Lebanon has been gripped by protests since October 12, 2019, with citizens continuing to clamour against corruption and mismanagement by the government as the country slides into an economic crisis. Protests on Saturday were met with tear gas and water cannons as the ruling party took a hard stance against the demonstrations, even as protestors marched under banners proclaiming they would not, “pay the price.” The violence was at its most intense this weekend when compared to the past few months of protests. At least 377 people were injured according to the figures released by the Red Cross and the Civil Defence, demonstrator and police alike.
The protests have been concentrated in the city centre, specifically Martyrs Hub, which is where protestors were marching on Saturday. As demonstrators got closer to Parliament, security forces stepped in to disperse crowds. The trigger for this round of protests was the inability of Parliament to form a new government; the previous Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, resigned on October 29 and his successor has been unsuccessful in forming a new government. The Lebanese political landscape is convoluted, and the process of forming a new government even more so. It has previously been essential that the systems and processes that balance the country’s different political parties and religious sects be followed to avoid sectarian conflict. However, Lebanese protestors have grown tired of the intricate political game that has become a roadblock to progress – they want to end the old system, and institute a technocratic cabinet that will be able to address Lebanon’s economic crisis – particularly inflation.
The response to the protests in Lebanon has been disappointing. The protestors have valid concerns; the government’s attempts to repress their voices by using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to forcibly disperse citizens is frustrating. Moreover, rumours swirl about internet shutdowns, similar to those seen in other Middle Eastern nations during the Arab Spring and also similar to those that occur in India with almost increasing regularity. By shutting down the internet, the government is deliberately stifling communication and making it difficult for citizens to go about their daily lives. Lebanese security forces are also accused of making arbitrary arrests during past protests – this has been denounced by human rights groups, like Amnesty International. At the moment, it is unclear if protests this weekend resulted in any arrests. The UN Special Coordinator has also condemned Beirut for its poor handling of the current crisis, and the inability of the ruling class to form another government, acceptable to the majority of the population.
Solving the current crisis would mean addressing longstanding political problems and also the current economic crisis; the anger present at protests today may have erupted in the last three months due to a deteriorating economic situation, but it has simmered under the surface for years due to endemic corruption and blatant mismanagement of public funds. The key issue at the moment is inflation: the Lebanese pound is pegged to the U.S. dollar at around 1500 pounds to the dollar. However, the value of the Lebanese pound has plummeted and now is valued at 2500. This has resulted in surging prices for basic goods, worsened by the fact that imports have also slowed down.
A lack of liquidity in regards to U.S. currency means that banks have also been compelled to carefully control foreign transfers and limit the withdrawal of U.S. dollars. This has had several knock-on effects, and all of society has been impacted. The shortage of US dollars has meant that even Lebanon’s electricity and internet providers are forecasting cuts shortly; without the US dollars, the government will not be able to subsidize these services. With this context, it is clear than any sign of economic mismanagement would draw the ire of citizens who are struggling to maintain a basic standard of living.
The key to resolving the current crises is forming a new government and then putting forth new policies to manage the economic crisis. Politicians must take steps to respond to protestor demands. The desire for a technocratic government stems from years of mismanagement and poor ruling. There must greater effort from all political actors to form a functioning government. Additionally, security forces must not deprive protestors of their civil liberties and all citizens should be given the right to participate in political processes.
With regards to the economic crisis, austerity is not the answer. There are indications that this is the pathway that the ruling class wants to take. However, the government must think carefully about how this would impact poor and marginalized communities. If more money is needed, then Lebanon should look to an international organization like the IMF or the World Bank for assistance.
Moreover, there needs to be long-lasting reforms that address the root causes of this crisis. The political system must be adapted so that politicians represent the will of the people. The economic system must be reformed so that it can handle economic shocks and cushion citizens. These types of reforms will require strong political will, but the people of Lebanon have already indicated that they are willing to put in the work needed to reform their broken system.