Lebanon’s Chance for ChangeNews Abroad
tags: democracy, Lebanon, Protest
James R. Stocker is an Associate Professor of International Affairs and Executive Director of the Trinity Global Leadership Initiative at Trinity Washington University.
Protests in Lebanon, October 2019
In a major city in Lebanon, thousands of people take to the streets to protest the regime, driven by a mix of economic grievances, concern about corrupt sectarian elites, and opposition to international intervention. The security forces are out on the street, ostensibly neutral, supporting neither the people nor the government. Violence breaks out, straining the long-standing confessional balance that holds the country together. Ultimately, the army steps in to restore order, with a greater or lesser degree of success.
Such events are frequent in Lebanese history, particularly prior to internal crises. In 1958, protesters and armed groups took to the streets to oppose Lebanese President Camille Chamoun’s efforts to force Lebanon into the Western camp in the Cold War, as well as to engineer a second presidential term in violation of the country’s constitution. When a coup in Iraq and a simultaneous crisis in Jordan made the Eisenhower administration nervous, it sent 14,000 Marines, which Chamoun had desperately wanted. The conflict was only resolved when a respected army commander, Fouad Chehab, took over as president, offering a way out of the confrontation.
In the early 1970s, there were frequent protests against the government due to complaints about corruption and uneven development. Many demonstrators also advocated freedom of action for Palestinian militant groups based in the country, who aimed to wage war on Israel. Palestinian strikes into Israel and terror attacks around the world prompted Israeli bombings and raids on Lebanon, producing a cycle of violence that alienated much of the country’s Christian population, which along with other groups began military training and acquiring arms. The army’s inability to keep the peace between these groups led to the outbreak of a 15-year civil war, from which Lebanon is still recovering.
It is tempting to see the same potential for instability in the latest rounds of protests in Lebanon, which began last month. But this time, there may be something truly different. Two weeks ago, prompted by the proposals fornew taxes on tobacco and VoiP services like Whatsapp, tens of thousands of Lebanese of all sects took to the streets in virtually every major city. While the protesters of the 1950s and 1970s were unable to separate themselves from the sectarian interests and regional politics, the majority of demonstrators today are set on rejecting the country’s sectarian leadership as a whole.
Lebanon faces a huge variety of challenges, from unbalanced budgets, widespread unemployment, a lack of a foreign exchange reserves, and insufficient fuel resources, to burning wildfires in parts of the country’s wooded areas. Beyond this, there are deeper problems of atrocious transportation infrastructure (crossing Beirut at rush hour can take hours), insufficient electricity production (rolling blackouts are the norm), and inadequate garbage disposal that has led to literal mountains of trash piling up throughout the country. At the heart of all these issues lies endemic corruption. (And that’s not even mentioning the presence of Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed proxy with a massive military force). There is no single solution, or even a set of solutions, that could address the country’s challenges quickly.
Just as these issues reflect long neglect and misgovernance, the protests are the culmination of many years of activism. Lebanon’s liberal laws on media and freedom of expression make it an ideal place for grass-roots organizations to develop. But while civil society organizations have proliferated since the end of the civil war, they often have difficulty bringing about meaningful change. In 2015-16, in response to an escalating garbage crisis, a series of protests under the banner “You Stink” (Tala3 Ri7tak) took place, but failed to appeal to a popular base or unite under a clear series of demands. The current protests have avoided the first pitfall, but there is a risk of the second.
The single overwhelming call that unites protesters is the slogan of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011: The people want the downfall of the regime. But what this slogan means varies. Most demonstrators would like to see the usual politicians, most of whom are militia leaders and their family members or those who benefited from foreign patronage, gone from the scene or in prison. Beyond this, there is little agreement. A committee of organizations called for the current government to step down, and for a new government of “persons not derived from the leading class” to take power. Protesters have also demanded legal and policy measures, from the prosecution of known corrupt politicians and officials to the lifting of bank secrecy laws and the allowing of civil marriage (religious communal laws prevent the unions of many star-crossed Lebanese lovers of different sectarian backgrounds).
The protesters won their first concrete victory on Tuesday, when Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned. Lebanese President Michel Aoun has asked Hariri to stay on as the head of a temporary government until a new one can be formed. Whether there is a caretaker government or Hariri continues on, at least some reforms are likely to be put on the table to try to get the protesters off the streets. This can’t come too soon for Lebanon’s economy. The country’s central bank (whose leader Riad Salame is one of the protester’s targets), appears to be under pressure to devalue its currency, a move that could be disastrous for the country’s finances.
Still, it’s not clear that a government of new faces with a few changed policies would get the protesters off the streets. Lebanon’s semi-democratic political system is based on sectarian rather than popular representation, with the parliamentary seats split on an even basis between Christian and Muslim Deputies, and a long tradition in which the top government positions are distributed on the basis of sect. Moreover, the process of selecting representatives discourages competition. One study suggested that up to 70% of parliamentary seats are essentially predetermined. Unless these rules are replaced, the old faces are unlikely to go away. But there are many proposals on how to achieve this, and it will take time to select one.
Even after Hariri’s resignation, resistance to change is firm. Soon after protests broke out, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah announced his party’s opposition to any change in government, which includes representatives from his party and takes a permissive attitude towards the party’s militia wing. A few days later, he issued a clear warning (and veiled threat) that the protests risk igniting a civil war. Supporters of Hezbollah and its partner Amal, whose leader Nabih Berri has been particularly criticized for corruption, have even attacked protesters in isolated incidents. There have also been clashes in deeply divided Christian areas between supporters of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, allied with Hezbollah, and the Lebanese Forces party leader Samir Geagea. Ironically, the country’s oft-feuding leaders may still end up findingcommon cause in dividing the protesters before they achieve real reform.
Despite these obstacles, the protesters remain largely unified, and as they enter their second week, remain strong. As now former Prime Minister Hariri admitted during a press conference,the protests have “broken all barriers,” including that of “blind sectarian loyalty.” If he is right, then there is a true chance that Lebanon can break out of the sectarian trap it finds itself in. But fear and violence still have the potential to knock the protests off course. Neither the protesters nor the protested know where this revolution is headed, but the situation is unlikely to return to where it was before.
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