When a government has lost the faith of its people, what value is the confidence of politicians? In Lebanon, we may soon find out. The embattled administration of Hassan Diab convincingly won a parliamentary vote on its future this week. But as the government fights a rising tide of civil unrest tied to the nation’s deepening financial crisis, the clock is ticking for Lebanon’s beleaguered leader.
Lebanon’s Ongoing Economic Collapse
Monday’s ballot was the latest twist in the saga of spiraling economic woes and public revolt. Since October—when protesters propelled Diab’s predecessor Saad Hariri from office—anti-government demonstrations have grown ever fiercer. Their grievances are wide-ranging, but a common thread runs through the movement: distrust of a political class deemed incompetent and corrupt.
In Beirut on Monday, that fury boiled over. As loud chants of “no confidence!” rose up, protesters clashed with security forces near the parliament. Eggs and stones were thrown and tear gas was fired back. In total, 373 people were injured.
Among them was Salim Saadeh, a lawmaker who ended up in hospital bruised and bloodied. Other politicians running the protest gauntlet—many on the backs of motorcycles—fared better, and most assumed their parliament seats unscathed.
Economic Reform Plan Passes, but Fury on the Streets Continues
For nine hours politicians debated the government’s proposed economic reform plan. In the end, the vote wasn’t even close: 63 in favor, 20 against. It was a resounding win for Diab, but on the streets outside, there was little let up in the fury.
“People are suffering and the government is not listening, said Lama Tabbara, 34, an unemployed protester speaking with Reuters. “It takes a long time to uproot an old rotten tree and that’s what the government represents.”
Her anger is justified. Lebanon’s financial crisis is the worst in a generation. The Middle Eastern state’s debt ratio stands at 150% of GDP, one of the highest in the world. The economy is shrinking fast too, and unemployment is perhaps as high as 40%.
Protesters Light Lebanese Bank on Fire
In a scene emblematic of the meltdown, a bank in downtown Beirut was set ablaze by rioters. It, like other financial institutions, had restricted customers’ access to money and blocked transfers abroad.
“Painful” measures are required to avoid complete catastrophe, Diab told lawmakers. His plan involves reforming the judicial, economic, and administrative sectors, as well as fighting corruption and fixing the country’s finances.
With parliament’s blessing, Diab can now push ahead. But support was won only with the backing of Hezbollah—a party with strong ties to Islamist militancy—and its allies. Regarded by many on the world stage as a terror group, this poses a real problem for Diab.
Diab desperately needs the $11 billion aid package promised by the international community, which is contingent on his implementing of economic reform. But in pursuing the requisite changes, he risks bringing a widely-distrusted organization—particularly in the West—too close for comfort.
Ultimately, though, Lebanon’s fate—and that of its prime minister—is neither in the hands of Hezbollah nor in the hands of foreign forces. Fully mobilized, well organised, and—crucially—crossing sectarian lines, protesters now hold the balance of power. If Diab fails he will have to reckon with them.