A Bundle Of English, New, Reports, and Editorials Addressing MassThe Public Demonstations & Sit-Ins In Lebanon Against the Terrorist Iranian Occupier, Hezbollah and The Rotten Politicians, Parties & Officials
Compiled & Prepared by: Elias Bejjani/October 21-22/2019
*No Solutions In Lebanon As Long As it Remains Occupied By Hezbollah
*Lebanon’s banks to stay closed on Tuesday: Statement
*Main Figures of Lebanon’s Under-Fire Political Class
*Aoun: Protests Reflect People’s Pain, Unjust to Call Everyone Corrupt
*Hariri Backs Protesters Call for Early Vote, Vows to Protect Them, Declares Wide Reforms
*Hizbullah, AMAL Supporters Roam Streets as Hariri Reportedly Asks Army to Open Roads
*Al-Rahi Calls for Christian Spiritual Summit over Lebanon’s Protests
*PSP Walks Out of Cabinet, Says Some ‘Still Living in Pre-Demos Era’
*Zarif Urges Lebanon Govt. to ‘Pay Attention to People’s Demands’
*All of Them Means All of Them’: Lebanon Protest Slogans
*Day after Protests, Lebanese Don Gloves and Clean Up
*Lebanon Government in 11-Hour Reform Drive as Protests Swell
*Report: Lebanon Main Parties Agree to PM Reform Package
*Cabinet Holds Crucial Meeting as Mass Revolt Braces for Day 5
*Geagea Says PM Must Resign to Form ‘Shock’ Government
*Jumblat Hails ‘Peaceful Popular Protests’
*Lebanon’s Protests: Cleaning in the Morning and Partying at Night
*Lebanese government approves reform plans, 2020 budget: PM
*No Solutions In Lebanon As Long As it Remains Occupied By Hezbollah/Elias Bejjani/October 20/2019
*Lebanon must fight corruption to restore investor, public confidence: IMF/Reem Abdellatif, *Al Arabiya English/Monday, 21 October 2019
*Lebanon faces political deadlock with economy on brink/Lauren Holtmeier, Special to Al Arabiya English/Sunday, 20 October 2019
*Lebanon’s Year of Fire/Firas Maksad/Foreign Policy/October 21/2019
*Protesters unimpressed with Hariri rescue plan/Georgi Azar/Annahar/October 21/2019
*The Tenure, The Government, The Party And Messages of Deception/Ghassan Charbel/Asharq Al-Awsat/October 21/2019
*Can Michel Aoun Be Defeated in Lebanon?/Joseph A. Kechichian/October 22/2019
*Lebanese people need army’s help to reform broken system/Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib/Arab News/October 21/2019
*Mass Protests Have Taken Place in Lebanon Against the Political Class and Its Economic Policies/Lydia Assoad/Carnegie/October 21/2019
The Latest English LCCC Lebanese & Lebanese Related News published on October 21-22/2019
No Solutions In Lebanon As Long As it Remains Occupied By Hezbollah
Elias Bejjani/October 20/2019
لا حلول في ظل احتلال وإرهاب حزب الله
Lebanese angry Citizens from all walks of life, from all the country’s diversified religious denominations, and from all Lebanese geographical areas are taking place in both the demonstrations and sit-ins.
The peoples’ demands are very basic and all are legitimate.
They want a decent life, in a decent country, that is not occupied by the terrorist Hezbollah, free, independent, democratic and where the law prevails.
They want the rulers as well as the politicians to be public servants and not thieves, terrorists, Trojans and dictators.
Hopefully promising patriotic leaders, qualified activists and politicians will emerge as soon as possible to lead the peaceful protests before the terrorist Hezbollah and the Trojan rotten political parties’ leader and puppet officials abort it.
Meanwhile, the Hezbollah Iranian armed militia is the cancer that has been systematically and evilly devouring Lebanon the land of the Holy Cedars piece by piece since 1982, and oppressing its people in a bid to subdue them and kill their lust and love for freedom.
Because of the Hezbollah savage occupation, No solution is currently possible what so ever in Lebanon for any social or economic crisis in any domain and on any level for any problem being big or small while the country remains under its Iranian and terrorist occupation.
Those rotten and Trojan politicians and political parties’ leaders who are calling for a new government are cowardly and sadly keeping a blind eye on the Hezbollah devastating occupation which is the actual problem.
Because they are opportunist and mere merchants they are knowingly ignoring the real and actual problem which is the occupation, and in a shameful Dhimmitude stance are appeasing and cajoling the criminal occupier for power gains on the account of the country’s people, stabilty, world wide relations, sovereignty, independence and freedom.
Lebanon needs to be freed from the Hezbollah Iranian occupation, and at the same from all its mercenary politicians, officials and political parties’ chiefs.
Liberation of occupied Lebanon urgently requires that the Lebanese free politicians and leaders call on the UN and on the Free world countries to help in implementing all the clauses of the two UN resolutions 1559 and 1701.
From our Diaspora, we hail and command the courageous and patriotic Lebanese citizens who are bravely involved in the current ongoing demonstrations and sit-ins.
May Almighty God bless, safeguard Lebanon and grant its oppressed people the power and will to free their country and reclaim it back from Hezbollah, the Iranian terrorist Occupier.
Lebanon’s banks to stay closed on Tuesday: Statement
Reuters, Beirut/Monday, 21 October 2019
Banks in Lebanon will remain closed on Tuesday, after the government agreed on a reform package on Monday in a bid to defuse the country’s biggest protests against the ruling elite in decades. The statement from the Lebanese banking association, circulated on the National News Agency, said they were waiting for calm to be restored. A nationwide general strike paralyzed Lebanon as protests aimed at ousting the ruling government entered the fifth day on Monday.
Main Figures of Lebanon’s Under-Fire Political Class
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/October 21/2019
Lebanese protesters who have been gathering in growing numbers for five days are demanding the complete renewal of the political class, whose main figures haven’t changed in decades. Since the 1989 Taef agreement that brought to an end the 15-year civil war and defined the rules of a sectarian-based power-sharing system, the same politicians, or their relatives, have called most of the shots. They long seemed untouchable but their future is now in the balance, with protesters vowing they will not relent until Lebanon’s political barons are out of the picture.Herewith a penpix of the country’s main political figures:
– Michel Aoun and Jebran Bassil –
Michel Aoun, 84, was elected in 2016 as the 13th president of Lebanon. A Maronite Christian, he once championed opposition to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and launched an ill-fated “war of liberation” in 1989. Forced into French exile by Syria, he eventually returned in 2005, after the withdrawal of Syrian forces, and became president after a spectacular shift of alliances earned him the support of his erstwhile arch-foes. Once a vocal critic of nepotism, he managed to secure a ministerial portfolio for his son-in-law Jebran Bassil and made him the leader of his party. The 49-year-old Bassil, who is now foreign minister, is arguably the most reviled leader among the protesters, who have not spared him in often explicit slogans.
– Saad Hariri –
The 49-year-old prime minister and leader of the al-Mustaqbal Movement is the scion of an influential Sunni Muslim family. His father Rafik, a billionaire who spearheaded Lebanon’s post-civil war reconstruction, was assassinated in 2005. Saad Hariri has cast himself as a champion of economic reform held hostage by unwilling coalition partners but protesters have pilloried him all the same as a hypocrite and pure product of Lebanon’s hereditary politics. His image was further tarnished last month when reports surfaced that he had sent $16 million dollars to a South African model, even as his family group’s employees were being laid off or worked unpaid.
– Nabih Berri –
Nabih Berri, 81, has been parliament speaker since 1992. He was reelected last year for a new four-year mandate. He is also the most senior political representative of Lebanon’s Shiite community. He leads the AMAL movement, which had one of the main militias in Lebanon’s civil war. A former warlord, he has remained one of Syria’s main allies in Lebanon. His critics accuse him of having abused his position to amass a colossal personal fortune and protesters in recent days bashed him and his wife Randa as some of the most egregious examples of Lebanon’s patronage system. Since 1992, he has shared power in the Shiite community with the Hizbullah movement led by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who is a cleric and has never been a state official, though he wields enormous political and military power.
– Walid Jumblat –
The heir of one of Lebanon’s oldest political dynasties, the 70-year-old Druze leader took over from his father Kamal, who was assassinated in 1977. Also a former warlord, Jumblat long headed the Progressive Socialist Party and is a towering figure in the Druze minority. He was nicknamed “the cameleon” for his ability to shift alliances and navigate Lebanon’s ruthless political game. Some protesters see Walid Jumblat as a symbol of the feudal nature of Lebanese politics.As head of the Druze community, he used to hold open hearings at his Mukhtara residence in his Chouf mountain fiefdom every weekend, though his son Taymour has now taken over these duties. His PSP currently sits in government and Jumblat also “passed on” his parliament seat to his son Taymour last year.
– Geagea, Franjieh, Gemayel –
Samir Geagea, 66, rose to prominence during the civil war when he took over the leadership of the Lebanese Forces militia. He opposed Syria’s occupation of Lebanon and in 1994 became the first civil conflict warlord to be jailed. He was released 11 years later and returned to the political fray. He was accused by another Christian leader, pro-Syrian Suleiman Franjieh, of complicity in the 1978 murder of his parents and sister, an allegation the LF have denied. Geagea and Franjieh publicly reconciled last year. The Gemayel dynasty, another major Christian political clan, is represented by Sami Gemayel. A lawmaker, he is the son of Amin Gemayel, who was president for six years during the war, and heads the Kataeb Party. His cousin Nadim Gemayel, the son of Bashir Gemayel who had been president for less than a month when he was assassinated in 1982, is also an MP.
Aoun: Protests Reflect People’s Pain, Unjust to Call Everyone Corrupt
President Michel Aoun said in remarks at a key Cabinet meeting on Monday that mass protests reflect the people’s pain but that it was unfair to accuse all government members of being corrupt. He said that banking secrecy must be lifted from the accounts of current ministers and former ones. Lebanon’s teetering government was expected Monday to approve a belated economic rescue plan as the nation prepared for a fifth day of mass protests against the ruling elite. The Cabinet convened in the absence of four ministers of the Lebanese Forces who submitted their resignation on Sunday. Prime Minister Saad Hariri is expected to deliver a speech addressing the nation after the meeting.
Hariri Backs Protesters Call for Early Vote, Vows to Protect Them, Declares Wide Reforms
Embattled Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Monday announced sweeping reforms in a bid to appease hundreds of thousands of protesters who have taken over Lebanon’s streets since Thursday in the country’s biggest demos ever. “I did not ask for the three-day grace period from the people but rather from my partners in the government,” Hariri said in an address to the nation, referring to an ultimatum he had issued for his coalition government partners to endorse a reform paper he presented. In the Cabinet session held before Hariri’s speech, the government approved Hariri’s reform paper as well as the 2020 state budget. “The Lebanese youths are demanding their dignity and that their voice be respected… The people are the ones who give politicians deadlines,” Hariri said. “Your movement is what led to these decisions that you see today,” he added. “These decisions might not fulfill your demands but they fulfill what I’ve been calling for since two years. I will not allow anyone to threaten the youths on the streets and the state has a duty to protect you,” the premier added. “I will not ask protesters to stop their demos and if they want early parliamentary elections I will support that,” he went on to say. Hariri’s words appeared to do little to appease protesters in Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square, who chanted “Revolution!” and “The people want the fall of the regime” as they listened to the premier’s speech.
“This is all just smoke and mirrors… How do we know these reforms will be implemented,” said Chantal, a 40-year-old who joined the protest with her little daughter and a Lebanese flag painted on her cheek. Noting that the 2020 budget will not contain any taxes, Hariri added that the salaries of ministers and MPs will be slashed by 50%. He added that the country’s central bank and the banking sector, which are flush with cash, will help in reducing the deficit by about $3.4 billion in 2020. The banking sector was criticized by many of the protesters, who blamed it for charging the state high interest rates as it carries much of the $85 billion public debt that stands at 150% of the gross domestic product. Some senior politicians are either owners or major shareholders in private banks and Hariri said taxes will be increased on financial institutions. “The Ministry of Information and a number of state institutions will be abolished and the principle of merging will be endorsed, but no one’s job is threatened in this regard,” Hariri added. Hariri described the measures as a “financial coup,” saying no government in Lebanon’s history has taken such steps before. “Frankly speaking, your protest is what made us to take these decisions that you witnessed today,” Hariri said. He added that “what you did has broken all barriers and shook all political parties.” The government will also distribute millions of dollars to families living in poverty and will also give $160 million as housing loans in an attempt to try revive the struggling construction sector. Hariri said that a law will be drafted to restore money that were usurped as a result of widespread corruption in the country. Later Monday, President Michel Aoun signed the budget, which will be sent to parliament for discussion and approval.
Earlier, protesters closed major roads around Lebanon and massed in downtown Beirut ahead of the emergency Cabinet meeting. Demonstrators placed barriers across major intersections in Beirut as well as other cities and towns across the country. Schools, universities, banks and government institutions remain shuttered as the country is gripped by the largest protests since the so-called Cedar Revolution in 2005. Amid the unrest, troops were deployed on the main road to the palace to clear the way for Hariri and government ministers to reach Baabda. Many protesters say they don’t trust any plan by the current government. They’ve called on the Cabinet to resign and be replaced by a smaller one made up of technocrats instead of members of political factions. To many demonstrators, the reforms Hariri announced smacked of a desperate attempt by a corrupt elite to cling to their jobs, and there was little sign Monday that the mobilization was weakening. “It is a day of destiny for us. All our hard work and efforts in previous days and years were to get us to this moment,” Roni al-Asaad, a 32-year-old activist in central Beirut, said. “If they could have implemented these reforms before, why haven’t they? And why should we believe them today?”The protests are building on long-simmering anger at a ruling class that has divvied up power among themselves and amassed wealth for decades but has done little to fix a crumbling economy and dilapidated infrastructure.”I am with the reforms. I am against the destruction of Lebanon,” said Rabih Zghaib a protester in Beirut. “Lebanon has been badly damaged by the politicians for 30 years. Today their thrones are shaking.”
Hizbullah, AMAL Supporters Roam Streets as Hariri Reportedly Asks Army to Open Roads
Supporters of Hizbullah and the AMAL Movement roamed some of Beirut’s streets on motorcycles on Monday evening, carrying flags of the two parties and shouting insults against what they called “the revolution.”The National News Agency said the motorbikes passed through the Ras al-Nabaa, Verdun and Tariq al-Jedideh areas. Video footage meanwhile showed them passing outside Speaker Nabih Berri’s headquarters in Ain el-Tineh while shouting loyalist slogans. Media reports said the army prevented the convoy from entering the protests area in downtown Beirut and that the motorcycles “returned to Beirut’s southern suburbs” after roaming the capital’s streets. Separately, Prime Minister Saad Hariri called Army Commander General Joseph Aoun and “discussed with him the security developments,” the Mustaqbal Web news portal, which is affiliated with Hariri’s al-Mustaqbal Movement, reported. “During the phone call, he (Hariri) stressed the need to protect the protesters and not to allow harm against any of them, while emphasizing the need to reopen roads to facilitate citizens’ freedom of movement in all regions” as well as the transfer of essential goods and medical crews.
Al-Rahi Calls for Christian Spiritual Summit over Lebanon’s Protests
Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi on Monday called for a Christian spiritual summit to discuss the popular revolt that is rocking Lebanon. A statement said al-Rahi has called on the country’s Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs and bishops to convene on Wednesday at 9:30 am in Bkirki. Discussions will tackle “the tragic situations in the country in light of the popular protests and their legitimate demands and following the resolutions taken by Cabinet in its session at the presidential palace in Baabda.”Lebanon’s teetering government approved an economic rescue plan Monday but the last-ditch move was met with deep distrust from a swelling protest movement seeking the removal of the entire political class. A proposed tax on mobile messaging applications last week sparked a spontaneous, cross-sectarian mobilization that has brought Lebanon to a standstill and united the people against its hereditary, ruling elite. Prime Minister Saad Hariri seemed aware that the measures he announced — which include a deal on the 2020 budget and significant reforms that seemed unlikely only a week ago — would not quench the people’s thirst for change.
PSP Walks Out of Cabinet, Says Some ‘Still Living in Pre-Demos Era’
The two ministers of the Progressive Socialist Party walked out of an emergency cabinet session on Monday in protest at government’s refusal to endorse some of the party’s economic and financial reform proposals, as unprecedented anti-government protests engulfed Lebanon for a fifth day. The party’s ministers “fought a reform battle inside cabinet,” Industry Minister Wael Abu Faour said at a press conference. “What happened today was par excellence a reform battle between two approaches: the approach of the Lebanese (protesters) on the streets and the approach that believes that what’s happening on the streets is an event that will end,” Abu Faour added. Stressing that the PSP’s ministers “left the session but not the government,” the minister said “some of the decisions taken might be beneficial,” in reference to a sweeping reforms paper presented by Prime Minister Saad Hariri and endorsed by cabinet in Monday’s session. But Abu Faour noted that the adopted paper is “not sufficient” to appease the angry protest movement. The minister also slammed the Free Patriotic Movement’s ministers for “rejecting the appointment of a regulatory commission for oil and a board of directors for Electricite du Liban.”
“Some are still living the mentality of oppression and monopolization of the government’s decisions and the FPM has vetoed some candidates for EDL’s board of directors,” he lamented.
Zarif Urges Lebanon Govt. to ‘Pay Attention to People’s Demands’
Associated Press/Naharnet/October 21/2019
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday expressed hope that Lebanon’s government and political parties will pay “attention to people’s demands,” Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported. It was the first remarks by an Iranian official about the protests in Lebanon. Iran enjoys wide influence in Lebanon through its ally Hizbullah, which is militarily and financially backed by Tehran. Hizbullah and its allies have a majority of seats in Lebanon’s parliament and Cabinet. On Saturday, Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah told protesters their “message was heard loudly.” But he warned against demanding the resignation of the government — saying it could take a long time to form a new one and solve the crisis. The current unity government has the backing of most Lebanese political parties, including Hizbullah. Lebanon’s teetering government approved an economic rescue plan Monday but the last-ditch move was met with deep distrust from a swelling protest movement seeking the removal of the entire political class. A proposed tax on mobile messaging applications last week sparked a spontaneous, cross-sectarian mobilization that has brought Lebanon to a standstill and united the people against its hereditary, ruling elite. Prime Minister Saad Hariri seemed aware that the measures he announced — which include a deal on the 2020 budget and significant reforms that seemed unlikely only a week ago — would not quench the people’s thirst for change. “These decisions are not designed as a trade-off. They are not to ask you to stop expressing your anger. That is your decision to make,” Hariri said in a televised press conference.
All of Them Means All of Them’: Lebanon Protest Slogans
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/October 21/2019
From the popular refrain of the 2011 Arab uprisings to ingenious street slogans denouncing a “corrupt” ruling elite, the chants of Lebanon’s protests have been a mix of defiance and humor. Since mass demonstrations started on Thursday, the chortles of hundreds of thousands have rung out across the country, until the late hours of the night. “The people demand the fall of the regime” — a popular chant from the 2011 Arab uprisings — reigned supreme. Another slogan — “revolution, revolution” — has also become a favorite among the hundreds of thousands mobilizing against the government, usually accompanied by raised fists. The ones tailored to specific members of Lebanon’s ruling class left no politician unscathed. In a country where partisan sentiments run high, and divisions run deep along party lines, tens of thousands have chanted “All of them means all of them” to reject an entire political class without exception.
A reiteration of this slogan has also been used to convey that the leader of powerful and armed movement Hizbullah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, is not excluded from the lot.”All of them means all of them, Nasrallah is one of them,” they chanted, in a rare criticism of the revered leader, who responded on Saturday by saying: “Curse me, I don’t mind.”
– ‘Not our father’ –
In a jab to President Michel Aoun, whose supporters have portrayed him as a paternal figurehead, protesters chanted: “Leave, leave, leave, you’re not everyone’s father.” Speaker of parliament Nabih Berri, who has accumulated vast wealth since he assumed his post 27 years ago, was repeatedly called a “thief” by protesters, even in the southern city of Tyre, a stronghold of his AMAL Movement. Some even mocked his long tenure, with one sign reading: “Who came before Nabih Berri? Adam and Eve.” But Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil appeared to be the favorite target of protesters, even in areas where his Free Patriotic Movement party is popular. Most chants against Bassil included insults and slurs, many of which were turned into songs and shared widely on social media networks. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose pictures were burned down in several parts of Beirut and the north, was repeatedly urged to “leave” by protesters. One sign raised in a Beirut protest touched on reports published last month that the premier had paid $16 million to a South African model. “We have not forgotten about you, we will come for the 16 million,” read one sign bearing a picture of the blonde woman in a bikini.
– ‘Happiest depressed people’-
Some of the chants were familiar to those who had participated in anti-overnment protests in 2015, sparked at the time by a garbage crisis.”Our government is a government of thugs” and “down with the rule of the thieves” drove home one of the protesters’ main grievances — the perceived corruption of the country’s leaders. Mocking Lebanon’s political dynasties and handing-down of power from father to son, one protester held up a sign that read: “Electile dysfunction.” Others criticized the heavy-handed response of security forces on the first two days of protests, with one banner reading in English: “Don’t throw tear gas we can cry by ourselves.” Many of the signs and slogans espoused cross-sectarian solidarity, in a country riddled with sectarian divisions since the end of the civil war. “Christians and Muslims for a civil state,” was a popular chant. One banner held up in central Beirut succinctly captured the conflicting emotions of joy and desperation echoed by protests in the country. “The happiest depressed people you’ll ever meet,” it read.
Day after Protests, Lebanese Don Gloves and Clean Up
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/October 21/2019
Medical student Lynn Abi Khalil, 17, says she could not take part in Lebanon’s massive spontaneous protests against the government so instead she picked up gloves and a trash bag. “I haven’t been participating in the demonstrations because my family doesn’t want me to,” she says, as she collects rubbish in the centre of the capital. “So I’m taking part in a different way,” she says, wearing a white medical mask. On Sunday night, hundreds of thousands gathered across the country chanting against what they view as a corrupt and arrogant ruling class unable to lift the country out of its daily economic woes.
In the capital’s main square, on Monday morning, the ground is strewn with plastic water bottles, smouldering trash, and the odd red-and-white Lebanese flag. “Leave now,” reads a trampled flyer bearing a picture of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Abi Khalil is one of hundreds of men, women and children who have flocked to the edge of the capital’s Martyrs’ Square in the early hours to do their part. On the pavement at the foot of a large mosque, volunteers crouch behind an orderly line of supplies, handing them out to those who have turned up.In a country infamous for major trash spillovers and sub-standard recycling, there are blue bags for plastic, green for glass and metal, and black for general waste.
– ‘Lot of pain’ –
Wearing a dark grey T-shirt and backpack, Peter Mouracade has been coming to Martyrs’ Square since Saturday morning. “I went to my kitchen, looked at was inside the cupboard –- plastic bags, gloves — and I just went down to the streets,” says the 39-year-old. But the volunteer movement has since ballooned as the streets fill day after day with Lebanese from all religious sects and walks of life venting their discontent — and then also cleaning up. “From three or five people, we ended up being 50. From 50, we became 500. Today we have thousands of people who are coming,” he says. Mouracade, who is the CEO of the Beirut Marathon, says he and other volunteers mostly find a lot of plastic bottles. When he first started out on Saturday, it followed a night of several people overturning trash dumpsters and setting them alight, or even breaking shop windows. “There are a lot of people who are feeling a lot of anger and a lot of pain, that’s why there’s so much destruction,” he adds. “We need to respect the voice of the people, and our duty is to clean” afterwards. Lebanon’s economy has been on the brink of collapse for some time and the latest protests grew after proposed tax hikes on phone calls on free applications — a proposal since scrapped. But the demonstrations have morphed into a huge popular outcry against what is viewed as a broken system. The last such huge movement against the political class was in 2015 under the slogan “You Stink”, after the capital’s main trash dump brimmed full and refuse flooded the streets.
– ‘Throw them out’ –
On the square, female volunteers scoop up piles of used half lemons — some with rind curling off them — and burnt trash. Suheil Hamdan, 49, films them with his mobile phone, seemingly making a video to share on social media. “This is where corrupt lawmakers and ministers in our country belong — in the bin bags,” he says, a cap on his head to keep off the sun. “I won’t leave the street until all our corrupt lawmakers and ministers are in prison,” he says. Near an iconic cinema abandoned since the 1975-1990 civil war, even a few foreigners have turned up. A group of Asian workers who usually clean the capital’s streets smile as they lean on their brooms, dressed in faded grey overalls, but refuse to speak to AFP. White earphones stuffed in his ears, their supervisor is standing nearby. A Swiss woman watches as her six-year-old son drops scraps into a large trash bag, his hands protected by oversized pink washing-up gloves. But first and foremost, cleaning up is about being Lebanese. Sami Deeb, a 34-year-old, has taken the day off from running his struggling food distribution business. “We have been on the ground for four days fighting for our rights,” he says, dressed in an immaculately pressed pink shirt.
For days, he has been taking part in the protests, which late Sunday evolved into euphoric celebrations complete with humoristic songs, DJs, and traditional dabke dancing. “We clean in the morning, and we party at night,” he says.
Lebanon Government in 11-Hour Reform Drive as Protests Swell
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/October 21/2019
Lebanon’s teetering government was expected Monday to approve a belated economic rescue plan as the nation prepared for a fifth day of mass protests against the ruling elite. A proposed tax on mobile messaging applications last week sparked a spontaneous, cross-sectarian mobilisation that has brought Lebanon to a standstill and put the entire political class in the dock. Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in central Beirut and other cities Sunday to demand better living conditions and the ouster of a cast of politicians who have monopolised power and influence for decades. Euphoric crowds partied deep into the night, leaving all political and sectarian paraphernalia at home to gather under the national cedar flag, dancing to impromptu concerts and chanting often hilarious anti-establishment slogans. Lebanon’s economy has been on the brink of collapse for some time and the initial grievances of the protesters were over proposed tax hikes. But the demonstrations have evolved into a massive push to unseat ruling dynasties widely seen as corrupt beyond redemption, and Hariri’s 11th-hour rescue plan was met with disdain on the street. The cabinet was due to meet on Monday morning and expected to approve a raft of measures, including the scrapping of new taxes and a sweeping privatisation programme, among others.”This was not a paper suggested to get people off the street,” a senior cabinet official insisted.
– ‘Day of destiny’ –
Protesters gathered in front of the government houses said the move smacked of a desperate attempt by the political class to save their jobs. “It is a day of destiny for us. All our hard work and efforts in previous days and years were to get us to this moment,” Roni al-Asaad, a 32-year-old activist in central Beirut, said.”If they could have implemented these reforms before, why haven’t they? And why should we believe them today?” What was initially dubbed the “WhatsApp revolution” morphed into a mass non-partisan push for a total overhaul of a sectarian power system still run mostly by civil war-era warlords, three decades after the end of the country’s conflict. Demonstrators, old and young, spoke of their joy of experiencing a rare feeling of national unity as they converged towards protest sites at the weekend. Given the size of the gatherings, the five-day-old mobilisation has been remarkably incident free, with armies of volunteers forming to clean up the streets, provide water to protesters and organise first aid tents. Lebanon’s debt-burdened economy has been sliding towards collapse in recent months, adding to the economic woes of a population exasperated by rampant corruption, the lack of job opportunities and poor services. Forest fires also devastated parts of the country last week, with politicians accused of inaction as the country burned. Among the protesters’ main grievances is the poor supply of electricity from the state, which citizens have to complement with costly generators. Usually prone to blame anti-government mobilisation on another party or a foreign conspiracy, Lebanon’s top political figures have appeared to acknowledge that none of them were spared by public anger.Hizbullah, which dominates political life, agreed to Hariri’s reform package, a senior cabinet official said.
– ‘Volcano’ –
The embattled premier went live on television Friday, on the second of protests, to give his uneasy coalition partners 72 hours to back his rescue plan. “What happened in the street is a volcano that can’t be contained with timely solutions,” Imad Salamey, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University, said. “It is difficult for the demonstrators to regain trust in the state in 72 hours and with solutions only presented on paper,” he said. The deadline expires at 7:00 pm Monday (1600 GMT) and Hariri’s wording suggested he could resign if his move failed. Lebanon’s embattled political leaders have warned that the government’s resignation at this time would only deepen the country’s crisis.Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is close to Hizbullah, published a picture of protesters carrying a giant flag on its front page with a commentary on “Test Day: Power or People?”. The French-language newspaper L’Orient Le Jour said “The hour of truth has arrived.”Several hundred thousand people demonstrated in central Beirut alone on Sunday, with massive gatherings spreading across all regions of the small Mediterranean country. Schools, banks, universities and many private businesses closed their doors Monday, both for security reasons and in an apparent bid to encourage people to join the demonstrations.
Report: Lebanon Main Parties Agree to PM Reform Package
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/October 21/2019
Lebanon’s main parties have agreed to a reform package proposed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who had given his coalition partners until Monday to back it, a senior official said. The country’s top leaders replied on Sunday to Hariri’s ultimatum, agreeing to scrap new taxes and privatise major companies, among other measures, a cabinet official told AFP on condition of anonymity. On Friday, the second day of the country’s biggest wave of anti-government protests in years, Hariri addressed the nation and gave his cabinet partners 72 hours to support his plan. “He sent it to all factions and received their agreement, especially from the Free Patriotic Movement and Hizbullah, and tomorrow he will go to the cabinet to approve it,” the official said. The Free Patriotic Movement is the party of President Michel Aoun and his influential son-in-law Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. It is allied with Hizbullah, the movement led by Hassan Nasrallah, and together the two blocs and their allies control the government and parliament. The cabinet official told AFP the plan was not intended to impose further taxes, but would include privatisation in some sectors. Some of Hariri’s traditional allies have however expressed reservations over the plan. Aoun is due to chair a meeting of the Council of Ministers on Monday morning to discuss the plan. Hariri’s ultimatum Friday was largely perceived by protestors as a desperate attempt by the political elite to save their seats. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Beirut and across the entire country Sunday on the biggest day of protests so far, demanding basic services, an end to corruption and an overhaul of the political class. News that Lebanon’s embattled cabinet was about to approve the economic rescue package left many demonstrators unimpressed on Sunday night. “They have been lying for more than 20 years. We are fed up and we want all the politicians to go,” said protestor Rana Medawar. Top political leaders have reacted to the mass street mobilisation by warning that the government’s collapse could lead to further chaos.Lebanon is on the brink of economic collapse and the government had been weighing a raft of new taxes to shore up finances and secure $11 billion in aid pledged by international donors last year.
Cabinet Holds Crucial Meeting as Mass Revolt Braces for Day 5
Agence France Presse/Naharnet/October 21/2019
The Cabinet held a crucial meeting at Baabda Presidential Palace to discuss a “reform plan” proposed by PM Saad Hariri, amid nationwide protests condemning official corruption and demanding the government resign.Media reports said that Hariri is set to address the nation after the meeting.
The National News Agency said the entire roads leading to the Presidential Palace were blocked by security forces amid tight security measures. Civil Defense teams were also called in the area in case of emergency, it added. Lebanese protesters were expected to return to the streets for a fifth day Monday, with Hariri holding a cabinet meeting to try to calm the unprecedented demonstrations. Early Monday morning protesters began to block main roads and prevent employees going to work, while calls on social media urged people to boycott work. Banks, universities and schools closed their doors Monday, with Hariri expected to offer reforms in a bid to stem the anger. At the nerve centre of the demonstrations near the country’s houses of government in central Beirut, volunteers were once again collecting rubbish from the streets, many wearing face masks and plastic gloves.The protests have grown steadily since public anger first spilled onto the streets Thursday evening in response to a proposed tax on calls via WhatsApp and other messaging services. While the government quickly dropped that plan, the leaderless protests morphed into demands for a sweeping overhaul of the political system, with grievances ranging from austerity measures to poor infrastructure. Hariri had given his coalition partners three days to support reforms he said were crucial to get the economy back on track. On Sunday evening a cabinet official said that the parties had agreed. The cabinet will hold a meeting chaired by President Michel Aoun at 10:30 am (0730 GMT) to discuss the reforms.Demonstrators said Hariri’s proposals would not be enough, with demands for the entire political class to resign. More than a quarter of Lebanon’s population lives below the poverty line, the World Bank says, while the political class has remained relatively unchanged since the end of a devastating 15-year civil war in 1990. Lebanon ranked 138 out of 180 in Transparency International’s 2018 corruption index, and residents suffer chronic electricity and water shortages.
Geagea Says PM Must Resign to Form ‘Shock’ Government
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea on Monday said that Prime Minister Saad Hariri must resign and that a “shock” government of “independent” figures must be formed instead. “This time, it is going to be very difficult to contain the popular anger through frail policies, the PM must submit his resignation and let a shock government of independent figures be formed,” Geagea said in an interview with French-language daily L’Orient-Le Jour. “A government of independent figures seems to be the sole solution for the current crisis,” he added.
“A government of specialists, does not mean a government of technocrats. Independent people must be chosen on the basis of competence and a single criterion, provided that they have the ability to run the country in the framework of a homogeneous team, especially that governments of national unity have failed over the years,” noted Geagea. To a question on who would replace Hariri, he said: “I am speaking of an alternative. PM Hariri himself can head the government of independents I am talking about.”The four LF ministers resigned from the government on Sunday.
Jumblat Hails ‘Peaceful Popular Protests’
Progressive Socialist Party leader ex-MP Walid Jumblat hailed the “peaceful” protests against the “ruling elite” that have unified Lebanese regions.
“This peaceful mass movement has united the Lebanese regions, broke the theory of alliances of minorities, and surpassed the factional barriers .. solutions can not be achieved through nominal reform,” said Jumblat in a tweet. On Sunday, the PSP announced that its continued participation in PM Saad Hariri’s incumbent government is “conditional,” hours after the Lebanese Forces declared the resignation of its four ministers. Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in central Beirut and other cities Sunday to demand better living conditions and the ouster of a cast of politicians who have monopolised power and influence for decades.
Lebanon’s Protests: Cleaning in the Morning and Partying at Night
Asharq Al-Awsat/Monday, 21 October, 2019
Medical student Lynn Abi Khalil, 17, says she could not take part in Lebanon’s massive spontaneous protests against the government so instead she picked up gloves and a trash bag. “I haven’t been participating in the demonstrations because my family doesn’t want me to,” she says, as she collects rubbish in the center of the capital. “So I’m taking part in a different way,” she tells Agence France Presse, wearing a white medical mask.On Sunday night, hundreds of thousands gathered across the country chanting against what they view as a corrupt and arrogant ruling class unable to lift the country out of its daily economic woes. In the capital’s main square, on Monday morning, the ground is strewn with plastic water bottles, smoldering trash, and the odd red-and-white Lebanese flag. “Leave now,” reads a trampled flyer bearing a picture of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Abi Khalil is one of hundreds of men, women and children who have flocked to the edge of the capital’s Martyrs’ Square in the early hours to do their part. On the pavement at the foot of a large mosque, volunteers crouch behind an orderly line of supplies, handing them out to those who have turned up.
In a country infamous for major trash spillovers and sub-standard recycling, there are blue bags for plastic, green for glass and metal, and black for general waste.
Wearing a dark grey T-shirt and backpack, Peter Mouracade has been coming to Martyrs’ Square since Saturday morning. “I went to my kitchen, looked at was inside the cupboard –- plastic bags, gloves — and I just went down to the streets,” says the 39-year-old. But the volunteer movement has since ballooned as the streets fill day after day with Lebanese from all religious sects and walks of life venting their discontent — and then also cleaning up. “From three or five people, we ended up being 50. From 50, we became 500. Today we have thousands of people who are coming,” he says.
Mouracade, who is the CEO of the Beirut Marathon, says he and other volunteers mostly find a lot of plastic bottles. When he first started out on Saturday, it followed a night of several people overturning trash dumpsters and setting them alight, or even breaking shop windows.
“There are a lot of people who are feeling a lot of anger and a lot of pain, that’s why there’s so much destruction,” he adds.
“We need to respect the voice of the people, and our duty is to clean” afterwards. On the square, female volunteers scoop up piles of used half lemons — some with rind curling off them — and burnt trash. Suheil Hamdan, 49, films them with his mobile phone, seemingly making a video to share on social media.
“This is where corrupt lawmakers and ministers in our country belong — in the bin bags,” he says, a cap on his head to keep off the sun. Sami Deeb, a 34-year-old, has taken the day off from running his struggling food distribution business.
“We have been on the ground for four days fighting for our rights,” he says, dressed in an immaculately pressed pink shirt. For days, he has been taking part in the protests, which late Sunday evolved into euphoric celebrations complete with humoristic songs, DJs, and traditional dabke dancing.
“We clean in the morning, and we party at night,” he says.
Lebanese government approves reform plans, 2020 budget: PM
Reuters, Beirut/Monday, 21 October 2019
Lebanon’s government on Monday agreed a package of long-stalled reforms to try to ease an economic crisis and defuse the biggest protests against the ruling elite in decades. The cabinet also approved a 2020 state budget that does not impose any new taxes on individuals and aims for a deficit of 0.6% of GDP, down from a previous target of around 7%.Commercial banks and the central bank are set to contribute to the deficit cut with 5.1 trillion Lebanese pounds ($3.4 billion), including through a tax hike on bank profits.Under pressure, Hariri and top officials drew up the package at the weekend, as hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets to demand his government resigns.The main plans the government agreed on are:
1- A reduction of 1 trillion Lebanese pounds ($663 million) in the deficit in the power sector, which bleeds state funds while failing to meet the country’s needs. Hariri said on Friday that covering the deficit of the state-owned electricity company costs the treasury $2 billion a year.
2- Speeding up the process of awarding contracts for the construction of new power plants to complete it within four months.
3- Plans to approve, within three weeks, the first phase of a capital investment program that donors have pledged to finance with $11 billion, on condition of reforms.
4- A 50% cut in the salaries of current and former presidents, ministers, and lawmakers.
5- Appointing regulatory bodies for the power sector, telecommunications, and civil aviation “as soon as possible.”
6- Scrapping the information ministry immediately and a number of obsolete government bodies.
7- Setting up scanners at border crossings to combat smuggling and toughening punishments for smugglers.
8- Providing an additional 20 billion Lebanese pounds ($13.3 million) to a program that supports poor families.
9- Providing $160 million to back housing loans.
10- Approving social security benefits for seniors by the end of the year. It was not clear how much this would cost.
11- Passing a law to create a national body to fight corruption by the end of the year.
12- Drafting a law that seeks to restore stolen public funds.
13- A 70% cut in the budgets of the state-run Council for Development and Reconstruction, the Central Fund for the Displaced, and the Council for South Lebanon.
14- Launching investment projects for the northern and southern entrances of the capital Beirut.
15- Approving a general amnesty law by the end of the year.
Lebanon must fight corruption to restore investor, public confidence: IMF
Reem Abdellatif, Al Arabiya English/Monday, 21 October 2019
Lebanon needs economic reforms that can fight corruption and restore confidence in its beleaguered economy, the director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Middle East and Central Asia Jihad Azour told Al Arabiya in an exclusive interview.“What is needed now in Lebanon is the return of financial stability through reducing the fiscal deficit, and there are a number of procedures that secure this,” said Azour, adding that the procedures were not just limited to increasing revenues.“There are a number of procedures that can be undertaken to reduce this system of spending, such as reviewing the role of some institutions that have become a burden on the economy,” Azour said.
The country also needs to implement a series of reforms to “fix flaws” in its economic infrastructure, he added. On Monday, Lebanon entered its fifth day of protests. Thousands of demonstrators in the capital city of Beirut and across the country are calling for the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his government, as well as an end to corruption.Before the protests escalated to calls for a regime change, the government was considering raising value-added tax (VAT) as part of its 2020 austerity budget, in an attempt to bring Lebanon’s budget deficit to 7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020. The budget deficit had reached 11 percent of GDP in 2018, up from 8.6 percent in 2017.
Lebanon has long suffered from large fiscal deficits that have pushed its public debt to one of the highest in the world at over 150 percent of GDP. The current account deficit is over 25 percent of GDP, according to the IMF. Azour pointed to the electricity sector as one example where reform is needed to reduce expenditures, adding that electricity costs have become a “tough burden” on the country. “Solving the electricity problem in Lebanon would not only help the state budget, but also the economy, and the citizen who is paying multiple electricity bills,” he said. The 12-month inflation rate in Lebanon averaged 3 percent in the first six months of 2019, compared to 6.2 percent over the first 6 months in 2018, according to research by Lebanon-based Bank Audi.
Lebanon’s economic growth slowed to about 0.3 percent in 2018 on the back of low confidence, high uncertainty, and a significant contraction in the real estate sector, according to the IMF, which expects Lebanon to see a continuation of weak growth in 2019. “Securing sources from the state budget for social development programs [is necessary], particularly since the poverty level is rising and the deteriorating economy is becoming a burden on citizens that are most vulnerable,” said Azour.Escalating anger. The Lebanese government on Monday agreed reforms that include speeding up licensing for power plants, as well as cutting salaries by 50 percent for all ministers, Hariri said in a press conference. But, protesters have rejected his reforms, calling them “unrealistic”, according to a statement seen by Al Arabiya.
What began as public discontent over a flagging economy has quickly escalated into a political deadlock as a nationwide general strike crippled businesses across the country.
Banks said on Monday they would remain closed and the main labor union also announced a general strike, threatening further paralysis. Schools and universities will also shut down. The Lebanese cabinet headed by President Michel Aoun met on Monday at the Baabda palace to discuss the crisis, which is considered the biggest show of dissent against the ruling elite in decades. “What is happening in the street reflects the pain of the people, but accusing everyone of corruption is very unfair,” the official Twitter account of the Lebanese Presidency shared on Monday, citing Aoun.
“We must begin by lifting banking secrecy from current and future ministers,” Aoun added in the Twitter post. Lebanon’s banking sector is still governed by a 1956 law that functions under a high level of confidentiality and has come under criticism for enabling money-laundering, illicit financing, and tax evasion.
Hariri, who is leading a coalition government mired by sectarian divide and political rivalries, gave his government a 72-hour deadline on Friday to agree on reforms in an effort to ease the crisis. However, his appeasement and proposed reforms have fallen on deaf ears, as thousands of protesters continue to take to the streets across the country. Hariri had also accused his rivals of obstructing his reform measures, which aim to unlock $11 billion in Western donor pledges and help avert economic collapse.
The protests first broke out across the country on October 7 in objection to the announcement of new fees for WhatsApp and other messaging apps. The WhatsApp fee, which would have increased monthly bills by up to $6, was quickly reversed as protests spread across the country.
-Lara Habib, Al Arabiya, contributed to this article.
Lebanon faces political deadlock with economy on brink
Lauren Holtmeier, Special to Al Arabiya English/Sunday, 20 October 2019
What began as an economic crisis in Lebanon has quickly escalated into a political stalemate as protests entered their fourth day on Sunday, with thousands of people calling for the country’s government – led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri – to immediately resign.
Lebanon’s crumbling economy has pushed many of its citizens to the point of desperation. However, the “ruling elite” are yet to be affected, protesters told Al Arabiya English. Banks said they would remain closed on Monday and the main labour union announced a general strike, threatening further paralysis. Schools and universities will also remain closed. his time around, the protests in Lebanon are unprecedented in the sense that they are largely apolitical, with all factions of society represented among the crowds. On Friday, Shia, Sunni, Druze, and Christian religious leaders processed through the street hand in hand. Lebanon has a confessional political system, with MPs elected and government positions allocated based on religious sect. Currently, the Lebanese government is headed by Christian President Michel Aoun and Sunni Prime Minister Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement political party, who took office in 2016. Since widespread protests broke out on October 17 in the capital Beirut, as well as across the country in objection to a regressive tax that was introduced on WhatsApp, the political crisis has showed no signs of easing. The WhatsApp tax, which would have increased monthly bills by up to $6, was shortly reversed as crowd sizes swelled across the country.
But, while thousands of grassroots protesters are still in the streets, they are largely unorganized, united mainly in their calls for the government to resign. “We don’t care about WhatsApp,” 35 year-old Stephanie told Al Arabiya English on Sunday, while declining to disclose her last name. She, like thousands of other protesters in Beirut, is hoping for the resignation of the current government, and for a new “apolitical and non-sectarian” cabinet to be formed. As she walked in downtown Beirut to protest with members of her extended family, Stephanie talked of the financial burdens facing her spouse and children.
“My husband makes $1,200 a month, and we have three small children. We live on only $500 a month,” Stephanie said, while holding her daughter’s hand. She says she is a stay at home mom, because if she worked, she would have to pay $300 a month for child care. Her oldest daughter is in elementary school, and its annual fees are costing the family $5,000.
Economy on the brink
The 12-month inflation rate in Lebanon averaged 3 percent in the first six months of 2019, compared to 6.2 percent over the first 6 months in 2018, according to research by Lebanon-based Bank Audi. On October 18, Prime Minister Hariri gave the ruling class 72 hours to demonstrate commitment to tangible reforms to appease protestors.“The Lebanese people have given us many chances and expected reform and job opportunities,” Hariri said on Friday, but his seemingly sympathetic tone fell on deaf ears, as the protesters’ calls for the government to resign intensified.
A leaked document seen by Al Arabiya on Sunday showed some of Hariri’s presumed offerings, which include cutting the salaries of current and former ministers by 50 percent, enforcing a 25 percent tax on banks and insurance companies, and setting a salary cap for judges and government officials.
Meanwhile, Al Arabiya English on Sunday spoke with Sami Zoughaib, a researcher at the Beirut-based Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) shortly before the document was leaked.
When asked what would appease protesters at this stage, he said a resignation from the current government would lead to people leaving the streets.
Deposits from abroad, remittances, and other investments have slowed in the last year, and the last two months have witnessed a dollar crunch that has increasingly crippled the Lebanese economy. While Banque du Liban (BDL), Lebanon’s central bank, took steps to ensure the country could import fuel, wheat, and medicine at the official pegged rate, other goods were left to be determined by the market rate.Unemployment in the country is also adding pressure, as many families struggle to make ends meet. Lebanon’s youth unemployment, defined by the Lebanese ministry of labor statistics as those under 25, is 37 percent. The overall unemployment rate remains high at about 25 percent. However, there is a discrepancy with the World Bank putting the 2018 youth unemployment rate for those aged 15-24 at 17.4 percent. Al Arabiya English spoke to two students present at the Sunday protests who graduated in 2018, Ahmed with a law degree, and Kemal with an engineering degree. Neither has found work since earning their degrees. When asked if they thought they would be able to find jobs, Ahmed said: “If the government is changed, we will be able to.”
The accumulation of various economic factors – including allegations of corruption and misuse of public funds – have driven people to the streets.
According to an analysis by LCPS, “Firms running hotels and waterfront resorts are, respectively, 61 percent and 55 percent connected to political elites.” This is just one indication of the wealth held among the ruling class. The current government, since its formation in January 2019, has failed to make a series of necessary reforms needed to attract $11 billion in funds promised during the 2018 CEDRE investment conference in Paris. “Since we had CEDRE, there have been 11 months of political deadlock,” said Zoughaib from LCPS. “And we only saw two episodes of reform that were poorly structured. One being the electricity plan that wasn’t fully enacted and the budget, but it lacks any structure or vision,” he added. An updated policy paper introduced by the Lebanese government in April 2019 set out to reform the country’s electricity sector – which costs the state between $1.5 to $2 billion a year – so far has made little progress and has seen delays. The 2019 budget, passed in July, 8 months behind schedule, also introduced a set of austerity measures such as new taxes on the interest earned on deposits and government-issued treasury bills and bonds, as well as increased tariffs on some imported products.
Lebanon is one of the most indebted countries in the world with the debt to GDP ratio currently at 150 percent. New analysis from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released in October 2019 expects the debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio to reach 155 percent by the end of 2019.
In 2018, the country’s economic growth slowed to around 0.3 percent on high uncertainty, low confidence, and tight monetary policy. The IMF added that most economic indicators point toward persistently weak growth in 2019.
What comes next for Lebanon is still unknown. On Saturday, the Christian Lebanese Forces announced their withdrawal from the government, succumbing to mounting public pressure calling for the cabinet’s dissolution. With protestors still in the streets across the country, Zoughaib said it is too early to tell what the future of the economy holds. There are too many variables – namely what Hariri’s basket of reforms will offer come Monday, and if the current government survives – to tell what the future holds. “They’re putting all the taxes on us and they’re not doing anything for us,” Stephanie, the mother of three said about the Hariri-led government. “We’ve had enough.”
Lebanon’s Year of Fire
Firas Maksad/Foreign Policy/October 21/2019
From self-immolations to forest blazes, the country’s conflagrations are igniting pan-sectarian protests.
For the people of Lebanon, struggling under the weight of an ever-growing economic crisis, endemic corruption, and rising social economic crises, it has been a year full of fire. In February, George Zreik, a struggling father who could no longer afford his young daughter’s tuition, torched himself in her school’s playground. His desperate act of self-immolation shook the country to its core. A photo of Zreik embracing his now-orphaned daughter blanketed social media platforms, but Lebanon’s fragile status quo held, if only just.
This week, after unprecedented wildfires ravaged much of the country, popular discontent finally exploded. Paralyzed by corruption, officials watched helplessly as volunteer firefighters battled the flames with rudimentary and aging equipment. Even as Lebanon’s once lush mountains were still smoldering, an out-of-touch government announced a fresh round of taxes, including on WhatsApp, the popular messaging service. The Lebanese had finally had enough.
The ongoing protests, which so far have brought millions of people into the street and led to the resignation of four ministers, are unprecedented in their nature and scale. Unlike previous waves of popular unrest—including the Cedar Revolution of 2005 and the “You Stink” movement of 2015—the current uprising cuts across all the sectarian and class divisions that historically have made mass mobilization difficult. Lebanese of all backgrounds, including Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Druze; poor and affluent; urban and rural; are in the streets.
To avoid traditional social cleavages that could undermine the movement, each separate group is focused on bringing down the established political order in its own community. The Sunnis of northern Lebanon tore down portraits of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Christians put posters of President Michel Aoun to the flame. Shiites ransacked offices affiliated with Hezbollah and with parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement.
Although spontaneous and still unorganized, the protesters have a few core demands, namely the resignation of at least the current cabinet if not the entire government; its replacement by a government of technocrats to see the country through political, economic, and administrative reforms; and the lifting of taxes levied on poorer segments of society.
Yet despite the extraordinary public pressure being brought to bear, with the country at a virtual standstill, the entrenched political establishment in Beirut is refusing to give way.
Over the weekend, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Iran-backed Hezbollah and the most powerful political figure in the country, took to the airwaves and firmly outlined his organization’s red lines against the protesters’ demands. He emphasized that the presidency of his Christian ally Aoun is to continue unobstructed and the current government is not to be toppled. If other political parties tried to take advantage of the unrest, Nasrallah threatened, his militant group would move into the streets and display the full extent of its power.
Heeding Nasrallah’s words of warning, Druze leader Walid Joumblatt, who had called on Hariri to resign along with his own ministers, reversed course and decided to back the existing government. Likewise, Hariri decided to buy time, announcing an ambitious set of economic reforms and hoping that the nationwide protests would gradually recede.
Whether Hezbollah’s intimidation, coupled with Hariri’s overtures, will prove enough to contain popular anger remains unknown.Whether Hezbollah’s intimidation, coupled with Hariri’s overtures, will prove enough to contain popular anger remains unknown. The fear that once kept many Lebanese from openly and directly challenging Hezbollah is giving way. After Nasrallah’s speech, thousands of people thundered back at him from downtown Beirut, “All of them means all of them, and Nasrallah is one of them,” a reference to the political elite they accuse of ruining the country.
More importantly, protesters within Nasrallah’s own Shiite community are taking to the street despite their ongoing suppression by the militia members allied to him. In the southern city of Tyre, a traditional bastion of support for Hezbollah and the associated Amal Movement, people chanted, “How can we fight for you in Syria and Yemen if we are left hungry in Lebanon?”
Hezbollah’s dilemma, and by extension that of its patron in Iran, is that it can no longer pretend that it isn’t Lebanon’s dominant party. It may hold only 10 percent of cabinet seats, but its real power runs deeper; ever since it secured the presidency and much of the cabinet for its allies in 2016, with traditional rivals Hariri and Joumblatt agreeing to be junior partners, much of the public now holds it ultimately accountable.
Hezbollah’s preferred method of wielding power behind a smokescreen of willing accomplices is losing its efficacy. In the days and months ahead, its problems will be compounded by a pressing need for more painful and deeply unpopular economic measures. The government’s failure to go through with them will almost guarantee an all-out economic and financial meltdown, which has already begun to manifest through a nascent currency crisis.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to underestimate Hezbollah and the governing coalition’s ability to hold on to power. What Lebanon is witnessing today is a revolt, not a revolution. The protesters, impressive and numerous as they may be, are unlikely to succeed in overturning the long-established political order. Instead, they are more likely to get some form of sectarian upgrading. Those in power, feeling the pressure, will attempt to deliver on much-delayed reforms that are prerequisites to unlocking some $11 billion in foreign aid from international lenders.
In the meantime, there is only so much the United States and other foreign stakeholders can do to positively influence events in Beirut. There are some opportunities, nonetheless, that fit in nicely with Washington’s interests on pushing back against Iran while encouraging greater transparency and the rule of law.
Washington should ally itself with the Lebanese people by vocally pushing for reform. With the exception of funds earmarked for aiding Syrian refugees in Lebanon, financial aid absent such reforms would only serve to bail out a deeply corrupt political establishment that is under the sway of Hezbollah and Iran. At the same time, preexisting aid provided to Lebanon’s security agencies should continue but under strict provisions. The United States must be willing to scale back and ultimately suspend such aid if the army chooses to stand by as Hezbollah and its allies employ violence to muzzle protesters.
To be sure, there are no quick fixes in Lebanon. The country’s sectarian and clientelist political order is rotten to its core, and Hezbollah’s backers in Iran are dominating much of the Levant, from Baghdad to Beirut. Yet there’s a possibility for significant political overhaul in 2022, when Lebanon will be due for parliamentary, municipal, and presidential elections. The millions of Lebanese protesting in the streets will have an opportunity to translate their revolt into meaningful political change. Until then, Washington would do well to make sure that the rules of the game remain fair and that these constitutionally mandated votes take place in a timely fashion.
Understandably, three years are an eternity to a mother who cannot feed her child or a father, like Zreik, who cannot send his to school. But there is some comfort in history. In ancient Greek mythology, Lebanon is associated with the phoenix, a legendary bird best known for its death in a tragic show of fire, only to be reborn again. Today’s Lebanon is burning, and its people should prepare to rise from the ashes.
*Firas Maksad is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs. He is also a Washington-based political consultant on the Middle East. Twitter: @FirasMaksad
Protesters unimpressed with Hariri rescue plan
Georgi Azar/Annahar/October 21/2019
The government’s move came as people took part in a fifth day of protests, amid calls for a general strike.
BEIRUT: Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s rescue plan was largely rebuffed by the thousands of Lebanese protesters, who labeled the proposal as too little, too late. ”
Do you really expect them to follow through on these reforms?” a protester told Annahar. “They’ve been in power for 30 years and nothing has changed.”Hariri announced Monday a series of sweeping reforms to appease growing anger against the current government, as the fifth day of protests gripped Lebanon’s different regions. He described the measures as a “financial coup,” saying no government in Lebanon’s history has taken such steps before. As his speech was aired live on all local TV stations, thousands of protesters who had gathered in central Beirut chanted: “The people want to bring down the regime.”
Despite the promises, the overwhelming majority of protesters vowed to remain on the streets until the current government resigns. They have called for the formation of a technocratic government consisted of a small number of experts tasked with lifting Lebanon out of its slump.
Hundreds of thousands participated in marches Sunday in Beirut and other cities nationwide. The massive protests have turned into a widening revolt against the country’s sectarian status quo and the entire political elite. The outrage over the government’s mismanagement of a deepening economic crisis and proposed new taxes has unified Lebanon’s often fractious society.
The proposals involve scrapping any new taxes and halving the salaries of top officials. The Cabinet also agreed to install scanners at border crossings to combat smuggling and tighten penalties on smugglers. The Cabinet also approved a law to retrieve stolen public funds, he said, calling on cooperation with civil society lawyers on the matter. Another law to establish the national anti-corruption commission will also be passed before the end of this year. After a nearly five-hour emergency government meeting, Hariri also that the draft 2020 state budget was approved by the Cabinet with a 0.6 percent deficit to GDP ratio.
To help low-income households, Hariri announced $160 million in support of subsidized housing loans coupled with millions of dollars to help them go above the poverty line. “The decisions that we made today might not fulfill your goals but for sure it achieves what I have been seeking for two years,” Hariri said. “These decisions are not for exchange. I am not going to ask you to stop protesting and stop expressing your anger. This is a decision that you take.”
“Frankly speaking, your protest is what made us take these decisions that you witnessed today,” Hariri said. He added that “what you did has broken all barriers and shook all political parties.”He also announced the abolishment of the Ministry of Information and “other unnecessary institutions”, as well as a 70 percent reduction in the budget of the Council of Development and Reconstruction to decrease spending.
The first phase of CEDRE projects will also be launched to “increase employment within the next five years.” Other reforms including “freezing unnecessary investment spending and transferring surplus ministries’ funds to the treasury.”
Banks will also be asked to contribute in achieving the near-zero deficit in the 2020 budget with the imposition of an income tax. Contributions are estimated at $3.4 billion, he said, yet it remains to be seen whether banks will go along with the proposal or what the exact framework will be.
The state-owned Electricite Du Liban which costs the state around $2 billion annually will also be reformed, with Hariri saying that spending will be reduced by 666 million dollars. The banking sector was criticized by many of the protesters, who blamed it for charging the state high-interest rates as it carries much of the $85 billion public debt that stands at 150% of the gross domestic product. Some senior politicians are either owners or major shareholders in private banks and Hariri said taxes will be increased on financial institutions.A study will also be carried out to privatize mobile phone companies, he said, given that Lebanon’s two mobile service providers are state-owned with Lebanese paying the 4th highest price for services in the middle east. Hariri also expressed hope in the new measures appeasing international donors, paving the way for unlocking the highly-coveted CEDRE international aid package. Protesters unanimously have called for early parliamentary elections, with Hariri saying that he supported the demonstrators’ request. “If this is what you want, then you have my support,” he said. Since Friday, commercial banks have shut their doors as the majority of highways remain blocked. Concerns have grown over a possible bank run when operations are re-established. The budget was signed by President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil. It has been sent to Parliament for final ratification who has until the end of the year to ratify it.– With AP
The Tenure, The Government, The Party And Messages of Deception
Ghassan Charbel/Asharq Al-Awsat/October 21/2019
The Lebanese people surprised the corrupt political class, which went too far in policies of contempt and impoverishment. They gathered in the streets in all areas and from all sects. They uncovered the waning popularity of the government and the ruling authority and stabbed the prestige of parties that were tightening the grip over their areas of control.
It is a painful scene for Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri; when he used to call, the crowds responded. The same is true for President Michel Aoun. Both presidents know that the most painful messages are now coming from their own regions, their own streets.
It is a wave of anger that has been compounded by the sense that the government and the ruling authority are not taking serious measures to prevent an economic collapse that threatens their livelihood, opportunities for education and employment and pushes more Lebanese to the path of migration.
The Lebanese are no longer in a position to believe that the government and the presidency can fight corruption and tackle economic deterioration.
Recent years have weakened the credibility of the presidency and the government. The roar of the streets was vibrant and sent messages of frustration to the occupants of the Serail and Baabda Palace. This is without forgetting that the two men entered the headquarters based on electoral legitimacy and a privileged position for each of them within his community.
After the wave of anger sweeping Lebanon, Aoun’s reign faces a major turning point. The history of the general proves that he is not afraid of turning points, even if they necessitated overcoming the popular or constitutional mandate granted to him. At the present juncture, the general must read and hear.
I hope that the President will openly understand a fact revealed by the experience of the past three years, which constituted the first half of his term. The fact that some of the Palace officials have weakened the Palace and that some of the symbols of the tenure have weakened the tenure. I do not intentionally accuse them, but I blame their behavior on their lack of experience, vanity or adulation.
The general knows that Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt, and Samir Geagea accepted him as president after Hezbollah imposed an equation, “No president but Aoun,” and after stripping the presidency of its powers for a long time. Hariri disregarded your positions on his father, the tribunal, the assassinations and the overthrow of his government. He supported you. Jumblatt disregarded the battles of Souk el-Gharb and its cannons. He supported you. Geagea overlooked the “war of abolition” and its cannons. He supported you.
The Lebanese have the right to ask about the presidency’s interest in showing Hariri weakened before his community and confession? Where is the interest of the presidency in provoking Jumblatt’s public, reopening the wounds of the mountain and shaking reconciliation just because the “FPM” was not the party that concluded it? Where is the interest of the presidency in dealing with the presence of Geagea in the government as a malignant tumor that must be eradicated? I am not saying that those three are angels, and I know them as you do, but I ask about your interest and that of the Lebanese.
It is clear that the presidency stumbled in dealing with the forces that participated in the government, coming from the rubble of the March 14 rally.
It is also clear that Hariri made a mistake when he did not embark on his journey with the presidency from a firmer, clearer and more balanced base, especially as he was aware that the collapse was near. He could have managed relations better with his former allies to ensure some sort of balance.
A third party, which is supposed to read the scene of the squares of protesters, is Hezbollah. In recent years, the party has put heavy burdens on Lebanon that exceeded the country’s political and economic strength. The party’s opponents gave it a big, effective and influential role; but more than half of the Lebanese do not give it the right to monopolize the national decision and impose its method and approach on the lives of all Lebanese.
The party does not have the right to put the Lebanese in front of a single option as if its will is above all institutions.
It is necessary to listen to the people’s sufferings. To the pain that made them flow to the squares with their children to announce their disappointment with the country’s decision-makers. The government and the presidency should act quickly to convince people that the steps Hariri announced yesterday are not just temporary pills to calm the street.
The civil movement must prepare a program that includes clear and possible demands and an effective action plan that gives it the ability to exercise the right of permanent popular control over government behavior and governance in the coming stage.
The Lebanese gathered from all communities and regions to call for a decent living, education, employment, freedom, and dignity. They revealed a profound need for a state worthy to be named as such.
In a complex battle of this kind, patience, caution, and responsibility must be paralleled with courage.
Aoun has no choice but to draw lessons from this vast uprising from the far south to the far north. Hariri must also draw the necessary conclusions. Restoring people’s confidence requires surgeries, not cosmetic balms. The fear is that the street move will necessitate more than limited treatments.
The outrage of the Lebanese people is evident at home and abroad. The government and the ruling authority must drink the poison of giving up to the will of the people; any other bet will have its well-known repercussions.
We are in front of a new chapter in Lebanon. You cannot head towards the future with a fragile state.
Can Michel Aoun Be Defeated in Lebanon?
He is highly respected but is no longer a viable contender for Lebanon’s presidency. Even for Hezbollah
Joseph A. Kechichian/October 22/2019
The contrast between two recent demonstrations in Lebanon was striking. A few hundred Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) supporters gathered last week at Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut heeding a call from General Michel Aoun and to mobilise against the government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam. Then on Friday, Hezbollah organised a grand rally at Wadi Hujayr in South Lebanon, a valley made famous during the 2006 war when its militiamen destroyed numerous Israeli Merkava tanks at the very spot. Although the festive occasion marked the ninth anniversary of what Hezbollah calls “Divine Victory” against Israel, the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah barely touched on the “enemy”. Instead he focused on Aoun and how nothing or no one could defeat his erstwhile ally. Is that the case?
In his bombastic pronouncement, the Hezbollah chief renewed his call on the Future Movement to enter into a dialogue with Aoun allegedly to find solutions to the divisive issues threatening to cripple the government’s work, ranging the gamut from security appointments to the Cabinet’s decision-making system that apparently is no longer acceptable. “Today … I want to reaffirm that … we do not accept that any of our allies are excluded or broken, especially those who stood beside us in the July  war and tied their necks, their fates and their blood to ours,” Nasrallah said in a clear reference to the FPM. He added that his backing of Aoun was not a mere political ploy, but involved a “moral and humanitarian” dimension, as he demanded respect for the FPM. “You can’t break Aoun and you can’t isolate him,” Nasrallah warned Salam and his government, even if no such plans existed.
Then came the icing on the cake. “We are committed to this position,” hammered Nasrallah, as he emphasised that Aoun was a compulsory passage, arguing that state institutions could not possibly function if the FPM was excluded. That clarification revealed that Nasrallah perceived Aoun as a compulsory passage, which led one to wonder whether a mere channel translated into solid backing for the presidency.
Equally shocking was Nasrallah’s call to preserve the very idea of coexistence in a single, and presumably united, state. “When we are all present in state institutions, we can be reassured that no one is seeking to eliminate anyone,” he added, describing the Lebanese state as “the guarantee and the solution” for all citizens. This amazing request rejected partition and federalism, two ideas that were on everyone’s minds and lips, especially FPM backers. Of course, the Hezbollah cleric clarified what kind of state he had in mind — one that encouraged real partnership instead of the entity that hindered equality — although he failed to grasp the notion that the civil war produced an amended constitution that awaited full implementation.
Be that as it may, what was interesting was whether this part of the speech was hastily added after Nasrallah spoke with the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif — who, incidentally praised Salam and the Lebanese government and, most importantly, did not visit Imad Mughniyeh’s grave as such a stop has become more or less routine for every Iranian visitor to Beirut during the past few years. Equally important and highly symbolic was the meeting between Zarif and Defence Minister Samir Muqbel that was yet another sign of support from Tehran for Beirut. No wonder the Lebanese army is now perceived as a source of salvation, especially after repeated catastrophes in Syria.
Wisely, Zarif distanced Iran from internal Lebanese affairs and stated that local actors ought to assume responsibilities to elect a head-of-state, and while Nasrallah insisted that “those who think that Iran might pressure its allies in the presidential issue are delusional,” his call on Christian leaders to reevaluate their stances was pure denial, since it is Hezbollah and the FPM that are blocking the election of a president.
To be sure, Nasrallah held on to his alliance with the FPM and hinted that the party might join future street protests if Aoun’s demands for partnership in the government were not met, though it royally chose to pass the opportunity to do just that last week. Consequently, it was likely that Nasrallah perceived his new challenges on two separate levels.
First, to engage in a gradual political isolation of the FPM leader since the Hezbollah chief barely promised an opportunistic solidarity with his Christian ally, despite his elegant “General Aoun is a must for the presidency” claim. Recent declarations by Amal leader Nabih Berri clarified where a critical component of the opposition stood, when the Speaker rejected Aoun, which spoke volumes. This was followed by an extremely difficult meeting between the Minister of Finance, Ali Hassan Khalil, a Berri counsellor, and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, one of Aoun’s sons-in-law, which failed to mend ties between Berri and Aoun. The gathering apparently degenerated into a shouting match and added fresh disputes to the rapidly growing list, this time over the payment of salaries for civil servants that could not be honoured in September unless the executive branch paralysis was lifted.
The second preference aimed not to isolate the FPM but use it to provoke a confrontation with the Future Movement, that is to say between Christians and Sunnis, something that former prime minister Sa’ad Hariri warned about repeatedly. Hariri affirmed that there was no plan to eliminate Aoun as a political force but the fact was rather clear: he simply was not electable. Virulently anti-Future Movement posters, carried by former ministers no less, at the most recent FPM demonstration, betrayed what Hezbollah planned for the future. Was it not illogical to call for dialogue between the FPM and Future Movement when the latter were portrayed as extremists bent on destroying the state?
As Iranian agents in Lebanon, Hezbollah advanced Tehran’s dual objectives in the Levant: preserve stability if possible and keep-up the pressure for relevance on the regional map. Yet, by pushing for a Sunni-Christian confrontation, Hezbollah may well believe that it is preventing a Sunni-Shiite clash, which it could not possibly win given rapidly changing developments on the ground throughout the area. Under the circumstances, Tehran may have persuaded itself that Hezbollah could become a mediating force, though that was an impossibility too, since party spokespersons excelled in unprecedented sectarian discourses that divided rather than united.
At this point, it is clear that Aoun is actually defeated and, ironically, at the hands of his own allies who simply request that their candidate is no longer “disrespected”. That’s easy. Aoun is highly respected but is no longer a viable contender. Even for Hezbollah.
*Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen, London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.
Lebanese people need army’s help to reform broken system
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib/Arab News/October 21/2019
The Lebanese government last week imposed a $6 monthly tax on WhatsApp calls. The move unleashed a sea of protests across the country. People are fed up as the system is no longer able to answer to their needs. Youth unemployment is staggering. People want to topple the regime. The protesters are demanding the resignation of the prime minister, his Cabinet, and the president, as well as the dissolution of what they see as a dysfunctional Parliament. On the other hand, the Lebanese people are also haunted by a growing debt and don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. The central bank, which was the foundation of financial stability and a more or less healthy banking sector, is no longer able to keep a fixed Lebanese exchange rate with the dollar.
In this grim situation, the social contract between the system and the people has broken down and the average citizen has lost trust in all the institutions except one: The army. In a country plagued by sectarianism, the Lebanese army is viewed as patriotic and nonpartisan. A moving clip that went viral shows an old woman, who was taking part in the protests, trying to reason with a soldier. She told him: “We want you (the army) to rule; you should be protecting us because we are the country, not them (referring to the political elite, or “zu’amaa” as it is known in Arabic).” At the end of the conversation, the soldier kisses the forehead of the old woman. This clip shows the affinity and trust the Lebanese people have in the army, and vice versa.
The army is the only institution that can bind people from across the different confessional lines
In this context, only the army can prevent the country from suffering a total breakdown. It is the only institution that can bind people from across the different confessional lines. Hence, the international community should help the army preserve the territorial integrity of Lebanon and prevent a breakdown that might lead to an armed conflict. The international community is very reluctant to help the current government, knowing that the aid will only perpetuate corruption and will ultimately not improve the conditions of the average citizen. April’s Cedre donor conference pledged $11 billion to Lebanon, but the donors imposed some conditions on their contributions, including reforms. However, the current system, which is based on the profiteering of the political elite, made such reforms impossible.
Every politician is taking over the denomination he represents and, in their name, taking over some government facilities. Therefore, you see him dealing with the government institutions and departments as if they belong to him or his political party. This allows him to employ his followers in the government departments over which he has control, even if they do not have the necessary credentials, in order to retain their loyalty. The effrontery of the political system has reached the point where an applicant to a government post either needs to pay a sum to the politician controlling the relevant department or get his blessing or “wasta,” as we call it in Lebanese slang, in order to get the position. This culture is a curse on our country. This curse drives the country’s institutions to plunge into a state of corruption and leads them to fail to provide services to citizens. Meanwhile, due to corruption, the different government facilities do not generate any profits for the treasury. This deficit prevents the state from providing essential services to citizens and starting projects to develop the country. This highly corrupt environment also drives away direct investments, hence the high unemployment.
The question that comes to mind is why would a citizen vote for a politician whom he knows to be corrupt? The citizen is captive to the corrupt political class. Today, this system has broken down and the political elite is no longer able to provide the minimum required to preserve the loyalty of its followers.
Politicians also play on sectarianism and fear of the “other.” Despite the fact that the citizen knows his representative is stealing public money in his name and is keeping the juicy meal to himself, while giving him the crumbs, he is willing to endorse him. The citizen backs him because he thinks that the power of this politician inside the Lebanese political system will guarantee the power of his denomination and hence his power as an individual.
This complicated equation has rendered the citizen both a captive and an accomplice in corruption due to fear and need. This has led to the deterioration of living standards of the average Lebanese and to the regression of the country. The questions now being posed are: Given this complicated situation, are reforms possible? And can these popular protests rescue Lebanon from its plight? The answer to both is yes. Reforms are possible provided the entire Lebanese people stand up together and refute the culture of profiteering. However, they cannot do it alone — they need the army by their side.
*Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a Ph.D. in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
Mass Protests Have Taken Place in Lebanon Against the Political Class and Its Economic Policies
Lydia Assoad/Carnegie/October 21/2019
Massive protests erupted last Thursday after the government announced two new regressive tax measures—a 20 cent daily fee on internet phone calls, including those on the much used WhatsApp application, and a plan to increase the value-added tax from 11 percent to 15 percent by 2022. These were to be added to a long list of austerity measures adopted by the government last year to deal with Lebanon’s current economic and financial crisis. The fee for internet calls was later revoked, but this did little to contain the nationwide demonstrations that had broken out. Lebanon has the third highest level of public debt in the world—equivalent to 150 percent of GDP—and is in deep recession. Poverty and unemployment rates are high, with a third of those under the age of 35 being unemployed. Inequality levels are extreme and the state does not provide adequate public services, while infrastructure is crumbling. Given these dire circumstances, introducing austerity measures to address the debt is particularly inappropriate. This has impoverished a larger share of the population, leading to growing resentment as the richest (among them members of the ruling elite) were not asked to participate in alleviating the debt. Their profits and wealth were not taxed and the means by which they extracted rents from the banking and real estate sectors were left intact. The “WhatsApp tax” was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Why Does It Matter? The protests are important for several reasons. They are the largest since the demonstrations that took place in 2005 after the assassination of the late prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Second, they have been spontaneous, not directed by political parties or leaders. Third, they have spread all over Lebanon and are not only limited to Beirut or the country’s main cities. Fourth, they are not sectarian: The protestors have criticized political leaders from their own communities, which is unprecedented.
How might sect-based cleavages, which are vital in Lebanon’s political life, be overcome? A large share of the Lebanese population is now unified in economic and social distress, quite independently from their sectarian origins. The austerity measures have contributed to a generalized fatigue with the way the government has mismanaged the country in recent years. They have also exacerbated inequalities, making the disconnect between the political class and the rest of the population even more salient. To share one figure: The richest 0.1 percent of the population—around 3,000 individuals, among them a large part of the political class—earns 10 percent of total national income, which is what the bottom 50 percent of the population earns. This gap is probably a main driver of the unity observed in the streets since Thursday. Class or socioeconomic claims have transcended sect-based cleavages.
What Are the Implications for the Future?
These protests appear to mark a turning point in recent Lebanese history and make us wonder whether Lebanon will manage to break the political and economic deadlock in which it has been stuck since the end of the civil war in 1990.
So far, the government’s answer to the people’s demand for resignation has been limited: Few ministers have resigned and Prime Minister Saad Hariri has proposed a 50 percent cut in the salaries of senior civil servants, parliamentarians, and politicians, as well as the removal of some of their privileges. He has also proposed to speed up the construction of new electrical power plants and impose a tax on banks’ profits to raise the equivalent of $3.38 billion. If these measures go in the right direction, they are unlikely to earn him public trust or end the protests. In a way they highlight the government’s hypocrisy even more, as it was able to suddenly find billions of dollars in a very short timeframe when it had failed to do such a thing previously, opting instead to raise taxes. With regard to political changes, the resignation of the government and the formation of a transitory government that holds new elections and implements drastic reforms are a possible scenario. Yet it is still unclear who would belong to such a government and what specific steps would be taken for a political transition. Technocrats or civil society representatives, as well as members of independent parties in previous elections, are likely to receive popular support.
Regarding economic changes, the state’s mismanagement has allowed a wide margin for measures and reforms that could ease the situation and raise revenues, even within the current budget. These could include a partial cancellation of the debt held by domestic banks and a reduction in the interest rates on previous debt, as well as compelling banks to loan to the state at zero percent interest for one to three years; introducing a progressive income tax as well as a capital gains tax; and investing heavily in infrastructure.