Blog - October 22, 2019
Last Thursday, Lebanon erupted with ongoing popular protests demanding governmental reform. Thousands of Lebanese took to the streets, particularly its major cities, to call for economic reform and the resignation of the current government for mismanagement, which has brought the country to the brink of economic collapse. A protest leader in Tripoli’s Al-Nour Square claimed “70,000 protesters” had congregated there alone. Deeba Shadnia, a Lebanon-based reporter, told the author that countrywide figures neared 1.2-1.7 million protesters, which is greater than the 2005 Cedar Revolution. Significantly, the protests are largely non-sectarian and non-partisan, virtually excluding any party flags or chants. In fact, protesters denounced their own sectarian leaders in their respective strongholds.
The proximate cause of the protests was a suggested “tax” on VoIP services, including WhatsApp, Viber, and other similar platforms. Users would be charged $0.20 per day for placing calls on the VoIP services, totaling up to $6 per month. With Lebanon having some of the highest prices on mobile phone services in the region, most of the users of these VoIP platforms were predominantly of lower income, and would have been disproportionately affected by this tax, had it passed. The move appears to have been prompted by a 33% decline in state telecom revenues from 2017 to 2018, which the government attributed to the use of these free VoIP applications.
The Lebanese reacted with anger to the so-called “WhatsApp Tax” on social media, and began taking to the streets in protest, prompting the government to quickly backtrack on its move at Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s behest. However, by that point, it was too late to contain public anger over decades of economic mismanagement and governmental corruption. A culture of governmental corruption has prevailed in Lebanon since the country’s inception, with sectarian chieftains using politics to enrich their supporters and enhance their power.
The Taif Accords that ended the country’s 15-year Civil War (1975-1990) reaffirmed this sectarian system under Syrian domination. Politicians – including Hariri’s late father, Rafic – reaped the often-lucrative benefits of this Pax Syriana, profiting from the country’s post-war reconstruction and the millions of dollars poured into Lebanon by international donors. Despite this reconstruction, Lebanon’s infrastructure, particularly its electrical grid, continued to crumble while the repeat electoral promises of governmental reform and anti-corruption measures from politicians went unfulfilled. Lebanon now has one of the world’s highest public debt burdens, equivalent to 150% of its GDP and is projected to rise to 180% by 2023.
CEDRE and its Reforms
In April 2018, Lebanon’s international backers convened CEDRE, a French acronym for “Economic Conference for Development through Reforms and with Enterprise” in order to construct an economic reform plan for Lebanon to be implemented in exchange for a financial bailout package. Despite the initial positive initiative shown by the Lebanese government, the implementation of the promised reforms languished. Lebanon failed to even pass a 2019 budget until mid-July 2019, and the 2020 budget seemed to be bogging down in inter-party squabbles. In the meantime, donor confidence began to flag, and several credit rating companies, like Fitch and Moody’s, downgraded Lebanon, with S&P giving Beirut a six-month grace period before doing the same. Moreover, S&P warned that declining deposit flows and the resulting drawdown of foreign currency reserves that would endanger Lebanon's ability to maintain the local currency peg to the U.S. dollar.
The budget also contained several austerity measures intended to address the years of economic mismanagement, but as analyst Paul Gedala notes most of these measures would impact lower income families and not lower Lebanon’s deficit or fix the economy. Adding insult to injury, Gedala noted “Lebanese MPs scrapped a proposal to limit their own salaries, which they receive for life at a total cost of $20 million per year, paid by the Lebanese state.”
It was against this backdrop that the so-called “WhatsApp Tax” can be seen as a last straw that pushed the Lebanese people into the streets.
Immediate Reaction to Current Uprisings
Lebanese officials of various stripes tried to contain the backlash, without being perceived as opposing the protesters. The Lebanese Forces party ordered its ministers to resign from the government. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech that both supported the protesters, but also warned them against toppling the government. Prime Minister Hariri meanwhile tried to deliver on the protestors demands—by giving his governmental partners 72 hours to begin moving forward on economic reforms, “or else.”
On Monday, the prime minister unveiled sweeping promised economic reforms. Per the proposed reforms, the 2020 budget would not impose any new taxes, and would slash minister and MP salaries by 50%. He also promised that the banking sector and central bank would help reduce the country’s deficit by about $3.4 billion in 2020.
The protestors have been unmoved by Hariri’s promises. Many expressed distrust in the government’s ability or willingness to implement the promised reforms. The premier’s words, whose popularity has ebbed even among his traditional Sunni support base, likely failed to make any impact given recent revelations that he had gifted $16 million to a South African model starting in 2013, even as his media business floundered and its employees went unpaid. As close as can be deduced, the protesters demanded a smaller, non-sectarian, non-partisan government of technocrats unconnected to the current political class, to implement sweeping reforms.
Hezbollah and Amal alone, it seemed, came to the defense of the prime minister and his promised economic reforms. Additionally, outside actors—like Iran—tried to weaponize the protests, making them into a referendum on Israeli influence in the region as opposed to the government’s perceived corruption, mismanagement, and the economy.
Over the past decade, several uprisings resembling the current protests have failed to bring about effective change. That alone should give reason for pause to those expecting significant change or a revamping of their political system.
Lebanon is no stranger to failed revolutions. In 2005, almost equally large crowds took to the streets demanding an end to Syria’s control over Lebanon and the departure of its occupying forces. It succeeded in bringing about that immediate goal. Ultimately, however, it did not lead to genuine Lebanese independence from foreign influence, as Beirut’s Syrian suzerain was soon replaced by Iran via its proxy Hezbollah. This current uprising could bring about sweeping change in the immediate term—perhaps the fulfillment of the protesters’ demands, however unlikely, of a non-sectarian, technocratic government—but also ultimately fail to bring about the long-term, substantive changes demanded by the crowds.
One critical difference between the Cedar Revolution and the current uprising is the apparent pan-sectarian and non-partisan nature of the crowds. This unity could help pull the current movement forward, but only up to a point. More likely, once the excitement of the moment has passed, the unremedied vast disparities in political outlook between the protesters—despite all their current commonalities—will reemerge and produce new gridlock.
Another possibility is that the government and current political class uses the appearance of implementing promised reforms to buy itself time. Prime Minister Hariri has said that reforms must be implemented within three months, ample time for public anger to dissipate as their politicians provide them with the illusion of change, after which the old stagnation will resume.
The Hezbollah Factor
In all of this, Hezbollah’s stance is the most interesting. The group is verbally supporting the protesters, in a likely bid to coopt their anger to its benefit or at least avoid being swept up in it. At the same time, the group is trying to prevent the crowds from obtaining their goals that could harm Hezbollah’s interests – namely, the resignation of its ally President Michel Aoun, whose Free Patriotic Movement amplifies the group’s governmental and political power, but also Prime Minister Hariri. Despite being a political foe on paper, the prime minister’s malleability and interest in maintaining Lebanon’s stability as an end goal at all costs allow Hezbollah to continue its gradual growth in the country unhindered.
Hezbollah has already laid out its red lines. In this instance, Nasrallah made clear the party would oppose toppling the government or attempts to force President Aoun’s resignation. This is in addition to the party’s preexisting red lines, which include its weapons arsenal, fighters, freedom of movement across the Lebanese-Syrian frontier, and any other action that could impact “the Resistance.” Unnamed party sources – which the Hezbollah denies having – told MTV Lebanon that Hezbollah is monitoring the people’s reaction to Hariri’s promised economic reforms. If that doesn’t turn positive, they claimed the group would intervene to support Hariri and Aoun – most likely in the form of counter-protests by the group and its allies’ supporters.
On Monday evening, Hezbollah-affiliated thugs roamed the streets of Beirut harassing protesters and were only turned back by the Lebanese Army’s intervention. Some took the Army’s intervention – usually loathe to intervene against Hezbollah – and Hezbollah’s subsequent denials of official involvement to signal an unprecedented change in the country’s balance of power.
More likely, however, Hezbollah was simply probing. Rather than signaling a change in the group’s domestic fortunes, its denial was an attempt to dissociate from these thugs to avoid being caught in the crosshairs of public anger while it is so widespread and hot. Street thugs are not the group’s official fighters, or its precious weapons arsenal. They’re not worth Hezbollah entering into a confrontation, when it can avoid it or still try to ride the wave of public anger to its advantage. However, if its red lines are crossed, or it feels its back is up against the wall, then the party can be expected to react much differently.
David Daoud is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) on Hezbollah and Lebanon. He can be followed on Twitter at @DavidADaoud