Lebanon has been dysfunctional for years now and the people's anger has finally boiled over. Hezbollah should be concerned.
They said it couldn’t happen in Lebanon, a tiny country in the Arab world which was once a beacon of development and modernity, but now appears to be a third world country whose leaders have bled the country dry.
In 2011, the pundits lined up to say why and how Lebanon couldn’t have an Arab Spring. And yet weeks of protests, a cash crisis with its banks and recent forest fires have raised the level of protests to something higher. We are witnessing the dawn of change.
What we see now in Lebanon is more than just a handful of people saying that the present sectarian system, born as a compromise to seeking peace at the end of the civil war in 1990, simply doesn’t work.
The warlords who carved up the country and then built fiefdoms with their religious power are now, finally, acknowledged by hundreds of thousands to be the source of the crisis and not part of the solution.
The country is not functioning which is worrying Hezbollah as, quite apart from making it vulnerable to attack from Israel, a state of emergency does not play into the Iranian proxy’s hands like a lot of analysts believe.
Lebanon has been for several years a zero-governance country. An essentially failed state which only had the infrastructure of Hezbollah as an alternative model of governance. The Lebanese often quip that under President Aoun it has become a police state, with arbitrary arrests of journalists and protestors an achievement of the ageing president which will tarnish his name in the Lebanese annals of history. The 2018 World Press Freedom Index ranked Lebanon 100 out of 180 countries.
Aoun is part of the problem. When he was anointed as president, there was hope briefly as there was a belief from all sides that a Hezbollah puppet would at least bring some calm and order, rather than an empty seat in the Babdaa palace.
Recent events though have shown that Lebanon is in a kind of slow meltdown mode and that now his three years in office, a sterling serenade of irresponsible leadership, can be blamed for what is now a country genuinely heading towards the abyss.
Protests now are happening all over the country and what is particularly interesting is not so much the calls for Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s feeble prime minister to resign – but that there is similar anger from supporters of Nabih Berri (Shia leader of Amal and House Speaker) and indeed Hezbollah itself causing jitters throughout Lebanon as analysts point to the obvious 2016 presidential deal which brought in Hariri.
Hariri leaving would bring token relief and hope but will not do much to save Lebanon. The argument is that a more robust Sunni leader who could do Saudi Arabia’s bidding and could reign in Hezbollah would make a difference.
But in reality, this is folly spouted by those who don’t understand the core issue: the entire political system itself is rotten from the inside out and needs to be abandoned.
The Lebanese are highly educated and are ready for a new system of government based on a European model which leaves the confessional system behind and once and for all provides an alternative mechanism which would stop political leaders deliberately investing in Lebanon’s failure as both a floundering economy and a failed state.
Corruption is so rampant now in Lebanon that the elite profit off the failed state as they have created a network of companies, NGOs, law firms, accountancy companies, banks which are all ready to process international aid money when it comes in. The six powerful people who run the country have a very well-oiled machine.
The problem Lebanon has is that international aid money is also drying up. In recent months, when the dollar crisis hit – which in reality is a lira crisis – it became clear to Lebanese analysts that the West was not standing by poised to rescue Lebanon.
The so-called rescue package western countries agreed in Paris – $11 billion endearingly named ‘Ceder’ – is probably the worst thing Lebanon could do, as it is a loan, which future generations of Lebanese will have to pay for with higher taxes while the elite squanders half of it on funding their militias and high octane $16 million girlfriends.
Lebanon’s leaders need to think fast now. This wave of protests, which often involves blocking roads, is not going away. But these are not the most astute leaders, and they might think they can ride it out.
If however, things get worse, it might be the spark for one or two of them to move aside for a new generation of leaders. Hariri resigning is probably a good thing as he seems to be astonishingly inept if not incapable at really anything except looking lost when a camera is pointed at him.
Recently, he did a television interview where he was speaking slowly and quietly about how things will work out with the economy, how tourism will come back, and how confident he was. But it was like watching a dying man reminisce about his lost youth. When he mumbled, you felt as though he was reading from a cue card. He has no confidence in himself, the economy, or Lebanon ever pulling itself out of this hole under his leadership, so leaving office might be kind on those who write his political eulogy.
For the moment though, there is no sign of a new political movement emerging which links those protesting in Jbeil, a Christian heartland, with say, Tripoli in the north, a conservative Sunni area – or with any of the Shia towns which also came out in force.
We should not be concerned over whether Hariri will resign though. No. What is important is whether, as a compromise, these leaders will force through a much needed radical tax and spending reform plan to stop the hemorrhage of money not making it to the government coffers through the elite not paying company tax, coupled with the absurd frivolous spending of the state on pension payouts (‘golden handshakes’) to retired generals, as one example.
Reforms need to be implemented quickly with a stricter budget to calm the simmering crowd before we reach the next level of a crisis which could mean a rampant black market in dollars and some of these leaders leaving Lebanon to operate in exile. Something’s got to give.
Regional analysts often say that Hezbollah wants Lebanon to descend into chaos, but this is mostly hysteria from the Riyadh camp. In reality, chaos might invoke the Iran proxy to take more control, stretching its resources beyond its practical capabilities. This, in itself, makes Lebanon vulnerable to both an Israeli attack and a crisis with Washington which could lead to a miscalculation from Trump – with consequences unimaginable for both Lebanon and the region.
Hezbollah’s approach to taking control in Lebanon has always been surreptitious, slow and calculated. Anarchy would not suit it as even its hierarchy is seeing that even in its neighbourhoods, their people are protesting for change.
Martin Jay is an award-winning British journalist based in Beirut who has worked for a number of international media titles including CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera as well as reporting on a freelance basis for the UK’s Daily Mail, The Sunday Times plus TRT World.
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