Is there a recovery model for Lebanon without a revolution?

Friday, February 21, 2020
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

It is intriguing to compare what is going on in Lebanon with other states in various stages of unrest in the Arab world. While they may not be precisely comparable or offer any solutions, they do raise a concern about how and if Arab countries can evolve into a form of democratic states, and even if that is desirable. One hears from time to time the comment that the Arabs are better off when there are strong personalities leading the country. But that facile opinion is not supported by people fed up with the corruption, economic malaise, weak governance, and overzealous role of security forces in autocratic Arab countries. What seems to be missing is a way forward, a model that can serve as a roadmap for inclusive, comprehensive, fair, and equitable change over a tolerable period of time.

Many analysts have pinpointed the lack of an effective opposition and enduring allegiance to clientelism as key factors that disable the revolution in Lebanon from becoming more effective in pressing its claims with the country’s sectarian leaders. As one commentator wrote, “There is no doubt that the protest movement succeeded in articulating a widespread sense of frustration with a system that has routinely failed to deliver jobs, affordable health care, and education. But the protesters have so far been unable to articulate a coherent long-term strategy for change—and that’s because it never bothered to develop one.”

Another mentioned that “so far, the protests have been impromptu and lacking any meaningful political patronage—little more than a leaderless outburst of public anger. Although this style of politics initially gave the movement a certain degree of credibility, it has not been conducive to advancing a defined plan and vision.”

These may seem like quick and harsh judgements. Others who share the same sentiments add that the Diab government, while nodding towards the concerns of the demonstrators, seems unprepared for the seismic reforms that are required. Steps have been announced that will move the country in a better direction, but will contribute minimally to the comprehensive and thorough commitment to change that is needed. Nothing in the media or in public statements even remotely suggests that the current leadership is considering stepping aside and diminishing their influence and manipulation of the government’s resources.

Looking across the Arab world to Algeria and Tunisia, one can see how institutions affect the balance of influence between the ruling elites and the demonstrators. Algeria just celebrated the first year anniversary of the movement or Hirak, and the new government even declared it a national holiday since the ruling elite has been able to maintain its power albeit with quite a few notable casualties from the previous governing group. This was possible because of the effective maneuvering of the Army, which literally outwaited the demonstrators so that fatigue and their general disarray played in favor of the status quo. As a recent article pointed out, “However, [the opposition] has no clear path to realizing its aspiration to overthrow the political class that has ruled the country for decades and to force the long overdue generational transfer of power. It has avoided defeat, but it is not likely to achieve victory, either.”

Although they were successful in forcing a change in government and delaying new elections over eight months, the protestors could not stop the selection of candidates from the traditional political class or mobilize to force changes in the election law. More troubling is that the newly ensconced leadership is promising change, but without the input of the protestors. As the article noted, “[Gaining the confidence of the Algerian people] will be difficult to accomplish because the Hirak has no place at the table where reforms are being discussed. It is clear that whatever steps the government decides to carry out, they will be designed and implemented without the participation of new political forces.”

In Tunisia, until now, it has been about disruption and slow going in effectively constructing a new vision for the country. Unlike Algeria, there is no military or comparable institution to act as arbiter of government longevity and programs. Although the country is considered the only success story of the Arab Spring, it has relied on institutions and leaders from the previous political generation for leadership. Tunisians are worn down by the continued lack of economic development, job opportunities, quality services in health and education, and continued corruption at all levels.

Based on results of recent elections, there seemed to be a clear demand for new leaders, but fighting among the parties in Parliament delayed a government formation, even threatening the need for another election. Finally, under pressure from President Kais Saied, the government under Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh may finally have a chance to gain Parliament’s approval and tackle key economic issues and gain needed credibility for the government.

The core issues in Lebanon, Algeria, and Tunisia center on the economy, inequality, corruption, and lack of institutional coherence and government integrity. While the army may be able to keep the street calm in Algeria for now, as generational change occurs it will be an interesting case study of how that transition will be managed. The Hirak has not disappeared. It is still a force for action as it realizes its abilities to organize and define its strategic goals.

In Tunisia, the fuse is short for the demonstrators. The new government includes some well-qualified personalities but the fractured parliament, with members elected with low-entry thresholds, may continue to be a disruptive rather than cohesive voice for the people.

In Lebanon, as has been noted the challenge is clear. “As the new status quo begins to settle, the protesters will need to develop an organized political strategy to unseat the ruling elite at the ballot box. One of the main obstacles they face is finding a way to overcome voters’ default sectarian impulses. Otherwise, the movement could split along sectarian lines, putting it at risk of being outmaneuvered by a ruling elite that is far more politically experienced than the protesters are.” At this point, the cards favor the old guard. Stay tuned.