On November 12th, a Lebanese national named Alaa Abou Fakhr was shot dead at a protest against government corruption in the town of Khalde. He was shot in what appeared to be an unprovoked incident, purportedly because of a misfire from a Lebanese Army soldier. His death, which became a rallying cry for protesters, is one of seven since the protests began.
Protests were initially a response to a series of proposed changes to the taxation system, which included raising tariffs on gasoline, tobacco, and the popular telecommunications app, Whatsapp. These might seem to be trivial issues but the proposed taxes are indicative of a deeper problem plaguing Lebanese society. They were enacted to raise the revenue that the Lebanese government so desperately needs, as the country has landed in dire economic straits over the past decade. Lebanon, which has a modest GDP of $51 billion, currently owes a staggering $86 billion in debt and has seen very little in terms of growth rate percentage. The country is speeding towards financial ruin, and there must be an immediate course correction to avert disaster. The protests stem from a distinct frustration with the current administration’s inability or unwillingness to do what is necessary to improve the Lebanese economy.
The government has not listened to the protesters’ demands, however. At first, they resorted to police crackdowns and violence in an attempt to quell dissent. This resulted in the deaths of several people such as Alaa Abou Fakhr. The military was even brought in to restore order. This quickly descended into a series of mass arrests and even allegations of torture. Speaking to The Intercept, a Lebanese citizen named Khaldoun Jaber said he was abducted by military intelligence and beaten until, “I spat out my molars and blood came out of my mouth.” These cases of extreme brutality have only served to harden resistance to the government, however. Under increasing pressure, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, resigned from office. In his place, a new prime minister, Hassan Diab, was promoted, promising to form a new cabinet to meet the economic woes of the country.
At first glance, this might seem like a positive development. However, there are already many worrying signs that this new government may not live up to its promises. The protesters’ demands, while varied, largely fall under the umbrella of ending the political corruption and the poor economic policy that produced the conditions of Lebanon today. Since 1997, the country has artificially tied the value of its own currency to that of the US dollar. Lebanon is also highly dependent on imports to keep basic services such as hospitals and gas stations running, meaning that it must constantly borrow money to keep dollars in circulation. Changing these policies will require a tremendous impetus, unheard of in Lebanese politics.
Since the end of the country’s long civil war, Lebanon’s politics and society have been dominated by extreme sectarian divisions. Power is traditionally split between two political coalitions: the March 8 Alliance, who are aligned with the militant group Hezbollah and are supported by the Iranian government, and the March 14 Alliance, who are anti-Hezbollah and supported by the Saudis. This extreme dichotomy has led to a decades-long stalemate in which politicians can find little common ground to enact policy. In 2016, the government was even unable to work together to find a solution on waste disposal, which led to an extreme pileup of garbage on the streets of Beirut. Over time, the balance of power has shifted back and forth between the two coalitions but the result is always impasse. Hassan Diab’s new government is comprised mostly of Hezbollah and its allies, but a shift in the balance of power is unlikely to resolve the current issues facing Lebanon anymore than it has in the past. No less than a day after Diab gave his inauguration speech, protests raged on in Beirut.
The formation of a new government in Lebanon may appear to have met the demands of protesters, but in many ways it is a mere continuation of the sectarian divisions that produced the current crisis. Even more so, it represents a foreign influence on the politics of the country. With Hezbollah and its allies holding a majority seat, Iran is able to project its own will upon Lebanon through its proxies. No doubt the Saudi-backed coalition and anti-Hezbollah parties will also try to regain their old seats in time. Lebanon is trapped, caught in between two significant regional powers vying for control while its economy continues on a downward spiral. All the while, protesters are met with tear gas, fire hoses, and rubber bullets instead of understanding. On the 15th of January, 30 protesters were hospitalized after clashes with the police, yet the hospitals are already in danger of running out of medical supplies due to the economic crisis. Doctors paychecks have been cut, petrol has to be rationed, and banks are limiting the amount of money that can be withdrawn from accounts on a weekly basis. Diab’s new administration must take immediate action to prevent social and economic collapse.
That will entail a significant change in the status quo in Lebanon. For decades, politics there have been defined by fruitless infighting and such extreme divisions that even those politicians who desire palpable change have little means to achieve it. Diab’s promise to solve the economic crisis is a small hope in the current situation, but rectifying the issues that Lebanon faces will require shifting the political culture, something which will no doubt be difficult in the face of vested interests from abroad, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Anything less than this would be treating the symptoms of the problem rather than the root of the issue.
The sectarian divides that plague the country are long-running, dating back to the time when the country was a French mandate in the 1920’s. The French implemented a policy of “divide and rule,” raising the Maronite Christians in the country to positions of power over the Muslim majority. Muslims from the Shi’a and Sunni communities were in turn given less influential positions, and an unequal and unsustainable balance of power was constructed between the groups. Animosity between them and their political ideologies eventually came to a head, erupting into a deadly civil war in 1975 that would last decades and claim the lives of 120,000 people. When the dust settled in 1990, the Taif agreement was struck which set to reorganize Lebanon’s political structure and afford marginalized groups more representation in order to avoid the bloody mistakes of the past. However, in practice the agreement led to a hardening of sectarian divides, making bipartisan efforts impossible. Diab’s new government, made up of primarily new politicians from right-wing groups, such as Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement, must find a way to reduce these sectarian tensions while maintaining a government that provides equal representation for all groups.
That the Prime Minister’s new cabinet is made up almost entirely of new politicians who did not come into prominence during the country’s civil war is a step in the right direction. For too long, politics have been dominated by career politicians who cemented their name fighting along sectarian divides and never straying from them. However, the fact that most of Diab’s cabinet are aligned with Hezbollah and its allies is a worrying sign that the new government could be a continuation of old trends. Foreign interference, be it by direct intervention or proxy, must cease. Lebanon finds itself at such a crucial moment that will decide the country’s future and interference by regional powers such as Syria, Iran, or Saudi Arabia could worsen the crisis. Old sectarian fault lines must be soothed somehow. That could entail any number of approaches, such as community outreach efforts or the creation of new political coalitions that are not based on traditional religious divides in Lebanon. The Taif agreement itself, which established the balance of power and helped further cement the divisions in Lebanese society, might need to be removed and replaced in its entirety.
Most of all, the state must embrace peaceful dialogue as its first solution when dealing with protests. Violent police responses have thus far been the first response when citizens gather to voice their concern. However, this has only given rise to larger and more chaotic protests. The Lebanese army also must set concrete boundaries for itself in order to avoid further human rights abuses. If Diab’s government truly upholds the principles of democracy and human rights, than violence against Lebanese citizens must cease. The army must admit any purposeful human rights’ violations and promise to uphold the safety of protesters as well as public property. Order needs to be upheld in Lebanon, but citizens must still be allowed the right to assemble and voice their own concerns.
Lebanon is in a state of turmoil and the ability of the country to stay coherent will depend on the actions of the new government. Even if the economic crisis is resolved, the sectarian divisions that straddle Lebanese politics must be addressed somehow. A failure to do so could have dire consequences; it was not long ago that the country was embroiled in civil war and occupied by a foreign military. The burden of responsibility falls to Diab’s administration to avoid the pitfalls of the past. Only time will tell whether they can live up to that responsibility.
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