Describing the situation in Lebanon, the first thing that is commonly done is to look at what new changes there are in the balance between the religious parties in the political arena. The privileges of president Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) could not satisfy his political opponents for a long time, including those from the same Maronite social segment (Lebanese Phalanges, Lebanese Forces, National Liberal Party, Marada Movement). The Shiite parties, allies of the FPM in the former March 8 coalition, also got certain benefits.
The leader of the confrontation against the notorious “dominance of Hezbollah and FPM” continued to be the pro-Sunni Movement for the Future (Tayyar al-Mustaqbal) and its head Saad Hariri, now former prime minister. By inexorable logic, only the dissolution of the Cabinet, with the subsequent redrawing of the balance of power with its confessional aspects, could change the situation. This happened in October 2019.
The wave of real social protests that swept through Lebanon was by no means a conscious creation of the establishment. The inaction of the ministers of the former government toward serious problems created an explosive situation, and the trigger for it was just another newsworthy event – new (symbolic) taxes and price increases.
The reasons for the protests are more than worthy of attention: the unresolved issue of Lebanon’s own power plants, and hence electricity interruptions; too many private companies in housing and communal services, and hence the high utility costs; the still-unresolved issue of landfill sites (let’s recall the Lebanese youth protest movement “You Stink!” (Arabic: Talaat Rihatkon), which began in August 2015), and hence the ecological disaster on the coast and in the cities; and state inaction with respect to fire protection, which has resulted in annual fires laying waste to Lebanon’s precious forests.
But the main problem was the unrealised potential of Lebanon’s energetic youth, for whom there are practically no jobs available in the country. Syrian refugees have become a serious annoyance in Lebanon, although it is hard to name this as the key problem for the Lebanese economy or the country’s demographics. The refugees live in relative isolation, hardly participate at all in protests, and have little interaction with the local population.
Lebanese society has found itself deeply socially stratified, and this poses a genuine threat to the Lebanese public consciousness, which faces a new turn to the left. One way or another, social protests have persisted, and politicians’ attempts to introduce real reforms to the Lebanese confessional system and replace it with new regroupings haven’t been successful. In mid-January 2020, protests intensified in anticipation of the formation of a government of technocrats led by Hassan Diab – a sign of distrust even toward this demand of the protesters.
For most Lebanese politicians, the problems associated with participation in key events (and more often non-participation) have become issues of their political tactics. They’ve showed solidarity with the people, even support for protesters, but at the same time they have realigned forces, built new bridges with foreign partners, and chose priority areas for external cooperation.
The Lebanese have protested before. Noisy demonstrations, even months-long pickets blocked a number of central areas of the capital (for example, in 2006-2007). As then, the current demonstrations have upset drivers, who have expressed discontent due to the jammed motorways. The main political forces, without collusion, have adopted the necessary tactics – nodding their heads in feigned concern and trying not to provide reasons to fuel additional social protests. They all hope that the protest will run its course and fade away.
Many problems have accumulated, and the government of technocrats, no matter how effective it may be, will not be able to solve them immediately. The former head of government has given the new Cabinet a hundred days, after which, obviously, a call will be made to evaluate the work of the new ministers. Apparently, the assessment will not be in their favour. And then we should expect the mobilisation of supporters of the usual confessional-clan circles — not so “terribly distant from the people” as technocrats — and the restoration of the former order.
The new stage of the Lebanese “clan-confessional consociationalism” will obviously take place without the former prime minister, who is trying to restore his political influence, and without those forced concessions that became the price for an expensive “agreement” to resolve the presidential crisis in the fall of 2016. In any case, the influence of the FPM, which became ubiquitous in the executive branch and defence and law enforcement agencies, will be limited. But the power of the current president may not be affected.
Of course, in the next two to three months we will witness attempts by all forces in the Lebanese arena to increase their political ratings by any means and gain new points from potential voters. One can expect populist steps and even high-profile power plays to “gain” authority among the population in a variety of problem areas. These could include promises to solve the problem of garbage disposal (which the Kataeb party tried to do at one time), to attract investment for the construction of a tunnel to Chtaura in the Beqaa valley (on the way to Damascus), and the influx of new loans to solve the economic and financial problems of the country.
Regarding the problem of public debt, the banking system crisis and the financial problem in general, the Lebanese analysts warn against a new round of debt dependence, which would lead to the external control of the Lebanese state by international funds and Western lenders. As a promising alternative solution, a “turn to the East” option has been put on the table. Soliciting investments from China, Russia and Iran is considered comparatively safe: they will not lead to the debt dependency cycle prompted by previous loans and will not require political influence over Lebanon’s position or changes in the intra-Lebanese balance of forces.The last week of January began with new protests in Lebanon. For the new government, it began with a tried and tested method – an attempt by key politicians to sabotage the discussion of the 2020 budget issue, which is crucial for the country’s economy. Some of them even said that its inclusion in the agenda is not constitutional. However, it seems that the MPs are already engaged in attempts to boost their ratings, in flirting with populism to ingratiate themselves with target groups instead of doing real work, which is what Lebanon solely needs.