Lebanon protests stoke fears of new civil war

26 October 2019
Hedonistic demonstrations have increased concerns about future instability, reports Wil Crisp from Beirut

As the voice of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah party, boomed out of loud speakers across Martyrs Square in downtown Beirut, groups of protesters sat watching from the concrete roof of an old occupied cinema known as “The Egg”.

The scene in the hot and dusty square on 25 October was a stark contrast to previous days, with smaller protests, less singing, and far more armed riot police.

“People are scared to come and protest in downtown today,” said one protester as he looked out over the square from on top of the giant domed building. “One word from Nasrallah could change the situation completely.”

[caption id="attachment_354510" align="alignleft" width="300"]Lebanon protesters in Beirut October 2019 Security forces in Beirut[/caption]

Hedonistic protests

The latest wave of leaderless, non-sectarian protests in Lebanon started spontaneously on 17 October in reaction to a raft of new taxes, including a $0.29 daily charge on voice calls made through WhatsApp.

Lebanon’s protests have set themselves apart from similar movements across the Middle East by focusing on hedonistic partying and good humour, rather than solemnity and violence.

After dozens of injuries and one death over the first couple of days, when hundreds of thousands took to the street across the country, the protests had been relatively trouble-free – with only a few minor fist fights and skirmishes between anti-government protesters, pro-Hezbollah supporters, and supporters of Lebanon’s Amal party.

However, as the demonstrations continue, and the government refuses to make radical changes in line with protester demands, concerns are growing amongst both protesters and analysts that the country could be walking a path that could ultimately lead to increasingly violent clashes and even a new civil war.

“I’m worried about instability,” said Mona Sukkarieh, co-founder of Beirut-based political risk consultancy Middle East Strategic Perspectives. “In this region instability is a slippery slope. Once it starts to deteriorate it can get worse very quickly.”

Rising fears

There is good reason to be concerned about future conflict.

Over recent years optimistic protests movements and subsequent uprisings have led to brutal wars in Libya, Yemen, and Lebanon’s neighbour Syria.

Lebanon’s own civil war only ended in 1990 and there is still a proliferation of small arms under civilian control in the country, which could quickly come into play if the security situation deteriorates.

[caption id="attachment_354513" align="alignright" width="300"]Lebanon protesters in Beirut October 2019 Beirut, October 2019[/caption]

The possibility of the protests fading away is unlikely in the short term as the demonstrators have much to be angry about when it comes to Lebanon’s political class and convoluted democratic system.

Under the existing confessional system, which dates back to French colonial rule, seats in parliament are divided proportionally among the country’s 18 religious groups and positions in government bureaucracy are allocated on a similar basis.

The top three political positions are divided so that a Christian is always president, the Speaker of the Parliament is a Shia Muslim, and the Prime Minister is a Sunni Muslim.

This system has helped to reassure all of Lebanon’s minority sects that their interests will be represented at the highest level of politics, but it has also fostered to clientelism, patronage, and corruption.

Constitutional reform

Many of Lebanon’s protesters believe this system inherently divides the population and pits the country’s different sects against each other.

They want to rip it up and create a new non-sectarian system of representation.

Disillusionment with the existing system has been building for year. In the May 2018 general election less than 50 per cent of Lebanon's approximately 3.8 million eligible voters cast ballots.

Protesters are also specifically angry with the existing government, which was formed on 31 January, headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

The government took nine months to form after extended negotiations between various political factions – and the delays have continued into office with meaningful decisions being postponed and project deadlines repeatedly missed.

[caption id="attachment_354512" align="alignleft" width="300"]Lebanon protesters in Beirut October 2019 Protesters in Beirut, October 2019[/caption]

On 21 October Hariri announced a raft of reforms in response to the protests.

The reform plan included a 50 per cent cut in salaries of current and former presidents, ministers, lawmakers, and reductions in benefits for state institutions and officials.

Under the plans the 2020 budget would have a 0.6 per cent deficit, paid for in part by a new tax on bank profits and privatising telecommunications companies.

The package was swiftly rejected by protesters, who said it failed to go far enough.

Power vacuum

In his speech, on 25 October, Nasrallah spoke of the possibility of civil war and warned of the damage that a political vacuum could do to the country if the government gave into protester demands and resigned.

Many protesters, who have experienced more than two and a half years without a government over the past 13 years, say they are not concerned by the prospect of a power vacuum.

“They government is totally useless,” said Maryan a graphic designer from Northern Lebanon, who has taken to the streets of Beirut to protest every day since 17 October.

“During the times when we didn’t have a government the country operated far better than it does now.”

Some analysts are more concerned. They say that the country can’t afford another period of political paralysis.

Lebanon has one of the largest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world and is in danger of defaulting.

In April last year, Lebanon was given aid pledges exceeding $11bn at a Paris conference and it will need a government in order to enact reforms in order to unlock these loans and grants.

[caption id="attachment_354515" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Lebanon protesters in Beirut October 2019 Beirut, October 2019[/caption]

“The government has been terribly slow in implementing recommended reforms and in putting projects on track,” said Sukkarieh. “But the measures that were announced by Hariri are significant, though at this point, the protestors’ lack of confidence in this government remains an issue”.

“It is possible that these protests will spur this – or a future – government to speed up its decision-making process and act more determinedly.”

Few protesters want to give the government a second chance.

Economic woes

The troubled economy has led to hardships for much of the population who are struggling to deal with high inflation, rising taxation and a youth unemployment rate of 37 per cent.

At the same time, while the country suffers economic hardships there is a general perception that the political elite are filling their own pockets through corruption.

In 2015, the Swiss Leaks scandal confirmed the suspicions of many Lebanese – revealing that several high-profile members of the political class had millions of dollars deposited in secretive Swiss bank accounts.

These included Elias Murr, the son of Michel Murr a former minister of defence, who had $42m held in an account.

Mohammad Safadi, a former finance minister, had $75m in a Swiss HSBC bank account.

These secretive bank accounts are frequently mentioned by protesters when they talk about why they want to see the government resign, and an end to the old political parties.

“It's not just a case of a couple of corrupt politicians - they're all taking money and stashing it abroad,"  said Foad, a Lebanese accountant, as he sat eating a zaatar croissant inside the ruined egg-shaped downtown cinema.

“Switzerland does very well from Lebanon. There is no transparency when it comes to the activities of our politicians. That’s one of the reasons why we can’t give them anymore chances.”

The Egg

While the protesters are unified in that they want an end to corruption and divisive secular politics they are divided when it comes to how it should be done.

And with no clear leaders to negotiate on their behalf it is unclear how there will be progress.

In the evenings the ruins of the downtown egg-shaped cinema are often used as a debating platform with individuals taking turns to make speeches over a sound system.

Some want the entire government to resign and a technocratic government to be put in place. Others want to see a reshuffle or military rule.

“The protesters don’t have a clear list of demands,” said Sukkarieh. “Eventually Lebanon should aim to get rid of the confessional system, but I believe the country may not be ready yet."

[caption id="attachment_354516" align="alignleft" width="300"]Lebanon protesters in Beirut October 2019 Beirut, October 2019[/caption]

“The county’s minorities remain scared due to the country’s historical record of sectarian massacres and victimisation."

“Ultimately this system gives them a sense that they are protected and have a voice.”

For now, demonstrators remain optimistic about the future of their protest movement.

“The important thing is that the government resigns – we will deal with the next steps after that,” Foad said, sitting inside the ruined concrete cinema.

“The world shouldn’t underestimate what will hatch from inside this egg.”

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