Lebanon, protests

Political Vacuum Looms As Protests Sweep Lebanon

As hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Lebanese cities for the third day running, calling for the resignation of the current government as well as the dismantling of all traditional political ruling dynasties, vowing not to leave the streets and end protests until their demands are met. Lebanese demonstrators representing all walks of political, social and religious walks of life seem united in their plea, having completely dropped their factional affiliations and political flags and grouped under the national Lebanese flag. The troubled pro-Saudi prime minister, Saad al Hariri- himself detained by Saudi crown prince MBS in Riyadh last year and forced to submit his resignation from Saudi Arabia at the time- has asked for a 72-hour chance to meet the economic demands of demonstrators against high-level corruption, unprecedented harsh living conditions and daunting economic difficulties which have triggered the current unrest.

Civil war recollections revisited, scenarios feared

While newly proposed taxes on WhatsApp calls sparked off the ongoing nation-wide demonstrations, the real roots of unrest go far deeper than that; decades of political and economic corruption, massive debts and accumulated popular resentment and despair with Lebanon’s traditional political feudalism and warlords who have ruled the country since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990 with the infamous, sectarian-based Ta’if Agreement signed by warring factions’ leaders in Saudi Arabia, which has since meddled with Lebanon’s political life on the side of Sunni Muslim minority and against the Shiite majority population.

Well-founded fears are mounting of foreign hands that could take the generally peaceful sit-ins and demonstrations, occasionally confronted with a heavy-handed response by security and anti-riot police, into the treacherous grounds of armed riots and violent clashes that might get out of control, bringing back scenarios of the civil war that ravaged the country and deepened its political, sectarian and ethnic divide.

“The timing of these battles for bringing down the president and government couldn’t have come at a worse timing,” Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said in a heated televised speech Saturday. ” Some people are asking us to take to the streets, now isn’t the time for that and we hope the time for such a move never comes. The possibility is there, but if we take to the streets, we shall never leave before All of our demands are fulfilled; we shall reverse all present political equilibrium,” Nasrallah added.

Lebanese political figures under collective fire

Under fire too, has been the 30-year long Speaker of Lebanese parliament, Nabih Berri, considered by many a moderate ‘safety valve’ in a potentially volatile country that straddles the geopolitical fault lines of the Middle East.  Lebanese president Michel Aoun and his brother in law, Foreign Minister and president of Free Patriotic Movement Gibran Bassil have too being targeted by demonstrators asking for their removal. This time round, those who took to the streets are making no exceptions and want every single one of the traditional political faces in the country out of office.

Although the current unrest was triggered by economic hardships and poor living standards rather than sectarian violence or regional conflict, no one can guarantee that such reasons couldn’t develop into more serious trouble that undermines national as well as regional security and stability. Previous political vacuums, some lasting for just less than a year, such as the last one prior to the establishment of Hariri’s current cabinet, have paralyzed Lebanon.

Therefore, should the Prime Minister fail to fulfill the demands of demonstrators this time round, Lebanon could once again enter a labyrinth of unpredictable political mayhem that by far exceed the parameters the current “WhatsApp Revolution”. Demonstrators and the majority of Lebanon’s population blame decades of cronyism, corruption and profiteering among the political class for the nation’s economic plight.

Super rich warlords versus super impoverished people

It is believed that a dozen or so Lebanese individuals, mainly previous warlords of the civil war (1975-1990) including some indicted war criminals, are financially worth more than the country’s GDP all together. Lebanon, one of the world’s worst indebted countries, has traditionally relied on income from tourism and foreign inflows of assistance mainly from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and to a lesser extent from the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

With such promises of assistance by Gulf Arab benefactors – albeit not free of political charge- failing to arrive, a sharp decline in tourism returns, accumulating debt burdens and limited resources, Lebanon seemed steadily heading towards an economic disaster. The government was left with little choice but to cut spending, raise taxes and fight corruption to unlock nearly $11 billion in international aid pledges made at a Paris donor conference in 2018. Apart from the WhatsApp levy, Hariri’s government has also discussed gradually increasing value-added tax, currently at 11%, and levies on gasoline as part of a planned austerity budget.

Any sudden collapse of Lebanon’s government and the ensuing power vacuum represent a chilling nightmare for the country and much of the region. Such a development, so far opposed by almost every major political force in Lebanon, is bound to have ramifications on regional security and stability.  Such impacts are expected to affect the conflict in neighboring Syria, the anti-Israeli Lebanese resistance movement as well as the major struggle for Gulf and regional supremacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Ramifications that are much further reaching than Lebanon’s mere geographical size. With the announcement of Lebanese Forces Party leader Samir Jeajea an hour ago, that he had instructed his party’s ministers to resign from the Cabinet, the power vacuum in Lebanon looms much nearer now. It remains to be seen if any other political parties in Lebanon will follow Lebanese LFP’s treacherous move.