snapshots

Lebanon: Protests Put the Government in a Tight Spot

4 MINS READOct 21, 2019 | 20:41 GMT
The Big Picture

Massive cross-sectarian protests against both austerity and government corruption have united the typically fractious Lebanese population, which has taken to the streets in major cities and towns across the country to express its displeasure. The government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has gone into survival mode, but with few easy options for answering the populace's grievances, the political risk to the government is growing. 

What Happened

Protests in Lebanon prompted members of the Christian Lebanese Forces, who made up a small portion of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's ruling coalition, to depart the government on Oct. 18. But over the weekend, most of the remaining members of the Lebanese Cabinet beat a self-imposed deadline by agreeing on a reform plan designed to mollify public anger by putting the country's fiscal situation back on track. The measures included a 50 percent pay cut for government ministers and counts on $3.3 billion worth of taxes and canceled interest payments from Lebanese private banks to erase the government's budget deficit.

The proposal, however, hasn't satisfied the demands of many Lebanese protesters, who want wider-ranging reforms, including the resignation of the government, that address deeply seated systemic corruption.

Why It Matters

The popular pressure has transformed Lebanon's economic crisis into a political one that could lead to several plausible outcomes. They include al-Hariri's resignation, a Cabinet reshuffle, new elections, fundamental government reform or the extension of political paralysis as the economic crisis worsens. In any of those scenarios, the country's myriad militias and armed factions, including Hezbollah, could turn to violence as they jostle for advantage against one another and attempt to stave off challenges from their own supporters.

Tackling corruption head-on will be difficult, considering that the steady ossification of Lebanon's political balance since the country's civil war ended in 1990 has paved the way for graft.

The political crisis will test the influence of Lebanon's patrons, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United States and France, none of which have easy answers for Beirut. For many of those powers, Iraq and Syria have supplanted Lebanon as the biggest battleground for influence. While its external supporters still care about their standing in Lebanon, they feel less obligated to rescue Beirut from the consequences of its bad habits than they once did. 

Context

As its popularity erodes further, the Lebanese government has few good options that it can exercise as it tries to solve the country's looming economic crisis while maintaining public support. In part, that's because Lebanon's government must reduce its deficit if it wishes to address the country's economic malaise. But that will be a daunting task requiring austerity measures that cut wasteful spending, improve the tax base and restore productivity. But considering that ordinary Lebanese, regardless of sect, will bear the brunt of austerity, imposing those measures risks provoking even more public anger. After all, proposed taxes, specifically on the popular WhatsApp messaging service, helped kick off this particular round of protests.

Tackling corruption head-on will be difficult, considering that the steady ossification of Lebanon's political balance since the country's civil war ended in 1990 has paved the way for graft. The country's sectarian leaders have long been allowed to enrich themselves in exchange for maintaining the peace, but most Lebanese now see this arrangement as unacceptable — and have broken old taboos by criticizing their own sectarian leadership rather than just the leaders of rival factions.

U.S. sanctions have piled on the pressure as well. Because Washington no longer considers Lebanon's economic stability a key interest, it has embarked on a limited, yet still unprecedented, sanctions campaign targeting some Lebanese banks it accuses of working with Hezbollah, in a bid to reduce Iranian influence in the country. These sanctions have added to worries about the future availability of foreign currency reserves, particularly dollars, which until recently were one of Lebanon's few fiscal bright spots. And although other backers, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, have traditionally tried to boost their own allies in Lebanon during times of crisis, Iran's current economic woes have made it hard for Tehran to afford that strategy. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has hesitated to boost its ally, al-Hariri, as it restructures its own economy and questions the value of the prime minister to its own anti-Iran strategy.

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