The Lebanese desire for change is not going to go away. The EU should place itself at the heart of smoothing this transition.
More than a month on from the eruption of protests – which many Lebanese have come to call Ath-thawra (“the revolution”) – central Beirut continues to brim with anti-government activity. The area, long associated with business tycoons and soulless mega-construction projects, has transformed into the vibrant heart of a movement targeting the entire traditional elite. A map of the district during the protests set outs exactly where to find activist hubs, tents for public debates, art interventions, and abandoned buildings reoccupied as public spaces.
The first weeks of the protests were mostly peaceful, with security forces overall refraining from a coercive response. But, after initial expressions of support for the protestors, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, accused demonstrators of being incited by foreign intervention. This change of approach resulted in clashes between Hezbollah supporters and the protestors. President Aoun also provoked angry reactions when he expressed his opposition to one of the main demands of the demonstrations, the installation of a technocrat government, and made derogatory remarks about the protestors. The increasing violent involvement of supporters from different political factions has increased fears of a new cycle of violence in a country traumatised by civil war.
The protests involve Lebanese citizens from all ethnic and social backgrounds, and they have had some successes, most notably the resignation of the government at the end of October. Signs of change are growing: this month, the Beirut bar association elected independent candidate Melhem Khalaf as its head, despite fierce opposition from all established political parties. The protestors also managed to block a parliamentary session scheduled to vote on a law that would have included an amnesty for those indicted for corruption and fraud. However, now the question facing the protestors is whether they can direct this momentum towards a bigger win and make progress on their central demand: the appointment of a technocrat government. The stakes are high for all leading political parties. The incumbent elite does not want to address the country’s profound economic and institutional problems by giving up power and opening the door to deep structural reforms that could sweep away the entire sectarian power-sharing system.
Even before the current crisis, the European Union was extremely worried about the state of the Lebanese economy, the lack of reforms, and rampant corruption. Now, a slide into violence is looming, which could have regional repercussions and disturb the cautious rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are both heavily politically invested in Lebanon. A violent outbreak in Lebanon could also ignite tensions on the southern border with Israel. And increasing EU sanctions on the political wing of Hezbollah, a major party in Lebanon which faces a potential ban in Germany, might impede the EU’s role to maintain a dialogue with all key parties on the ground.
A slide into violence is looming, which could have regional repercussions and disturb the cautious rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
For outside actors, this is a particularly difficult moment: direct interference on behalf of the demonstrators could threaten the credibility of the protest movement, especially following the allegations of external interference. At the same time, an immediate overthrow of the deeply entrenched political system is unlikely. Nevertheless, European states should look for ways to support a transitional government that at least partly consists of technocrats in order to gradually pave the way for necessary reforms. This should include immediate measures to increase oversight and transparency, and a roadmap to discuss sustainable change to the corrupted political system.
Equally important is to hear a clear commitment from the EU and member states to the protection of protestors. Amnesty International has already documented violations by security forces. The EU has been instrumental, together with the United States, in providing support to the Lebanese security sector. It should use this leverage, which extends over both security forces and the military, to prevent the use of excessive force against protestors and to ensure the right to protest. The EU also has an obligation to help protect the one and a half million very vulnerable Syrian refugees in Lebanon: they could suffer from a deepening crisis but are as yet unable to safely return to Syria.
On the economic front, the EU should offer short-term relief in addition to already planned support. In 2018, France hosted international donors at the CEDRE conference for the economic development of Lebanon, who together pledged an unprecedented $11 billion support package. But none of the many projects, mainly supposed to rehabilitate Lebanon’s ailing infrastructure, have been implemented yet due to a lack of credible reforms in the country. The pledged support could now become an important instrument in supporting a new, hopefully more honest, government that contains independent experts. The EU should propose to release parts of the CEDRE package to provide relief for the expected dramatic rise in poverty and unemployment.
Many people across Lebanon want thoroughgoing political change, but the country will need assistance to get through this immediate painful phase of political, economic, and financial turmoil. The EU and its member states have a crucial role to play in this, and need to demonstrate their ability to act to make a difference in Europe’s backyard.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.