Lebanon’s Autumn of Unity

A Country Reborn, A State on the Brink
November 20, 2019

By : Julian Vierlinger

It has now been a month that the failure of the Lebanese government to handle a range of severe bushfires has ignited the Lebanese population’s rage against its notoriously corrupt political class. The lion’s share of the establishment has effectively been ruling the country ever since the end of the civil war, where warlords became parliamentarians and reconstructed the Lebanese state on the lines of inter-sectarian bargaining and intra sectarian nepotism. The protests were as swift as they were efficient: under the slogan “All of them means all of them”, the population flooded the streets, demanding an overhaul of the system, commencing with the replacement of government, parliament and high public functionaries. The ruling classes’ reaction was swift, too: in a typical strategy for the country, the political establishment attempted to co-opt the demonstrations by joining the protestors, to delegitimise the protest by claiming it to be a ploy of foreign interventionism, or to firstly spark sectarian tensions in order to secondly claim its position as the sole guarantee for sectarian peace in the country. Due to the protestor’s disciplined approach to contestation, they managed to fend off most of these strategies: Attempts of politicians to co-opt the protests were met with offensive negation, while it was carefully ensured that all sects and classes would feel represented (by amongst other things making sure that all political actors would be targeted by an equal share of accusations and ridicule), and last but not least all attempts of violent escalation were disarmed by an impressive employment of strategies of peaceful protest. The result is a revolt which manages to bring all strata and subdivisions of society together in the squares, in centre as well as periphery, defying attempts of dispersion in a festive atmosphere of unity and political awakening.

The core strength of the movement as perhaps so far been its leaderless-ness: protests are organised largely over social media and by a loosely knit network of civil society groups that are in constant communication, both within themselves and by virtue of make-shift ‘citizen hubs’ in public spaces. Generally are the protest hotspots as much spaces of contestation as they are spaces of discussion and exchange. This grassroots nature of the protest perhaps explains the responsiveness of the movement: when protestors realised that the blocking of key roads and junctions in the country was met by resistance of wide parts of the lowest strata of society, whose absence of savings makes them dependent on daily revenue, the blocks were temporarily opened in order to ensure that people could better attend to their needs, and the general strategy was adapted to blocking key government institutions rather than paralysing civilian infrastructure.

The initial stages of the protests were an almost instant success: after less than two weeks the country’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, resigned. Yet, this initial success inaugurated a difficult and dangerous phase of political void, and saw the rise of an entirely new set of strategies employed by the political class (who still populates parliament, presidency and ministries): the weaponization of the country’s dire economic situation against the protestors. Graft and misallocation of funds, together with questionable central bank policy of granting enormous interest rates, has lead the country to amount an impressive 151% of debt to GDP ratio, mostly held by Lebanese banks — and thus the savings of the Lebanese population. The system had been stable for the longest of time due to the steady flow of remittances from the Gulf, Europe and the Americas. During the financial crisis, the country had benefitted from reverse capital flight as the Lebanese diaspora, losing trust in overseas financial institutions, pumped their (dollar) savings into Lebanese banks. Yet, in recent years, flows of remittances have decreased significantly, threatening the country’s accounts. The country’s usage of two currencies, the USD and the Lebanese Pound (pegged to the dollar at 1500 to 1) aggravates this issue: with around 32% of Lebanese expenditure being used for servicing debt that is denominated to more than 60% in USD, the country is burning through its foreign reserves — and thus threatening the peg. The immediate reaction of the Lebanese financial sector had been the closure of banks, the imposition of informal capital controls and the suspension of convertibility. At any rate, the move furthermore eroded the trust of the Lebanese in their banks’ capacity to protect their savings, and aggravated the danger of a bank run. As most Lebanese businesses run on credit lines, as well as most consumer credits being denominated in dollar, the situation lead to a surge of the informal exchange rate to 1800 LBP to the dollar — with rumours going around that in the case of a default, the Central Bank would aim for a target exchange rate of 3000 LBP to the dollar. The fact of the matter is that it is the lowest strata of society as well as the public sector that is paid in LBP, with most private sector businesses paying their employees in cash. A devaluation would thus hit the lowest strata of society the hardest.

The protests have created a moment of national unity and democratic awakening by virtue of claiming public space in a country that has practically none due to the neoliberalist tone of its reconstruction..

The (now lifted) closure of banks is indeed a first in the country’s recent history, as even during the civil war they remained largely open. While it is clearly a decision aimed at protecting the country from economic collapse, the political establishment has made sure to blame the situation on the protestors, and attempted to frame a new government with old faces as the only solution to the issue. Michel Aoun, the country’s 85-year-old president, is the main tenor in the choir of establishment pushing for this narrative — together with his main ally, the Iranian sponsored Hezbollah. The position of Aoun and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, had remained largely unquestioned for the largest part of the protests whose rage mainly targeted parliament and government. Both enjoy a rather special reputation in Lebanese society, with Aoun being credited as having liberated the country from Syrian occupation, and Nasrallah being credited as being the sole viable line of defence against Lebanon’s southern neighbour, Israel. Their recent reluctance, however, to take protestors’ demands for a transitional government seriously has increasingly rendered them a target of protestors, too. Most notoriously, protestors have recently blocked access to the presidential palace in a response to a controversial interview with Aoun where he stated that whoever dislikes the political elite of the country could always choose to emigrate. Nasrallah, too, seems to have considerably lost support due to his denialist stance, as his continuous calls for protestors to stay at home in order to not destabilise the economy are being widely ignored — another first in the country’s history, as the Sayid’s words used to be taken as law, out of fear or adoration.

The current situation is thus one of a political stalemate: with Aoun and Nasrallah refusing to allow for a transitional, civil society government, but protestors steadily denying a remake of the previous government, the country is in political deadlock. The economic situation, meanwhile, looms as the largest threat for the generally — albeit with few exceptions — peaceful atmosphere: with Central Bank governor Riad Salameh categorically refusing to advocate for emergency measures, the economy is on a steady course towards the abyss of unorganized default and monetary freefall. On the other hand, any remedy to the situation stemming from foreign lenders of last resort is dependent on the formation of a transitional government without Hezbollah, which is sanctioned by the US, the EU and most countries eligible to step in to bail out Lebanese accounts. To this day, the protestors’ commendable discipline in fending off attempts of violent escalation or sectarianization — yet, in the case of economic collapse, it is unclear if things would stay as they are.

At any rate, much has been achieved by the protests: the protests have created a moment of national unity and democratic awakening by virtue of claiming public space in a country that has practically none due to the neoliberalist tone of its reconstruction. The squares, roundabouts and streets that are the hotspots of the revolution have become fora of a new Lebanese national, political consciousness that appears ready to take matters into its own hands. While there are no clear champions yet that have come out of civil society, there has been a visible reformation of the electorate: it appears as if it were no longer the theme of protection that lies at the heart of Lebanese politics, which had organized political life ever since the end of the civil war — the new theme is the political claim; a claim to a better life, to better institutions, to social justice and real representation. The fact that the speaker of parliament (and notoriously violent leader of the Hezbollah-allied Amal movement) Nabih Berri recently called for a parliamentary session which aimed to push through a general amnesty law (which would include financial crimes, graft and misuse of public funds) bears witness of the pressure felt by the establishment. The session was as of now abandoned twice, as protestors closed down the entirety of the governmental district of Beirut. Yet, what has been achieved could easily be lost, if the stalemate isn’t resolved soon. The trauma of the civil war — which was accompanied by economic collapse (and saw a freefall of the national currency from around three LBP to the USD to the current 1500 to one peg) — sits deep; small details such as the geographic transposability of civil war checkpoints to protestor roadblocks fuel memories of violence and despair, especially in the country’s older generation. The sustained interest of regional powers, most notoriously Iran (by proxy of Hezbollah) and Saudi Arabia (by proxy of Hariri’s Future Movement), furthermore threatens the volatile balance of the current state of affairs.

It is necessary to state here that this revolution is not, as some western media (and the US state department) claim, an uprising against Iranian influence. The insistence on this narrative is indeed a dangerous threat to the rather peaceful state of affairs, and furthermore fuels the political establishments claim that the protests are a result of foreign meddling. The revolution is above all a movement against corruption, erosion of state institutions, and a political class that plays on yesterday’s fault lines of society in order to stay in power. As such, this revolution is an organic movement of democratic aspiration, and a call for social justice — and thus, a movement that Europe should, to the best of its ability, attempt to support. Ursula Von Der Leyen’s recent call at Paris Peace Forum for an “outward looking Europe” that “should strive to unite what is separate” may have found its first mission in Lebanon — a country that is not only geographically close to Europe, but also key to its geopolitical strategy: as gateway to Syria, and host of around 1,5 million refugees, Europe has a sustained interest in the stability of the country. So far, the EU’s diplomatic engagement of the issue has been careful at best — and indeed, care is a much needed commodity, for the last thing that Lebanese revolutionaries need now is a EU foreign policy that could fuel the establishments claim that it is all but a ploy of foreign powers. Yet, the EU should realize the force of the moment, and do its best to protect what Lebanese civil society has achieved. Its policy options range from a diplomatic offensive to mediate between the main stakeholders of the current deadlock — i.e., the Presidency, Hezbollah and Civil Society, over a prise-de-position as a lender of last resort should the economy crash, to an offer of targeted investment conditional to an honest engagement of the protestors demands.

The Lebanese revolution is a situation characterized by high stakes and imminent danger, but it is also a movement of great potential for change and betterment of the lives of ordinary citizens, if only by virtue of contributing to the unification of a historically fragmented society. Thus, it would be foolish for the EU to not — albeit carefully — attempt to play its part in ensuring the long-term success and sustainability of this unity.


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