The demonstrations in Lebanon are unprecedented in scale. But European governments remain wary.
Lebanon’s countrywide protests have now entered their ninth consecutive day. Most major roads and highways across the country remain partially or entirely blocked, despite ongoing stand-offs with the Lebanese army that have sometimes turned violent. Many of the protestors are demanding the resignation of the cabinet and the president as well as an early parliamentary election. More fundamentally, the protestors are calling for the end of Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system and political elites’ hold over this system. They say current structures represent an oligarchy and have rendered the state unable to meet the basic needs of the population.
A socio-economic revolt, not a geopolitical uprising
Unlike other protest movements of recent years that have focused on Beirut, a vibrant civil society hub, these demonstrations have sprung up in areas where anti-government protests rarely take place: Tripoli in the north, towns like Sidon, Tyre, Nabatieh, and Bint Jbeil in the south, and even in Baalbek and other towns in the east. Many joining the protests are working-class citizens on low incomes, who in the past have not been so ready to go out on the street. All this represents an unprecedented national call made across the sectarian lines that have for so long defined the country’s make-up.
Members of the government have all responded in a similar way, be it the foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, the prime minister, Saad Hariri, former member of parliament Walid Jumblatt, or even Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah. They express support for the protestors and sympathy with their grievances. But they are unwilling to meet the crowds’ core demand – the downfall of the government – which they say would be dangerous.
To appeal to the people, Hariri initially asked for 72 hours to come up with a package of economic measures. Since then, four ministers from Lebanon’s bloated 30-member cabinet have resigned. Hariri announced sweeping reforms, such as slashing government officials’ salaries in half, privatising the telecoms sector, fixing Lebanon’s ailing electricity sector, and achieving a near-zero deficit in 2020 without introducing new taxes for that year.
But while these steps were welcomed by international backers, wary of the uncertainty that could follow a government collapse, they did little to move the protestors, who are choosing to stay on the street. This reflects a growing feeling that Hariri’s measures were piecemeal, unrealistic, and inadequate to the task of rebooting the system. Demands are diverse, but most protestors now agree that the prime minister must resign and a new technocratic cabinet be formed ahead of new elections.
European governments fear a government collapse, having built up relations with the Hariri premiership
Rampant inequality during an economic crisis
Lebanon is going through an extreme economic crisis that can be traced back to decisions made at the end of the country’s 15-year civil war in 1990. The Lebanese Central Bank has long resorted to financial engineering to prevent currency hyperinflation, included pegging the Lebanese lira to the US dollar. With the need to maintain a high supply of US dollars to keep the all-crucial currency peg, recent months have seen Lebanon endure a currency crisis. Dollars have been short across the country, with banks limiting or completely stopping the ability to withdraw in the currency. Different worker syndicates, whether fuel suppliers or millers, have gone on short-lived strikes over the difficulties they have had importing and selling at regular prices, causing small panics across the country. Meanwhile, the Lebanese government has been scrambling to implement structural and economic reforms to unlock a pledged $11.1 billion in soft loans and grants from the international community.
However, the economic reforms the government has introduced over the past year have angered most people, who see austerity measures and regressive taxes as exacerbating economic inequalities. Protests have occurred sporadically throughout the year by public school teachers, retired soldiers, and others, fearing salary and pension cuts. At the same time, the government has pushed to raise value-added tax from 11 percent to 15 percent and tried to introduce other regressive taxes, such as on fuel, or even Voice over Internet Protocols (i.e. WhatsApp calls). Meanwhile, the country has one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world and tax evasion is rampant among corporations and high-income earners.
Towards a new state that provides?
On top of the immediate economic crisis, the Lebanese state has also effectively stopped functioning as a provider of public services, whether it is electricity, potable water, viable public transport, or even adequate public health insurance.
Citizens have resorted instead to private means: fuel generators, local water trucks, private health insurance cover. But these additional economic burdens are not sustainable and public frustration has deepened at the inability of the political elite – who the public already regard as corrupt oligarchs – to address these core deficiencies, focusing instead on channeling available resources to their patronage networks, often on a sectarian basis.
Trust is now entirely absent, despite government officials’ assurances on new reforms. For example, ministers have been promising regular provision of electricity for over a decade now. The extent of daily power cuts differs from area to area: in Beirut, these usually last for about three hours. Elsewhere, they can go on for half a day. Protestors have dismissed Hariri’s promise that Lebanon will be able to provide regular electricity by the second half of 2020. The lack of trust helps explain why Lebanon’s last parliamentary election, in 2018, yielded a turnout of less than 50 percent. Those taking to the street believe what has long been a one-way relationship – where citizens pay taxes and fees to a state that does not provide – is now parasitic in nature.
In spite of the country’s dire economic situation, there is some hope. In major cities like Beirut and Tripoli, protestors set up tents on major squares and roads to brave the rain and to resume their activism. The government tried to quell the protests: the first two nights were met with riot police and soldiers arresting and beating protestors, and using teargas in crowded areas. Despite these tactics, and efforts to delegitimise the protestors as dangerous, this strategy has failed and protestors have maintained their on-street presence.
In addition to the new reform package – and an expression of sympathy for their grievances – officials are now warning of a power vacuum if the situation continues. Bassil has said the protests could provoke chaos, a sentiment echoed by Hariri. Nasrallah sang to a slightly different tune, meanwhile, expressing support for the protests, but also saying that the people are “wasting their time” by trying to overthrow the government, and said they are harming themselves and the country.
Meanwhile, European states are treading carefully, seeing the protests as an important and necessary step to push urgently needed and long-overdue reforms, while remaining wary of the dynamics driving instability. European governments fear a government collapse, having built up relations with the Hariri premiership, and for the moment they are invested in trying to get Hariri to be the vehicle of change. In a recent statement, the European Union expressed its commitment to Lebanon’s “stability, prosperity, and peace” and called on protestors to remain peaceful.
Moving forward, Lebanon now faces a stand-off between a political elite wary of fundamental change that could challenge their longstanding hold on the state and a protest movement that will accept nothing less. In part, the political elite are hoping that the protestors will run out of steam. The demonstrations are scattered across the country, and major ideological divisions – notably over whether a transitional cabinet should be technocratic, military-run, or otherwise – could yet split them.
That said, protests continue to grow throughout Lebanon by the day, with demonstrators feeling that this is a now-or-never moment to radically change the country – despite the daunting nature of taking on Lebanon’s entire political elite. But the protestors are adamant that they have broken a fourth wall that political leaders built to divide people along sectarian lines. Like never before they now believe that anything is possible, just as long as they remain united.
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.