Although once viewed as a sanctuary of democracy and relative stability in the increasingly turbulent Middle East, Lebanon’s past three months have been anything but stable. Nationwide protests cutting across sectarian and political lines brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets, calling for the overhaul of a corrupt system controlled by the elites.
Changes Caused By Lebanon’s Mass Protests
The crisis that has ensued since the protests began in mid-October has seen one prime minister, Saad Hariri, step down and after almost two months, and another named in his place. On December 19, the Lebanese Cabinet named Hassan Diab as the country’s new premier, voting him in with a narrow majority.
Given the country’s religious and sectarian diversity, where slightly less than half of the population is Christian and the remaining Muslims are almost evenly split between Shiites and Sunnis, Lebanon has a quite definitive and unique political structure. It mandates the president be a Christian, speaker of the parliament Shiite and the prime minister Sunni.
Although he is a Sunni, Diab failed to get the backing of his own community in the prime ministerial vote. Instead, it was the Hezbollah-led Shiite bloc that provided him with the numbers to cross the line with 69 votes, while former PM Hariri’s group abstained. That could brew trouble for the new premier as a disruption in Lebanon’s strictly sectarian power sharing scheme has angered some Sunnis, given the new candidate doesn’t really enjoy much support from them.
Lebanese Balance Of Power
With the Shiite speaker of the parliament has already been long known as pro-Hezbollah, the designation of a Sunni PM thanks to the Iranian-backed militant group’s blessing suggests the scales are tipping in favor of Tehran as it now has direct influence over two of the three key positions in the Lebanese political system.
This must be a relief for the Islamic Republic, which has recently faced pressure in its satellite states, including Iraq where protesters even in the Shiite-majority Karbala registered their strong displeasure over Tehran’s overreaching influence in their country’s affairs. The case in Lebanon is no different, where the demonstrators have demanded an end to the current system, of which Hezbollah is an integral part.
Step Forward For Stability Or More Of The Same?
Although it may be a step forward for political stability in Lebanon, at this point there is nothing to be complacent about. Diab’s appointment has been met with protests, albeit waning in strength. The key demand of the streets since day one has been the replacement of the political establishment, but the new premier is cut from the same cloth of the former ruling class as he previously served as the education minister from 2011-14 under President Michel Suleiman. Therefore, many demonstrated in Sunni-dominated Tripoli and the capital Beirut against his appointment, seeing it as a mere change of faces and continuation of corruption.
This appointment, however, has some proponents, too, as many want to give Diab a chance given his image as an honest man. Moreover, Diab’s promise of forming a government of independent technocrats resonates well with the protesters’ demands, something he emphasized again after being nominated.
In addition to somewhat pacifying a charged and angry populace, Diab has quite a serious crisis to deal with in the immediate future. Lebanon’s economy is in severely bad shape thanks to stalled growth rates and a massive debt burden, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 140 percent. This massive debt requires payments of $1.5 billion worth of Eurobonds by this March.
To make matters worse, the Lebanese pound has lost around 30 percent of its value against the US dollar since September, which is further compounded by the country’s habit of running significant trade deficits.
Reforms on the economic front will be the deciding factor which will make or break the new PM, as Lebanese citizens have time and again shown their willingness to flood the streets and hold their leaders accountable when they don’t follow through on their promises.