Bullets and burning banks as Lebanon reopens

As Lebanon appeals to the IMF for aid, it crushes renewed protests at home with deadly force. The Diab government offers little hope of better days ahead, analysts and activists tell Al-Jumhuriya.

Angry demonstrations have returned to the streets of Lebanon with a vengeance, following an interruption brought about by Coronavirus lockdown measures, now being gradually eased. The final days of April saw an intense eruption of protests across the country, particularly in the northern city of Tripoli, where banks were torched with Molotov cocktails, and live fire from the army resulted in the death of one demonstrator, 26-year-old Fawwaz al-Samman.

Fueling the protesters’ fury was a severe deterioration in Lebanon’s economy in recent weeks, blamed by demonstrators on a corrupt political class and its perceived alliance with the banking sector and central bank. The past few months have seen the Lebanese lira nosedive to less than half what it was worth last summer, sending prices skyrocketing and wiping out the value of lira-denominated salaries and savings. Banks have added to the pain by preventing withdrawals of dollar-denominated deposits, effectively seizing customers’ assets and making it all the harder for people to put food on the table and procure essential daily necessities. That the Coronavirus lockdown then caused tens of thousands to lose some or all of their incomes, pushing 45% of the population under the poverty line, was merely the latest rub of salt into already-festering wounds.

Thus protesters unleashed their wrath on bank branches, smashing their façades and setting a number alight. In return, they were met with greater force than usual from the security agencies and army, in the form of arrests (with reports of subsequent torture); tear gas; rubber bullets; and even live fire; culminating in the killing of al-Samman and the wounding of dozens more.


Ostensible reforms


On 30 April, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced the approval by his cabinet of a long-awaited “comprehensive” economic reform plan, encompassing a wide range of measures to be taken over the coming months and years. These include raising over $10 billion in foreign aid; an official request for assistance from the International Monetary Fund; a formal abolition of the present currency peg, bringing the lira’s value in line with the “market rate;” the restructuring of Lebanon’s immense public debt (currently estimated at around $92 billion, or 170% of GDP); the reform of large public sector institutions such as the state electricity provider; the return of illegally-acquired wealth; and the establishment of a new social security system.

The plan’s announcement appeared to do little to persuade demonstrators, who returned to the streets the very next day, and again two days later, when protesters descended on Tripoli from various parts of the country carrying placards bearing the face of the deceased al-Samman.

Though touted as “historic” by Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, the government’s plan “doesn’t differ much from previous drafts and plans that were put together in past years,” says Jad Chaaban, Associate Professor of Economics at the American University of Beirut. “All of the proposals are based on scenarios and assumptions that are not under the control of the government, they’re under the control of the ruling class, the centers of power […] If I want to fight corruption, there need to be very clear judicial decisions that will touch most of the people in power. If I want to solve the electricity crisis, there needs to be a very strong decision. So I don’t think it presents enough credible scenarios that take into account the alignment of centers of power and interests that prevail in Lebanon.”

Moreover, the initial “signs are not positive,” says Chaaban, citing “the crackdown on protesters who came back to the streets; the killing and torture; the use of violence and force; [while] at the same time there is no sign that the judiciary will take any strong action against anybody […] These are very important first steps that, if they happened, we would say, ‘Yes, there is some goodwill.’ But putting them on paper and saying, ‘We’ll create a corruption commission to get back the stolen money;’ we’ve created a million commissions” in the past.

In Chaaban’s view, the economic and financial measures outlined ought to be combined with meaningful political action to earn the public’s trust, such as the holding of early parliamentary elections based on a new electoral law. At minimum, there needs to be “a sign that [they’re] willing to change the political class, or open up for change through democratic elections. In any country that goes into massive upheaval, you need a smooth transition of power, or you face the chaos we’re facing right now.”

A second key step would be “enacting the independent judiciary law that would allow independent judges to look into massive fraud and corruption, rather than creating commissions from the current system. These are critical, because otherwise you won’t be able to return any of the money, or investigate, and you won’t have any guarantee that the new money that will come in, the ten or twenty billion dollars or whatever it is, will not be spent in the same way as in the past.”

Finally, Chaaban says he would have preferred to see “a people-centered plan” as opposed to one that merely “reallocates losses” among wealthy “interest groups.”

“There’s a game between the centers of power, and they forget the real plight of the Lebanese people, in terms of prices, inflation, and salaries. Where will they get their income in the short term?”


Attempts to divide the street


Recent weeks have also witnessed a sharpening polarization in Lebanon between two increasingly distinct camps. The first, led by Hezbollah and President Aoun, is supportive of Prime Minister Diab, and holds Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh responsible for the country’s present woes. The second camp, led by the former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces, and the Progressive Socialist Party—none of which is represented in Diab’s cabinet—instead holds Diab himself responsible, along with the parties backing him.

In an article published last week in Asharq al-Awsat, the Lebanese writer Hazem Saghieh wrote that the country’s sectarian political leaders are now “moving to revive sectarian polarization […] at the expense of the polarization that emerged from the 17 October revolution.” Al-Jumhuriya asked Saghieh if he meant by this that Lebanon’s revolutionary movement had ceased to be a significant force in the country’s politics, and had been replaced instead by the familiar old dynamics that dominated between 2005 and October 2019.

“Not exactly,” said Saghieh. “The struggle against the regime, in its political, economic, and ‘Hezbollahi’ dimensions, is likely to keep going and take on new forms. Nevertheless, the regime retains the upper hand, and is likely to do so for some time. It may be compelled to make certain concessions and token sacrifices here and there, but any excessive expectations in this regard are likely to be disappointed.”

This is because, says Saghieh, the “regime” possesses three fundamental advantages.

“The first is that Hezbollah’s weapons have succeeded in keeping [a large number of Shiites] outside the revolution. The second is that the climate in the Arab region generally, and in Syria particularly, is one of counter-revolution. The third is that the non-sectarian beginnings [of Lebanon’s uprising] were not able to develop and expand, not least after the Coronavirus pandemic boosted some of [Lebanon’s] worst isolationist instincts and fears of other communities, at the expense of national cross-sectarian solidarity and the development of a public conversation beneficial to the revolution and its goals.”

Still, might the economic collapse and arrival of the IMF not weaken the traditional sectarian and ideological alignments, causing new alliances to emerge? Saghieh replies that it might, though he also fears Lebanon’s sectarian strongmen will succeed in using the economic crisis to further fuel sectarian passions.

“We saw, for example, that those driven by the suffocating financial crisis to take to the street and challenge the home quarantine regulations were then defamed in a manner with clear sectarian undertones. This may push those same people to increasingly adopt the colors of their sects and geographical regions, given the decline of national solidarity. If it’s reasonable to expect further atrophy from the bankrupt state, coupled with a deterioration in security—which inevitably will be explained in sectarian terms—then we might even see calls for religious sects and regions to take care of their own security. It’s still premature to call this a likely outcome, but it certainly can’t be ruled out.”


Tripoli leads the way


Lebanon’s popular uprising may now be regarded as having two distinct phases, according to political activist Charbel Khoury. “The first wave began on 17 October [2019],” he tells Al-Jumhuriya. “Today, we see a second wave concentrated in Tripoli, as well as Sidon to some extent. The demonstrations that happen elsewhere do so in support of Tripoli, and they remain small and somewhat timid, even in Beirut.”

Among the reasons protests have flared up again are that “the demands of the street went unfulfilled, and most demonstrators consider the Diab government to be essentially no different to its predecessors,” says the Lebanese journalist Yara Debs.

Concurring that there have been two distinct waves to the uprising, Debs adds that the second wave is “angrier.” Tripoli is Lebanon’s poorest city, “and it’s the poor who are leading the movement in this second wave.”

In response, Tripoli’s protests are also being confronted by the authorities in a different manner than elsewhere in the country, says Khoury.

“There is clear sectarian and class-based discrimination in the violence. In Tripoli, it’s now the Lebanese army—an apprentice of the Syrian army—that is hitting the protesters. In previous demonstrations in Beirut, by contrast, it was the riot police—trained by Europe—that handled them. The difference in the level of violence is clear. Tripoli has in any case always been treated cruelly by the regime, which deems it a hotbed of Islamism and terrorism.”

While there is no indication of any such ideological hue to Tripoli’s current protests, the new wave of Lebanon’s uprising is nevertheless “more radical than its predecessor,” says Debs, ascribing this to the fact that more conciliatory tactics have already been tried, and shown to fail. “The anger is greater [this time] because the crisis is greater. The US dollar is now worth 4,250 liras [from 1,500 last summer], and people are starting to go hungry. Things were also made worse by the rapid deployment of the army against the new protests, and the army’s intense violence, to the point that it even fired live rounds and killed one demonstrator, wounding many more.”

A final difference today, says Debs, is that protesters and activists are increasingly talking “about the need to organize,” which was something largely shunned in the initial phase.

“The viciousness of the authorities today has bolstered the need for coordinated tactics and organized action in order to continue the revolution.”


[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 6 May, 2020]


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