Popular demonstrations and nationwide sit-ins in Lebanon gained rejuvenated momentum today as Prime Minister Saad al Hariri handed his cabinet’s resignation to President Michel Aoun shortly after 3 pm GMT. Hariri earlier in the day announced his intention to the public as he headed for the Baabda presidential palace to see the president, stating that he was doing so after he had reached a dead-end, and in response to the popular demands of the 13-day long uprising for his cabinet to step down.
Hariri declined to talk to journalists or make any statement or comments following the resignation which plunges Lebanon into the abyss of political vacuum. Tuesday witnessed the most violent clashes so far between demonstrators and Lebanese army and police forces trying to reopen some vital streets and bridges the blockage of which has crippled much of the everyday business and movement for millions of ordinary Lebanese citizens protesting at the protesters’ actions which have rendered the country under a virtual lock-down.
Despite the overwhelming initial jubilation expressed by demonstrators at Hariri’s resignation, their insistence that the whole political system must be overhauled sent alarm bells that the tear gas and rubber bullets of this morning clashes, could soon deteriorate into something much more serious and costly. The two sides remain at volatile loggerheads over the endless list of political and electoral reforms as well as demands for all political figureheads to step down in advance of new parliamentary elections and the formation of a new government void of any of the traditional political or sectarian quotas-based considerations and criteria.
Political vacuum; a whirlwind that could sweep all
After 10 months of procrastination, political hurdle-jumping exercises and endless rounds of deliberations following his mandate as prime minister-elect for the third time running, Hariri was able to form his national unity government, which included some of his political adversaries, less than two years ago. However, he has struggled to remain a compromised broker among deeply divided and bitterly belligerent Lebanese politicians and traditional heirs to controversial dynasties – many themselves are, or were decedents of, prominent warlords who made massive fortunes during and after the Civil War (1975-1990)- that have ruled the country since its independence from France 31 December 1946. Hariri inherited a humongous burden of economic hardships, corruption scandals and political challenges he was unable to tackle.
His scandal of Hariri’s unprecedented arrest in Riyadh – along with hundreds of Saudi royals and top businessmen- by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) and the forced televised resignation Hariri had to make from the Saudi capital on 4 November 2017 rendered him much weaker and lacking any independent political will or decision-making capability. In recent months, the country’s rapid economic deterioration, billowing debts, rising prices further aggravated by the proposed new taxes which sparked off the current unrest, made it impossible for the Lebanese government to remain functional.
Who bears the blame, and at what cost?
Whether the outgoing Prime Minister bears much of the blame for a good deal of Lebanon’s chaos and corruption scandals, or whether he was a sitting lame duck and a scapegoat to the big sharks in the country and beyond, looking for acceptable Sunni substitutes is not at all an easy job in Lebanon. “I can’t hide this from you. I have reached a dead-end,” Hariri said in his resignation speech. “To all my political peers, our responsibility today is how to protect Lebanon and to uplift the economy,” he added. “Today, there is a serious opportunity and we should not waste it.” Although it wasn’t yet clear if President Michel Aoun would ask Hariri himself to form a new government, regardless of popular demands of protesters, leaving Lebanon to take a free dive to the abyss of a political vacuum could easily spell disaster and cause massive economic, political and social irreparable damage.
The country needs a miraculous recipe that can manage to fulfil all or most of the demonstrators’ conditions to end their uprising, and at the same time take into consideration the extremely volatile and delicate balance of force among the country’s influential war barons turned politicians. Many of those warlords have their militias, conflicting regional and international backing and affiliations, massive fortunes estimated at over $320 billion in Switzerland alone according to a recently published freezing order.
The ‘Nero’ s of Lebanon, if threatened to lose their economic grip and political powerhouse, could resort to the suicidal option of chaos, destruction and even the mayhem of civil war once again. President Aoun, his allies and a few rational factions in Lebanon are working hard on a compromise way out that prevents a total collapse. Whether they will succeed in their challenging mission or not, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s banks, schools and most business outlets remain shut down for the 13th day running, and Hariri’s resignation could deepen the divide already reflected by the ongoing unrest and exacerbate the economic crisis. However, many protesters on the streets of Lebanese cities and towns claim that it also provides an opportunity to shake off the country’s sectarian system and facilitate its transition into civil governance.