Losing the Battle, Winning the War – What’s Ahead for Lebanon?

Friday, January 31, 2020
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

Now that the new Diab-led government has been installed and preliminary approval given to the previously drafted national budget that has some reform features, there are contending scenarios for what may happen next. There is a consensus on the need to prioritize economic issues, especially those affecting the overall fiscal integrity of the country and the resulting decline in purchasing power for the majority of the Lebanese people. However, there are sharp divisions about what is possible in the coming months or even before the 2022 elections.

Some believe that this government will fail as the sectarian leaders who came together under Hezbollah’s prodding to assemble the new council of ministers will not allow critical reforms and austerity measures that would strike at their ability to appropriate and distribute government resources. Others believe that incremental steps – such as resolving the failed electricity sector and privatizing state assets like telecommunications – will alleviate short-term pressures to repay interest on international bonds and reduce the budget deficit, and possibly lead to some external funding.

In any case, there are no prognosticators who think that the new government will somehow courageously bypass its progenitors and create a highly functioning crisis team that does not require the approval of parliament to enact and implement reforms that accomplish key objectives well enumerated by multiple analysts. At the outset, in addition to fiscal reforms, there is a dire need to strengthen the social safety net and restore some semblance of purchasing power to the middle and lower classes. Whether or not this can be done without infusions from the international community is the challenge immediately confronting the government.

Then there is the political agenda…

This may be even more difficult to address than the economic issues, and maybe that’s what the political elites are counting on: that if people are focused on the economy, their demand for the upheaval of the ruling class will be dampened. This may be wishful thinking. While the spike in violence these past two weeks from a small number of protestors has muted some of the critics of the political elites, the anger and frustration remain.

The bishops and sheikhs and other eminences in the country’s leadership are counseling a wait-and-see attitude. The LAF and ISF are on standby to prevent additional damage to public and private institutions. And many of the demonstrators and their supporters are caught between supporting the people and opposing violence.

As one commentator wrote, “But how will destroying public and private property set the country on a path towards a brighter future? Will it solve the problem of continuing electricity and water shortages, rampant poverty, pollution, and high unemployment? Will it stem the rapidly devaluing Lebanese currency, alleviate a crippling national debt or lift capital controls issued by local banks that have prevented the average citizen from withdrawing more than a few hundred dollars per month?”

How does one convince the non-violent demonstrators on the streets to organize, generate an agenda, and take back the movement from those resorting to violence? There is no assurance that they will be any more successful in dealing with the status quo, but at least they stand for Lebanon against those in power and those who support violence as another way forward.

Another commentator noted that the recurring nature of crises in Lebanon since the end of the civil war is akin to the movie “Groundhog Day” where the protagonist relives the same experience time and time again. He points out that dissatisfaction with the status quo is a consistent feature of Lebanese politics, yet nothing changes, as was the outcome of the garbage crisis. People are too wedded to a system that awards affiliation rather than merit.

This may explain why even after a month of demonstrations, Hezbollah still maintained the support of some 90% of Shia surveyed. Ironically, “On the internal issues behind the current mass protests, however, Lebanon’s three major communities are practically united. At least 90% or more in every group say their government is doing too little about each one of the following problems: reducing the level of corruption in economic and political life; dealing with growing economic problems and people’s daily hardships; and sharing the burden of taxes and other obligations to the government in a fair manner.”

And this hits at the kernel of the debate about why and how to save Lebanon from itself that is troubling the Lebanese expatriate communities. Why can’t Lebanon fix itself? Why do the voters keep returning the same people to power despite vilifying them in the demonstrations? Civil society was unable to organize for the 2018 elections despite electrifying mobilization on the streets of Beirut during the garbage crisis. The recent demonstrations are much broader and deeper, attracting people of all sects and regions unified around the need for a better, cleaner, more efficient, and transparent Lebanon. Will the Lebanese persevere through another failure of governance without overturning the status quo?

The call for early elections before 2022 may be the best road to resurrecting Lebanon, IF the demonstrators can move beyond the street and organize effectively around political platforms that resonate with the Lebanese people fed up with the status quo. The opportunity is theirs. If the demonstrators can mobilize around new elections as a priority, it will be hard for the new government to resist. If the political elites are then willing to gamble that they can retain control without reversing the country’s economic and humanitarian crises, it is theirs to lose.