Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Resilient Lebanon? What Makes the Protests in Lebanon Different Than Before?
Resilient Lebanon? What Makes the Protests in Lebanon Different Than Before?

Resilient Lebanon? What Makes the Protests in Lebanon Different Than Before?

In 2011, protesters and insurgents brought down multiple decaying Arab regimes in what came to be known as the “Arab Spring.” Lebanon, as poorly governed as many other Arab countries, experienced nothing of the sort. This stability usually has been attributed to its “resilience.” Yet, recent events have shown otherwise. On October 17, nationwide protests broke out, involving hundreds of thousands across the country’s multiple religious sects—casting doubt on this mythology. Lebanon’s decades-long stasis in the face of unsustainable pressure was not resilience, but mere inertia—an inertia that has triggered the country’s deepest crisis since its 1975 civil war.

The demonstrations were triggered by a fairly parochial incident. The Lebanese cabinet, facing the risk of eventual financial collapse unless it took austerity measures needed to secure foreign funding, imposed a tax on internet calls over the popular messaging app WhatsApp. The proposal was withdrawn in the face of demonstrations, but protests escalated and soon began to target political leaders across the sectarian spectrum.

This is not Lebanon’s first uprising. In 2005, over a million Lebanese demonstrated against a decades-long Syrian military occupation following the Bashar al Assad regime’s suspected role in killing former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Although the protests initially espoused ambitious goals of domestic political reform, they soon lost momentum. A substantial, largely-Shia portion of Lebanon’s population supported Syria’s presence and its ally Hezbollah. Essentially, the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” disintegrated when it collided with a Sunni-Shia conflict that would paralyze Lebanon’s politics for years after. More recent demands by an educated, liberal civil society to replace the country’s confessional system, which distributes power by religious sect with a secular democracy, have been ignored.

Lebanon’s current protests are different in that they transcend sectarian, socio-economic, and geographic divides and target the entire political class adopting the slogan, “All of them [the political elite] means all of them.” Protesters are criticizing their own sect’s respective leaders publicly.

Lebanon is a complex polity built on a sectarian power-sharing system affirmed periodically through parliamentary elections. Although competition between factions is fierce and many receive backing from external powers, it is not over different policy agendas, such as healthcare, military spending etc., but rather over access to economic rents and the trappings of power. The traditional social contract demands clans, families, and sects vote for their respective political leaderships in exchange for patronage and political protection. Put simply, this model is no longer capable of addressing the challenges facing Lebanon. Its hostility to substantive policy debate and its divisive nature have exacerbated Lebanon’s serious problems.

Unlike many Arab regimes, Lebanon is not a security state in which people live in fear of the government. Lebanon simply has become a place where it is difficult for decent people to live dignified lives: corruption is rampant; power cuts are frequent; inflation is high while growth is low (known as “staglation”); infrastructure is at a breaking point; unemployment is at nearly 40%; the currency is in trouble; public debt is over 150% of GDP; and the environment is in ruins. Lebanese have come to blame these problems not on specific policies, but rather on a political system that has coddled an elite—one that has broken the social contract and manipulated sectarian divisions to protect itself. In other words, people perceive that these elites are both divided by sect and united in their mismanagement, if not plundering, of the country.

Seeking foreign financial support to avert economic disaster, the government has adopted  austerity measures. Lebanon is, indeed, in fiscal trouble, but there is insufficient goodwill or trust among the population to bear the burden of austerity. In response to this outcry, the cabinet has established an anti-corruption committee, halved the salaries of officials, and pledged not to pass new taxes. Protests have persisted—with protesters now demanding, among other things, the cabinet’s resignation, the installation of a technocratic government, and new parliamentary elections.

This is a remarkable, but dangerous, moment for Lebanon. Protesters lack an organized leadership, but are seeking nothing less than regime change—a reimagining of politics. Of course, the sectarian parties that have run Lebanon for decades will give them nothing of the sort if they feel they can survive this crisis. Security forces thus far have not used widespread violence against protesters though dozens have been detained and a few have been injured. On at least one occasion, soldiers have protected demonstrators from thugs dispatched by one establishment party, the Amal Movement, and possibly Hezbollah, too. Other parties may send their own enforcers. There appears to be mutual goodwill between the military and protesters. Whether that would survive government orders for a crackdown is far from certain.

The Lebanese Armed Forces’ role here will be crucial. The Lebanese military usually has deferred to civilian authority, and the country does not have other Arab countries’ long tradition of military rule. They may well follow government orders to break the protests even if many soldiers sympathize with their demands, especially if they continue to disrupt movement and prevent a return to “normalcy.” On the other hand, the military painstakingly has built an independent institutional identity in recent years, and a coup of sorts would not necessarily be met with public hostility (at least at first). None of this is likely to encourage much confidence in Lebanon’s austerity reforms among international donors of course.    

On the other hand, it is difficult to overstate the protests’ significance. Lebanon is a country whose politics have revolved exclusively around sectarian competition over rent and the agendas of various foreign backers. The Lebanese—beset by fear of one another—have been trapped into dependency on an unaccountable oligarchy. There was no Arab Spring in Lebanon because collective action in pursuit of civic ends is fiendishly difficult there. Now, it is happening, and the country faces the unappealing prospect of either a return to a rotten status-quo or a leap into the utterly unknown.