Economy /

In Lebanon, a shattered sectarian system looks to be breathing its last. Weeks of protests have shaken the Middle Eastern state, propelling from office a prime minister and his unpopular policies. But for those on the streets, it’s only a start. Noted for their diversity, demonstrators wish to upend the ethnically-structured political landscape, affecting the first real change in a generation. But with the old guard entrenched, progress is slow – and on the verge of bankruptcy, Lebanon’s economy is a ticking time-bomb.

The trigger was seemingly trivial. WhatsApp, the popular text and voice-calling app, would soon be subject to a 20¢ levy, the government said. Their justification was simple: amid Lebanon’s deepening economic downturn, revenue had to be drummed up. But it struck a nerve with the public. Dependent on the service for low-cost communications – Lebanon’s state-owned network is notoriously pricey – people would soon be paying for what should be free. 

The depth of dissent shocked Lebanon’s political establishment. As a million marchers took to the streets, Prime Minister Saad Hariri desperately rowed back, scrapping the incendiary tax. But it was too late. Discord at the levy had mutated into broader fury at the state’s economic bungling and inefficiency. Patronage and corruption permeated every level of government, the protesters claimed, calling on Hariri to resign. On October 29, he obliged – but still the unrest is escalating. 

Lebanon has seen mass movements before. In 2005, Beirut convulsed after the assassination of a former prime minister. Ten years later, a garage collection crisis forced the disgruntled out again. But today’s disquiet is different. Unlike before, the mobilisation is truly nationwide, stretching far beyond Beirut’s city limits. It crosses sectarian lines too, drawing in support from all 18 of Lebanon’s officially recognised religious communities. “It is for Lebanon, for all the people,” says Michele, a 24-year-old who’s been on the streets since day-one.

The nation’s ‘Taif’ system has spurred much of the anger. A response to 15 years of civil war, it divides Lebanon’s political offices between the three biggest sects. The president must be a Maronite Christian, the speaker, a Shia Muslim, and the prime minister of Sunni descent. Though religiously diverse, the structure invites cronyism, critics say, with each figure pandering to their own community, often meshing business interests with politics.  

Endemic economic malpractice also drives the unrest. After years of financial negligence, Lebanon has one of the world’s largest fiscal deficits. It is ensnared by staggeringly high interest rates – national debt is currently 150% of GDP – which compound the country’s spiralling unemployment crisis: over a third of under-35s are jobless.     

Useless elites and a bloated civil service are to blame, protesters argue. They want to see the old guard ousted and technocrats brought in before an election is held. This, they hope, would help steady the economic ship, inspiring confidence in Lebanese finances and unlocking a $11 billion aid package previously pledged by international donors (but since withheld over fears of fiscal malfeasance).  

The money would undoubtedly help, but Lebanon needs wholesale reform. The country has historically relied on flows of foreign currency deposits from its vast diaspora to fund debt repayments, but these are in sharp decline. For any chance of a bright financial future, domestic industry must be stimulated, economists say, with a focus on agriculture and export sectors like tourism.    

The prime minister’s departure has given the country hope – but progress is slow. Multi-faction meetings to thrash out a path forward are yet to commence, and already there’s evidence of backsliding: parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri has said Hariri should be returned to power, at total odds with the protest’s central demand. 

And there’s risk of foreign interference, too. Iran’s close ties to the Lebanese administration’s Shia contingent – those associated with the militant Hezbollah group – are threatened by the unrest. With their allies removed from government, Tehran could see decades of financial, political and military investment come to nothing. Hoping to delegitimise the movement, Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei has invoked the spectre of Western string-pulling.

But more worrying is the apparent onset of violence. Until recently, the movement has been largely peaceful – but news is emerging of sporadic skirmishes. Live ammunition was used by Lebanese security forces on at least one occasion, says Amnesty International, with reports of plainclothes militias – believed to be government loyalists – beating protesters and dismantling tents.    

For a generation, Lebanon has known peace. But the national psyche is etched with the horror of civil war; 120,000 lost their lives in last century’s internecine showdown. A return to hostilities is unthinkable, and thankfully, unlikely. If anything, the current upheaval – with its crossing of sectarian lines – has boosted the nation’s multicultural mentality. Going forward, the Lebanese must put faith in this sense of unity. Do that, and they may achieve what is a rarity in their restive region: a peaceful revolution. 

It's a tough moment
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