Lebanon is in chaos. The streets are filled with protesters tired of living in a country where nothing works. Yet the government persists in the belief that the protests are about its performance, rather than the root-and-branch reforms that the protesters are demanding.
There has been no functioning government in Lebanon since Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned nearly two months ago. The protesters have rejected President Michel Aoun’s suggested replacements and Hariri, who remains as caretaker prime minister, has declared his parliamentary bloc and the Sunni establishment will walk out unless he is allowed to appoint a new cabinet composed not of politicians but of technocrats. A decision on that may emerge on Thursday, after it was postponed on Monday following days of violent protests.
If this sounds like a somewhat internecine disagreement, it serves to illustrate the yawning gap that separates what the protesters want and what the local Islamist group, Hezbollah, and the Lebanese oligarchy can – or are willing to – offer.
Aoun has invited protesters to send representatives for talks. He has even tried infiltrating the protesters in the hope that they can be persuaded to negotiate. So far, nothing has worked. The protesters do not want to sully their grassroots movement by sitting down with the very same tainted rulers that they want to oust from office.
Hezbollah, Aoun and the ruling class have tried hard to depict the Lebanese uprising as a protest against poor governance. But the protesters insist they took to the streets not to see a cabinet reshuffle, but to bring about comprehensive change, to force out “al Sultah” – a term with the literal meaning “the power” but also translates as “oligarchy.” In Lebanon, it refers to the powerful political establishment that includes Aoun, Hariri, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and the speaker of the parliament, Nabih Berri – the people the protesters want to see replaced by competent, non-partisan officials.
Realizing the gravity of the situation, Hezbollah urged the leadership to hold firm and not give in to any of the protesters’ demands. Hariri, however, ignored that advice, at least partly to show he was a servant of the people, and quit.
His resignation left Aoun exposed. The president at first tried to make the prime minister the scapegoat. In the apparent belief that a new prime minister and cabinet would restore calm, he proposed former parliamentarian Mohammad Safadi as premier – a suggestion that was greeted with uproar from the protesters. So was Aoun’s next nomination, Samir Alami – not a politician but a contractor who is seen to be close to members of the political establishment.
Hariri’s resignation not only failed to quell the protests, it inflamed them every time President Aoun went on TV to discuss who should replace him. According to reports from the early days of the protests, Gebran Bassil – Aoun’s son-in-law and aspiring successor – advised Hariri to stand his ground as the protests would fizzle out quickly. They didn’t and soaring unemployment has served only to boost both the number of protesters and their fury as they call for the president and the speaker to follow the prime minister out of office.
Under Lebanon’s sectarian political system, which allocates political authority according to religion, Aoun and Bassil have been able to call on the support of the Maronite Church while Berri has Shia support, leaving Hariri, a Sunni, to take the blame for their collective failures. This Hariri now refuses to do; the Sunni position now is that either all the leadership quit or no one does.
Since the protests first began at the end of September, Hezbollah and the other political leaders have tried hard to use sectarianism to divide the demonstrators, on the grounds that this tactic has always worked before.
But this time is different. The protesters are from all sects and sectarian rivalry, for now, raises its head very rarely. Identity politics has come to matter less than the policies that affect all sects equally – how to manage living in a country where the currency is tumbling and the infrastructure and economy are crumbling.
As the Lebanese economy continues to freefall, all that Hezbollah, Aoun and their fellow oligarchs have offered is political brinksmanship. That might work when there are no other pressing issues. But with the Lebanese state and economy unraveling rapidly, political maneuvering only incurs more of the people’s wrath on all the players.
Which leaves one option – violence, which the state has been employing at an alarming rate. But even if Hezbollah and the establishment manage to put an end to the protests, social stability will prove elusive. Crime already is on the rise and the daily shortfalls that make life harder are as bad as they ever were.
Lebanon was once known as the Switzerland of the Levant. Now it is on the way to becoming the Venezuela of the Middle East. And the people of Lebanon have Hezbollah and the oligarchy to thank for that.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.