages of electricity and water provided by the government. In Beirut, mountains of trash gathered in the streets four years ago as a result of a refuse collection crisis. The publication noted that in the week before the protests, massive wildfires broke out throughout the country, proving to be woeful due to the unpreparedness of the government. A trio of firefighting helicopters donated to the country in 2009 was out of commission due to lack of maintenance, and civil defence volunteers were without basic equipment.
There are 18 recognised religious communities in Lebanon that includes 4 Muslim, 12 Christians, and the Druze sect. According to a 1943 agreement known as the National Pact, the three most important political offices are divided among the three largest communities. All presidents must be Maronites Christians, all speakers of parliament must be Shia Muslims, and all prime ministers must be Sunni Muslims. Additionally, the 128 seats in Parliament are equally divided between Christians and Muslims.
According to the BBC, it is this religious diversity that makes the country vulnerable to outside interference. Iran is seen in its support for Lebanon’s Shia militant Hezbollah movement, which is actively engaged in Syria’s civil war. Hezbollah controls the political system in Lebanon today and was a major player in the outgoing government led by Rafik Hariri, the Western-supported leader of the main Sunni bloc. As a result of the 1989 Taif Accords that ended the Lebanese civil war, the National Pact was reinforced, BBC notes. Since then, leaders of each sect have maintained their power and influence via a system of patronage networks – both legally and illegally supporting the interests of their respective religious communities.
On Transparency International’s global Corruption Perceptions Index, Lebanon ranks 138th out of 180 countries. According to the report, corruption pervades Lebanon’s society at every level, with political parties, the parliament, and the police regarded as “the most corrupt institutions of the state”. The power-sharing system itself is the main factor that enables these patronage networks and undermines Lebanon’s governance system.
Several reports have accused the Lebanese central bank, headed by Governor Riad Salame since 1993, of taking actions to protect its bottom lines rather than protecting citizens’ well-being. According to the Arab News, in 1990, Salame was criticised for trying to prevent hyperinflation by implementing a temporary but persistent measure. With a large debt load and stagnant growth, the country has struggled to maintain the peg between the Lebanese pound and the US dollar.
A shortage in recent months has led to banks hoarding dollars. The abolition of the peg could prove disastrous for many citizens since they would no longer be able to withdraw dollars and the exchange rates would increase on the black market. The Hindu reported that before the protests, the unofficial exchange rate on the street had risen to around 1,650 Lebanese pounds to the dollar. During the uprising, the black market exchange rate reached 1,800 pounds for every dollar due to bank closures. In the wake of the weekend bank reopening, the official exchange rate remains unchanged, while certain controls are in place to prevent a panic. For the first time in two decades, the Lebanese pound lost value against the dollar on the newly emerged black market. Bakeries and petrol station unions called strikes when wheat and fuel importers insisted on being paid in dollars. As a result, when Lebanon’s western mountains were ravaged by wildfires, Cyprus, Greece, and Jordan came to the rescue, as the country was not equipped to deal with the blaze owing to a lack of funds.
According to the Hindu, the government proposed taxing tobacco, petrol, and voice calls made through messaging programs such as WhatsApp three days later, to make more money. In central Beirut, a few dozen people began protesting outside the government’s headquarters due to the charges of $6 (£4.50) a month levied for WhatsApp. Government officials were forced to cancel the proposed tax within hours due to an intense backlash, but the backlash appeared to unleash a wave of discontent that had been simmering for years in Lebanon.
The BBC reports that due to rising economic instability, Lebanon’s public debt ratio (to GDP) became the third highest in the world, at 150%. Youth unemployment reached 37%, while overall unemployment reached 25%. According to the World Bank, almost a third of the population lives below the poverty line. A lack of basic services has also long angered people. In addition, power cuts occur daily, drinking water is not safe, public healthcare is not available, and internet access is unreliable. Almost one million refugees from Syria have poured into Lebanon over the last decade, straining the country’s decaying public infrastructure.
Foreign Policy noted that there are numerous protest movements across Lebanon with diverse demands because of the movement’s decentralised nature and the diversity of political views. Despite this, the vast majority of protesters share a series of overarching demands. The protesters have called for the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s cabinet, insisting that it be replaced with a downsized and independent technocratic government. As a first step, the publication reported, they demanded that PM Hariri’s cabinet resign and that a smaller and more independent technical government replace it. In addition to Aoun’s resignation, other top officials have also called for the president to be directly elected by the people instead of going through parliament. It is unclear what the composition of this group should be, though many have called for people outside of the traditional political parties to be included. The group has also called for early parliamentary elections without sectarian proportional representation. Lastly, they have asked for an independent investigation into misappropriated funds.
According to the Guardian, these problems now include the decay of the state, which is still evident 18 months after the crisis began. After 11 months following the explosion at Beirut’s port, there is no progress toward forming a new government, despite hyperinflation depleting savings, food insecurity soaring, and an accelerating brain drain. Since the first signs of an impending economic collapse almost two years ago, Lebanon’s extreme poverty has tripled. The lack of electricity, water, internet, and health care has not changed the minds of politicians bent on preserving a patronage system based on a sectarian bias that has been weakening governance for decades. Political parties do not seem to be willing to compromise on cabinet portfolios and quotas, and their intransigence offers a dystopian glimpse of what ministries might be like in the future instead of fiefdoms.