Is Lebanon at the Edge of an Abyss?

Tuesday, January 21, 2020
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

Analyzing the protests in Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon to uncover similarities useful for finding possible beneficial results such as greater power-sharing, more transparency in public transactions, a stronger commitment to rule of law, and concrete steps to promote inclusive economic prosperity leaves one dispirited. Sometimes analysis is just that – we can see what’s going on, we can describe the dynamics, draw conclusions, and outline scenarios – but offer few remedies as analysts seldom have the agency to effect or even influence change.

This is the hard lesson in all three cases, and most extremely in Lebanon, which, like the others, has come through a civil war, is riven with identity politics that frame negotiating positions, and has been unable to articulate a way forward despite the increasing costs of not acting.

There are many useful analyses available of the economic crisis in Lebanon, which is increasingly compounded by the unfathomable inability of the current leadership to take steps necessary to stop its slide into the abyss of failure and insolvency. As the once peaceful protests have turned increasingly hostile, whether by intention or conspiracy, Lebanon once again is set upon a path of self-destruction that will have far more ramifications than the enfeebled state created by the Taif Agreement, still waiting to be implemented fully.

How can the elites believe that Lebanon is too “what” to fail? Are they waiting for the latest version of the Syrian occupation to maintain their hold on power? Are they really willing to give the country over to Iran through its proxy Hezbollah? How can Hezbollah both support the demonstrators’ issues and rally against their ability to protest and call the government to task? And what will it take to bring civility back to the streets? The security forces are caught in a dilemma: they must take steps to ensure public safely while their salaries, savings, and personal security are all being diminished by the current fiscal crisis and the reactions of the crowds.

Banks have become the latest flashpoint as demonstrators believe the banking community enabled the government to ruin the fiscal stability of the country by funding deficit spending for over 20 years. People point to schemes that saw dollar assets from abroad invested in Ponzi-type funds rather than productive investments, and capital controls that enable the rich to send their funds overseas while everyone else’s access to their savings is significantly curtailed.

The results this past week have been a disaster for both the parties. According to the Independent, “Nearly 300 banks and ATMs were targeted during demonstrations across the country, according to police.…Some 352 people were arrested during the disturbances, before eventually being released following protests outside police stations.” It was reported by Reuters that “The Lebanese Red Cross said it had treated 220 people who were wounded on both sides on Saturday night, taking 80 of them to hospital. The Civil Defense said it had helped 114 others.” The AP noted that “Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces said 142 of its members were injured, including 7 officers, some with serious concussions.”

Despite calls from former Prime Minister Hariri, threats from Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, and tweets from the acting Interior Minister Raya el-Hassan, there is very little to persuade the demonstrators to abandon the latest assaults on the banks, other buildings, and the security forces. They simply don’t believe that PM Designate Hassan Diab will be able to form a government of independent professionals: announcements of members are delayed; political parties complain that either they are underrepresented or others are overrepresented – in a proposed cabinet of supposed independent technocrats; and the financial situation continues to deteriorate, wiping out the savings of most of the people.

In Algeria, the military has pulled together a political bandage buying time to introduce measures designed to sidetrack hirak, the “movement,” by holding an election for a new president. So far, Lebanon’s security forces have abstained from taking a political role to ameliorate the crisis. In Iraq, demonstrators face forces that include proxy militias for Iran, while the Iraqi Army is caught in a dilemma of who is the master in Iraq. Is this the scenario awaiting Lebanon? There are only questions as Lebanon moves closer to the edge of financial collapse and uncertain outcomes to its political turmoil.