The Old Guard and Hariri's Client State Face Down Generational Change in Lebanon

Published October 24th, 2019 - 09:38 GMT
. Hundreds of Lebanese protested against deteriorating economic conditions. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ ANWAR AMRO
. Hundreds of Lebanese protested against deteriorating economic conditions. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ ANWAR AMRO

 

In December2018, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri spoke to a packed audience at Chatham House in central London. The theme of his presentation was a ‘Vision for the Future’ of Lebanon.

Whilst Mr Hariri acknowledged the challenges that his long embattled and divided nation faced, he spoke of a future defined by stability, potential and innovation, with himself at the helm of government.

Yet less than a year later, Mr Hariri’s position appears more precarious than ever. Protests against corruption, sectarianism, and dysfunction have entered into their seventh straight day and show little sign of abating. Though Mr Hariri and his cabinet have announced a raft of ameliorative reforms in the last few days, the familiar cry of the Arab Spring has rung out across Lebanon: ‘the people demand the fall of the regime’. It remains to be seen whether this demand will be met, yet events in Lebanon will be followed closely throughout the region.

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Since last Thursday, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese people have thronged to public squares and thoroughfares across the country. It is estimated that up to 1 million people participated in protests on Sunday out of a total population of a little over 6 million, the largest since the so-called Cedar Revolution of 2005, which followed the assassination of Mr Hariri’s father, Rafic.

Many commentators have pointed to the announcement of new tax proposals last Thursday as the catalyst for protest - a proposed tax on WhatsApp calls, on which many Lebanese young adults rely on for daily communication, attracted especial ire. Recent months have been punctuated by an increasing number of political crises. The Government was heavily criticised last week for failing to deal with intense wildfires that raged through the country’s south.

It is estimated that up to 1 million people participated in protests on Sunday out of a total population of a little over 6 million, the largest since the so-called Cedar Revolution of 2005, which followed the assassination of Mr Hariri’s father, Rafic.

The loss of between 1300-1500 hectares of forest over 48 hours has been blamed on governmental failures to fund and maintain a regular fire service and firefighting helicopters. Mr Hariri has himself been embroiled in controversy. In late September, it was revealed that Mr Hariri had given more than $16 million USD to a South African model who he had met at a luxury resort in the Seychelles. Though Mr Hariri insists that this gift came from his private income, this financial profligacy further soured perceptions of his rule given the financial austerity imposed on Lebanon’s people. To make matters worse, Mr Hariri has come under increasing scrutiny over failing to pay overdue wages to employees of his family’s construction conglomerate, Saudi Oger. 

In late September, it was revealed that Mr Hariri had given more than $16 million USD to a South African model who he had met at a luxury resort in the Seychelles

Yet while the timing of the protests suggests the importance of these recent catalysts, they feed off years of simmering tension over political dysfunction in the country. At the heart of the protestors frustrations is Lebanon’s long-term economic malaise. Early in September, Lebanese President Michel Aoun was forced to announce an ‘economic state of emergency’ in response to mounting international pressure by the country’s creditors. Lebanon stands as the third most indebted countries globally - according to the International Monetary Fund, its debt exceeds 150% of its Gross Domestic Product.

It has been characterised in recent years by an absence of growth, low productivity, and sluggish private sector development. A statement released by Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour in August state that the overall unemployment rate in the country stands at 25%, whilst the rate of youth unemployment is even higher at 37%.

Lebanon stands as the third most indebted countries globally - according to the International Monetary Fund, its debt exceeds 150% of its Gross Domestic Product.

According to the International Labour Organisation, Arab states have the highest rate of youth unemployment globally, and in outward looking Lebanon many talented young adults continue to leave the country in search of opportunities. To appease international creditors, Mr Hariri’s government announced what it described as the ‘most austere budget’ in Lebanon’s history in July. Funding cuts to Lebanon’s universities, public broadcaster, social security system and health department have particularly affected young and disenfranchised citizens.
 

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (L) with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) at a dinner hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron on April 16, 2018 /AFP

Economic woes in Lebanon are not entirely the fault of Mr Hariri and his political allies. Exports have taken a major hit since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011. Syria has long been Lebanon’s chief trading partner and that country’s economic devastation in recent years has had knock on affects in neighbouring states. International and regional investors have proved wary of the security risks of over-committing in Syria’s neighbourhood and Lebanon has borne the brunt of this lack of confidence.

Yet criticisms of what protestors call the ‘Hariri class’ are well founded on a number of grounds. Under Mr Hariri’s rule, income inequality has significantly worsened in Lebanon. The top 1% of Lebanese earners make up nearly one quarter of the country’s GDP. The top 0.1% of the population earn about the same share of the national income as the bottom 50%, making Lebanon among the most unequal countries in a highly unequal region.

Perceptions of economic decline are particularly acute in a country in which corruption is widespread. Protestors argue that where Mr Hariri claims to be cracking down on waste, he must start with his own administration. According to Transparency International, a British NGO, ‘corruption in Lebanon is widespread and permeates all levels of society’.

Yet criticisms of what protestors call the ‘Hariri class’ are well founded on a number of grounds.

The organisation ranks Lebanon as the 4th most corrupt country in the Middle East and North Africa. Few government officials and public servants in the country would take pride at having narrowly bettered Libya, Iraq and Yemen on this metric. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicator consistently ranks Lebanon as possessing some of the region’s most deficient anti-corruption practices.

The difficulties associated with fighting corruption in Lebanon are deep-seated. Many argue that they are inevitable given the country’s peculiar political structure. Since Lebanon’s independence from France in 1943, it has utilised a power-sharing agreement, designed to provide representation for all of the country’s 18 sects. A failure of this arrangement led to civil war in the country between 1975-1990. But given the sectarian tensions provoked by that conflict, warring parties agreed to resurrect this arrangement for the post-war era. The 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliament is split equally between Christians and Muslims.

The Muslim bloc is also formally divided equally between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. By convention Lebanon’s President must always be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni, and the speaker of the Parliament, a Shi’a. Since the Ta’if Accords, which ended the country’s Civil War, executive power has largely lay with the country’s parliament. However, arrangements designed to share power have instead divided it. Candidates tend to compete on the basis of who best represents the interests of sectarian groups rather than the wellbeing of the nation.

Key ministries and government posts are divvied up among leaders who use those positions to enrich themselves and offer favourable arrangements to their own constituency. Lucrative contracts for public works are awarded to private companies with close ties to sectarian elites. This form of confessional power-sharing runs through all levels of government, leaving corruption and dysfunction in its wake.

Lucrative contracts for public works are awarded to private companies with close ties to sectarian elites. This form of confessional power-sharing runs through all levels of government, leaving corruption and dysfunction in its wake.

Protestors argue that political arrangements in the country have long been sewn up to favour the interests of a narrow strata of elites who have run the country since the end of the Civil War. A brief look at major office holders in the country gives credence to this suggestion. Mr Hariri comes from a long political dynasty - indeed, a member of the Hariri family has served as the country’s Prime Minister for more than half of the post-war era. Michel Aoun, the current President of Lebanon made his name as a renegade General during the 15 year-long conflict and has been an ever-present feature in the country’s politics since, even in a period of exile in France which lasted until 2005. Nabih Berri, the 81-year-old speaker of Lebanon’s parliament has held his job, unchallenged, for 27 years.

Though sectarian leaders once found great success in appealing to their defence of their own community’s interest, a new Lebanese generation see sectarianism as self-serving rhetoric which has brought little more than corruption and gridlock. Protestors demand not a reformed sectarian arrangement but an end to the entire system.

Protestors argue that political arrangements in the country have long been sewn up to favour the interests of a narrow strata of elites who have run the country since the end of the Civil War. A brief look at major office holders in the country gives credence to this suggestion.

Party flags and sectarian symbols have been ditched and the white and red national flag is back in vogue. In Tripoli, Sunni protestors tear down posters of Mr Hariri; young Lebanese Shi’a in Tyre chant for Mr Berri’s resignation; and Christians in Beirut criticise the ineffectual Mr Aoun. Transforming a system whose preservation is in the interests of much of the country’s political class will prove a tall order. Yet if nothing else, this week’s events, defined by a rejection of the acrimonious language of sectarianism augur a brighter future for a long divided nation.

Protests have been met with a mix of repression and reform. On Monday, Mr Hariri’s governing coalition announced a raft of promises and a new budget. Salaries of some current and former politicians are to be cut in half, several state institutions are to be abolished, and an anti-corruption committee is to be set up by the end of the year.

In Tripoli, Sunni protestors tear down posters of Mr Hariri; young Lebanese Shi’a in Tyre chant for Mr Berri’s resignation; and Christians in Beirut criticise the ineffectual Mr Aoun

Mr Hariri will hope that demonstrators will be particularly fond of promises to reform the country’s state run power sector given the frequency of electricity outages and criticisms of widespread corruption and personal enrichment strategies in this area. But most see these commitments as too little too late, a sign of desperation rather than well considered public policy. Even where demonstrators agree with the sentiment of reforms, they certainly do not trust Mr Hariri to deliver them.

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Female protesters stand in line before Lebanese soldiers /AFP via Getty Images

Though Lebanon’s national army has played an important role in protecting protestors from attacks from counter-demonstrators, by early this week, it has been deployed to clear major roads and thoroughfares and help oversee the re-opening of key government and financial services which have been closed since last Thursday. Human Rights Watch has found that security personnel have used excessive and unnecessary force against protestors, a situation that may get worse as Mr Hariri desperately tries to return some degree of normality to the country.

Yet reports of disaffection among soldiers and police who feel little inclination to stand in the way of a popular national movement will give political authorities pause for thought. It is therefore difficult to tell what will come next for Lebanon.

The Lebanese government has few good options that it can exercise as it tries to solve the looming crisis. In an ossified political system, decisive governmental action proves difficult. Lebanon finds it in a familiar economic paradox: it must reduce its enormous budget deficit to address economic malaise, but this will require further rounds of unpopular austerity.

Mr Hariri’s resignation would likely be met with jubilation by many demonstrators, but it would leave a power vacuum that may prove difficult to fill. Given the complex coalition negotiations that have long characterised the country’s politics, it may find itself without a functioning government. Many fear that the country’s myriad militias and armed factions could turn to violence as they jostle for advantage. 

reports of disaffection among soldiers and police who feel little inclination to stand in the way of a popular national movement will give political authorities pause for thought. It is therefore difficult to tell what will come next for Lebanon

Protestors in Lebanon see themselves as part of a broader regional movement against corruption and authoritarianism. Posters supporting detained Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah and chants of ‘Say it, don’t be afraid, Sisi has to go’ are common features in the squares of Beirut and Tripoli, whilst many pledge solidarity with pro-democracy demonstrators in Sudan and Algeria.

Though demonstrators see their struggles as connected, they reject outside intervention to achieve their aims wary of the dangers of welcoming outsiders to their cause given decades of foreign fuelled sectarian conflict in the country. Unfortunately, this key demand of the protestors - for the crisis to be resolved without outside intervention will likely fall on deaf ears in Riyadh, Tehran, Washington and Brussels.

On Monday, an International Support Group for Lebanon, comprising the United Nations, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the UK, US, EU and Arab League released a statement backing Mr Hariri’s reforms, saying that they ‘came in line with the aspirations of the Lebanese people’. Though relations between Mr Hariri and Riyadh soured after his alleged forced public resignation in that country in 2017, Saudi Arabia has long backed Mr Hariri and his Future Movement party financially to thwart the influence of Iranian backed Hezbollah.

In January, Saudi Arabia pledged to provide full support to Lebanon’s ailing economy, while Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited the country in February, offering to provide assistance to the Lebanese army

In January, Saudi Arabia pledged to provide full support to Lebanon’s ailing economy, while Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited the country in February, offering to provide assistance to the Lebanese army. Israeli strikes on an alleged Hezbollah drone workshop in Beirut in August are a key reminder that Lebanon remains a bright flashpoint in the region’s geopolitical conflicts. Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, Lebanon has officially adopted a policy of ‘disassociation’ in its foreign policy, attempting to avoid entanglement in outside disputes, yet increasing instability in the country may open it to the opportunistic engagement of regional and international rivals. 

As in Baghdad, Algiers and Khartoum, tremendous hope grips Lebanon’s diverse and cross-sectarian protest movement. After decades of division, dysfunction, and misery they demand the emergence of a more positive future, defined not by sectarian tension but national unity. It can only be hoped that this vision remains theirs to enact.
 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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