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Protests in Lebanon: Hariri’s Resignation and the Uncertain Future of the Country

In the last weeks, there has been a considerable increase in the frequency and intensity of demonstrations and protests throughout the country, aimed at denouncing socio-economic issues and the widespread corruption and clientelism.

The main protests have, so far been, taken place in the capital, Beirut (mainly in Riad al-Solh Square and Martyr’s Square), but also in other urban centers of the country such as Saida, Tiro, Tripoli, Jounieh, Akkar, Chtoura, Jbeil, Aley, Hermel, Baaqline, Kfar Rumman, Jiyye, Batrun, Byblis, Jezzine and the traditional strongholds of Hezbollah movement, Nabatiye and Baalbek. This is the most impressive protest movement in the country since the 2005 Cedar Revolution (with the partial exception of what happened in 2015 with the waste crisis).

The outbreak of such wave of protests, as happened at the same time in other countries of the region (above all, in Iraq), was motivated by the deep socio-economic unease the Lebanese people have been living in for several years now. In recent years, in fact, the sharp rise in the cost of living has not been matched by a simultaneous increase in wages, unemployment has reached 25% (with peaks of 37% for youth unemployment) while the debt / GDP ratio has risen exponentially (86 billion dollars, which is over 150% of GDP).

In a backdrop marked by progressive deterioration of socio-economic conditions, authorities have responded by implementing strong austerity measures which fostered further discontent among the population: in June, the Lebanese Parliament approved the new budget law, based on strongly restrictive economic policies, in order to save the economy and to allow the launch of international aid plan (in particular, the 11 billion dollars allocated within the investment program agreed with third States and international organizations during the Cedre conference, held in Paris in 2018). The restrictive direction of government policy, therefore, has further aggravated the discontent of the population.

The serious issues the country is facing have recently been highlighted by the mismanagement of the fires that have affected mainly the areas to the south and east of Beirut, in Shuf and Metn district, due to the inadequate equipment of firefighters. Moreover, in the days preceding the outbreak of protests, a serious shortage of US dollars in the country was registered (the Lebanese economy recorded a rate of “dollarization” close to 70%). This factor undermined the supply of gasoline, medicines and imported foods and raised concerns about a possible devaluation of the national currency (with a consequent loss of purchase value by the Lebanese population).

Fig. 1: Sayyed Nasrallah, Hezbollah Movement’s Leader, warns against Israel and international plots aiming at exploiting Lebanon’s protests.

Given the precarious economic context in the country, on 3 September 2019, the government decreed the state of economic emergency. In late September already demonstrations and strikes were staged, aimed at denouncing the precarious economic conditions of the country and above all the lack of dollars. In particular, on 11 October, some protesters gathered in front of the parliament demanding early elections. The situation exploded on the night between 17 and 18 October, when, following the approval of a new tax on calls on instant messaging apps (the most used mean of communication in the country, due to the high costs imposed by telephone operators) and of an increase in VAT (2% in 2021 and a further 2% in the following year, to reach a total of 15% in 2022), violent clashes broke out in the capital, Beirut, and in other urban centers of the country involving protesters and the security forces.

In a context of strong instability, on 21 October, the government presented a comprehensive reform plan to try to calm down protests, which included, among other things: the halving of wages allocated to ministers, parliamentarians, diplomats and former representatives of the institutions; the privatization of the telecommunications sector; the radical cut of funds assigned to the Development Councils (bodies created in the post-war period 1975-1990 and which, over the years, have become key actors in the clientelism system); the creation of an anti-corruption committee; a reform of the electricity distribution system, which has been rationalized in many parts of the country for years; the participation of banks in the recovery of the public deficit reaching 5.1 trillion Lebanese pounds. In macroeconomic terms, the plan aimed to reach a deficit close to 0% for 2020 (currently the deficit is close to 8%). However, the series of presented reforms appeared immediately insufficient to quell the protests, which in fact continued even in the following days, prompting Prime Minister Hariri to resign on 29 October 2019.

Although, in general, protests are particularly frequent in Lebanon, the current socio-political insurgency differs deeply from the previous ones due to its wide geographical scope, the type of the turmoil created, but above all for their being transversal. Such current wave of protests have not been marked by confessional motives, and a broad solidarity between the different communities and social classes has been clearly visible. The a-confessional aspect of the demonstrations was confirmed by people’s general condemnation and refusal of the entire dominant political establishment (symbolically expressed in the slogan used by the protesters “kellon yaani kellon”, “Everyone, means all”), regardless of the confession and the party to which they belong, together with the direct criticism they express towards their own political-confessional representatives.

From a political standpoint, the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri opens up a period of great uncertainty in relation to the next phases of the crisis: according to early information, in fact, a technical government might be formed, as requested by protesters. This, in line with a review of the electoral law and the necessary economic reforms, should lead the country to new elections.

Hariri himself might receive the task of forming a new technical government but, as already emerged in the last few days, the Lebanese people would hardly accept this solution.

Therefore, the current Lebanese crisis will likely lead to a new long period of institutional vacuum, aggravated and influenced by the regional dynamics which consider Lebanon one of the main theaters of the “proxy war” fought between Iran and Saudi Arabia.