Can Lebanon’s young uprising withstand embrace of the ‘machine’?

Bilal Hussein/AP
Anti-government protesters block a main highway in Beirut on Nov. 4, 2019. Protesters closed major roads in the capital and around parts of Lebanon, paralyzing the country as the political crisis over the formation of a new government worsens.

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After floundering for days when nationwide protests took them by surprise on Oct. 17, Lebanon’s political leaders tried every tack: dismissal, condemnation, intimidation, violence, and division. Now, with the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri last Wednesday, leaders of the various sectarian political groups are trying to co-opt the protest movement, embracing demonstrators in a bid to regain supporters while heading off discussions of deeper structural reforms.

But despite the verbal concessions there has been little talk of what ignited the protests: the abuse of state funds and the political leaders’ power to enrich themselves and leave citizens dependent on mafia-like patronage networks.

Why We Wrote This

At the heart of Lebanon’s strife is a classic confrontation between an idealistic protest movement angered by corruption and an entrenched political elite with much to lose and many levers to pull.

Lebanese activists are confronting the reality that they are facing down more than just a government, but an entrenched political class that is refusing to give an inch. Even as they unite across sectarian lines to demand a strengthened judiciary and government accountability and transparency, so too are Lebanon’s political elites closing ranks, going to any length to prevent such reforms from taking place.

It’s testing the resilience of the movement. As Makram Rabah, of the American University of Beirut, says, “The Lebanese political class refuses to acknowledge that this is not only an economic crisis, but a deep crisis at the heart of the Lebanese political system.” 

And now, the “machine” strikes back – with a warm embrace.

Lebanese activists whose anti-corruption protests led Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his government to resign are confronting the reality that they are facing down more than just a government, but an entrenched political class that is refusing to give an inch.

Even as the young protesters united across sectarian lines to demand a strengthened judiciary and government accountability and transparency, so too are Lebanon’s political elites closing ranks in the face of the popular will, going to any length to prevent such reforms from taking place.

Why We Wrote This

At the heart of Lebanon’s strife is a classic confrontation between an idealistic protest movement angered by corruption and an entrenched political elite with much to lose and many levers to pull.

It’s testing the resilience of the economic recession-fueled movement, which is calling for an end to a sectarian system that has allowed political leaders to mismanage services with impunity while awarding themselves billions in government contracts.

After floundering for days when the nationwide protests took them by surprise on Oct. 17, Lebanon’s political leaders are trying every tack: dismissal, condemnation, intimidation, violence, and division. 

But even the tried-and-true accusations of a “Zionist plot” or a U.S.-backed conspiracy have failed to stick.

Now, with the resignation of Mr. Hariri last week, leaders of the various sectarian political groups are trying to co-opt the protest movement, embracing demonstrators in a bid to regain supporters while heading off discussions of deeper structural reforms.

After a week of rising violence in which he blamed foreign powers for the protests and warned of “chaos” if the government resigned, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appeared in a televised speech on Friday urging that “the new government must listen to the demands of the people who took to the streets.”

“There must be serious work, because time is tight and so is people’s patience,” Mr. Nasrallah said.

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, whose Shiite party Amal joined in the physical assaults on protesters, said he now supported a “techno-political” cabinet that “represents the protest movement.”

In a televised address Friday, President Michel Aoun, a Christian ally of Hezbollah, called sectarianism a “destructive disease,” adding that “ministers should be chosen according to their competencies and expertise, not political loyalties.”

And, trying to riff on protesters’ trademark chant demanding government resignations of “all of them, means all of them,” the aging President Aoun proclaimed Sunday: “I love every one of you; and ‘I love all of you,’ means all of you.”

Even Mr. Hariri is reportedly waiting in the wings for a return to government and is trying to rebrand himself as a reformer who took a stand by stepping down.

The deeper crisis

But despite the verbal concessions there has been little talk of what ignited the protests: the abuse of state funds and the political leaders’ power to enrich themselves and leave citizens dependent on mafia-like patronage networks that encompass government contracts and public employment.

“The Lebanese political class refuses to acknowledge that this is not only an economic crisis, but a deep crisis at the heart of the Lebanese political system,” says Makram Rabah, a Lebanese analyst and lecturer at the American University of Beirut.

“They simply do not want a technocratic government or an independent judiciary because they do not want to give up control of the judiciary or bureaucracy,” says Dr. Rabah. “But the main reason protesters are in the streets is the fact that we don’t have a separation of powers, and more importantly, we don’t have accountability.”

Instead, leaders are retreating to their sectarian audiences to claim that they are reformers being obstructed by the other political groups and, implicitly, sects.

“These leaders are saying ‘I am trying to reform the system, but my partners are stopping me,’ without saying who their partners are and what reforms they are proposing,” says Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at American University of Beirut.

“Everyone is trying to depict themselves as a reformer fighting against a corrupt political system, but in reality they are just protecting each other’s backs.”

Ali Hashisho/Reuters
People watch Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaking on television inside a coffee shop in the port city of Sidon, Lebanon, Oct. 25, 2019. Hezbollah sees protesters’ demands – particularly a nonsectarian technocrat government and separation of powers – as a direct threat.

Hezbollah

The most influential player in Lebanese politics is the one with the most to lose, Hezbollah.

The Shiite paramilitary-political group dominates the Lebanese government with its coalition of Shiite and Christian allies holding a majority in parliament and key cabinet portfolios and its close Christian ally, Mr. Aoun, serving as president.

Analysts say Hezbollah sees protesters’ demands – particularly a nonsectarian technocrat government and a separation of powers – as a direct threat.

Greater independence for government institutions could threaten the group’s supply of materials, weapons, and funds from Iran that enable it to retain military superiority in Lebanon and act as an Iranian security pressure point against Israel.

Any change to monetary policy, such as floating the Lebanese pound or adjusting the peg to the U.S. dollar to curb rising inflation on local markets, would immediately hit Hezbollah’s coffers. Various U.S. sanctions and restrictions on global financial institutions have made the group heavily reliant on the Lebanese currency.

Hezbollah itself has alleged that the protests were a conspiracy to “undermine” and “disarm” the movement, which has fought a war with Israel and most recently was instrumental in propping up the Assad government in Syria. Its military power surpasses even that of the Lebanese Army.

Last week, Hezbollah showed how far it would go when it launched a campaign of violence and intimidation on its own constituents in southern Lebanon before sending its enforcers to break up protest camps in the heart of Beirut and assault unarmed women.

Analysts say this threat of violence is not meant to tip Lebanon into civil strife, but is a tactic meant to intimidate protesters and push them to consolidate back to their sectarian lines, where they are divided and dependent on political elites.

Sectarian “machine”

But what makes Hezbollah even more impervious to pressure is the political mechanism that activists and observers liken to a “wall” or a “machine.”

Even if protesters succeed in pushing for the formation of a technocrat government to enact reforms, observers warn that the new government would be up against an entire system built and fortified as a sectarian patronage network.

“They are calling for a technocrat government, but then that government will have to report to parliament, which is divided along sectarian lines,” says Dr. Khashan. “The government will also have to deal with the bureaucracy and institutions, and the bureaucracy in Lebanon is sectarian to the bone.”

Yet analysts say activists are likely to push on.

“When protesters say ‘all of them, means all of them,’ they actually do understand that these people might stick around, but they are insisting they stick around under new measures and new rules,” says Dr. Rabah, the analyst.

“We cannot import politicians from Mars, but certainly these people must realize that the only way forward is a transition from this current archaic political system to a more modern one that fits the 21st century.”

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