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Lebanon has witnessed a wave of protests since October 2019. The critical rallying point for the protesters is the worsening economic situation. With Covid-19, the economic problems have multiplied. There exists ample discontent among the people against the corrupt elites. A noticeable feature of the protests has been the missing sectarian fault lines, otherwise an essential aspect of Lebanese politics. Unlike the Cedar Revolution in 2005 and the 2006–2008 protest movement, for example, the current wave of protests is not spearheaded by any sectarian political entity.
The protests were triggered by the Saad Hariri-led government’s proposal on 17 October 2019 to introduce taxes on gasoline, tobacco and online phone calls, especially on online messaging/calling application WhatsApp. The proposal came at a time when citizens were pondering on a looming currency crisis, which led to harsh banking procedures introduced in November enforcing limits on deposits and caps on withdrawals. Although the proposal was not implemented, it further agitated the citizens who were already suffering due to weak fiscal policies, rampant corruption and government’s inability to fix the disruptions in basic amenities like electricity and water.
The major economic factors driving the protests include an increase in the price of oil and bread, growing unemployment and poverty. The country’s youth unemployment rate in 2019 was 37 percent, compared with a 25 percent national average. Furthermore, 40 percent of its population is suffering from poverty in 2020. According to Dr. Bashir Ismat, an expert at the Social Affairs Ministry, it “might even reach 50 or 70 percent if the state and Lebanese banks file for bankruptcy.”
Lebanon has a services-oriented economy, with banking and tourism being the foremost sectors. The total contribution of the tourism sector was estimated at US$10.4 billion which was 19.1 percent of GDP in 2018 in comparison to US$9.3 billion in 2017. For a long time, the country’s economy has been facing severe economic challenges. The fiscal position deteriorated sharply in 2018 with the deficit widening by an estimated 4.5 percent to reach 11.5 percent of GDP which was US$56.6 billion in 2018. The higher fiscal deficit is on account of large and persistent electricity subsidies, poorly managed infrastructure and higher current expenditures. Foreign exchange reserves have decreased from US$7.5 billion to US$36.5 billion between February 2018 and May 2019. To stabilize the problem facing the Lebanese economy, the international community offered pledges which included US$10.2 billion in loans and US$860 million in grants at a conference in Paris in April 2018. This conference was hosted by France, Lebanon's former colonial power, and was attend by 48 countries and organizations, including Saudi Arabia, the US, Russia and Qatar. However, this support failed to bring any relief to the worsening economic situation.
Rampant corruption has been another rallying factor for the protesters. The general perception is that political parties, public administration and police are the most corrupt institutions. In the Corruption Perception Index 2019, put out by Transparency International, Lebanon was ranked 137 among 180 countries. According to Global Corruption Barometer 2019, rate of bribery in Lebanon is substantially higher than in its neighbouring countries. The country’s media accused political parties of illegally placing several people in various jobs in state-owned telecommunications firm Ogero in 2017 and 2018. In December 2019, Lebanese prosecutor issued an arrest warrant to Hoda Salloum, the head of traffic management authority, under the charges for bribery, forgery and violation of duty. Furthermore, for a long time, the government has failed to provide sustained water and electricity supply.
As a result of the wide protests, Hariri announced a package of reforms on 21 October, promising the protesters that the government would adopt strict measures against corruption. He promised that it would pass a law to establish an anti-corruption committee and draft a law to restore stolen public funds, including a reduction in the salaries of current and former presidents, ministers and lawmakers. However, contrary to government expectations, Hariri's reforms package did not satisfy the protesters who demanded his resignation. Under immense pressure, Hariri was forced to resign on 29 October but continued as caretaker prime minister. His resignation was welcomed by the protesters and was seen as an initial victory. However, it did not end the nationwide protests that have paralyzed the country.
On 21 January 2020, Hassan Diab, a former Education Minister of Lebanon, formed the government after Hezbollah and its allies nominated him, following consultations with 128 members of parliament. During the consultations, Diab received 69 votes from the parliamentary blocs of Hezbollah, Amal Movement, Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a group of five pro-Hezbollah Sunni MPs and several other allied blocs. However, right after the announcement, demonstrations resumed and protestors demanded the appointment of an independent head of government.
Gradually, the protests evolved into a political movement against the existing political system and elites. This is significant given the consociational system followed in the country since 1989, which has increasingly been hijacked by the Hezbollah. The group controls broad areas of political and social life and functions as a state within a state. The powerful influence of Hezbollah is so strong that no decision in the country can be taken without its support. Therefore, a large number of people in Lebanon feel that along with other economic issues, Hezbollah's is also a cause of the problem. Hezbollah's support for the government during the protests has tarnished its reputation.
The solution to the problem of Lebanon is two-pronged. Firstly, there is a need for immediate structural reforms in the political system. According to the protesters, this means the end of sectarian power-sharing system, which hinders the country from becoming a better democratic state and encourages nepotism. Secondly, the problem of corruption, which plagues the institutions of the country, requires an immediate remedy. Though a legal framework to deal with the same is in place under chapter three of the Lebanese Penal Code, dedicated to dealing with crimes related to bribery and public funds theft. Still, it is not sufficient enough to curb the problem. Therefore, enactment and enforcement of strict anti-corruption legislation would go a long way in pacifying the protesters.
As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy