Lebanon has been gripped with massive protests since October 17, 2019. The unprecedented leaderless and nationwide demonstrations against corruption, economic paralysis, unemployment, sectarian government rule, worsening economic inequality, and lack of basic services, such as electricity, water, and garbage collection, show no signs of abating. The protests are a natural consequence of a failing economy, which has been spiraling down at an alarming rate in recent months.
Nearly 400 restaurants closed, and holiday sales plummeted by 80 percent during the past Christmas season. The Lebanese economy may soon collapse with rising capital flight, currency devaluation, unemployment rate, and limits on money withdrawals from banks. As the crisis worsens, the country may default on its massive debt over the next two months if it is not bailed out with international financial aid.
The ire of Lebanese protesters is aimed at their government, which they believe has completely failed the country. Similar to the ongoing protests in Iraq, the crowds in the streets of Lebanon are insisting that the entire government must leave. The Lebanese government is based on a sectarian system, in which power has been apportioned to various religious sects since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990.
The ongoing protests are not limited to one religious group. In fact, they cross all sectarian lines. Foreseeing no future with the current sectarian system of government, protesters have called for its replacement with a technocratic government. Unable to meet the demands and cope with the scale of protests, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned on October 29, 2019.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun named Hassan Diab, former Education Minister, as Prime Minister on December 19, 2019. Diab, who was put forward by the Iran-backed Hezbollah, a powerful military and political group in Lebanon, was immediately met with rejection from the demonstrators. The names of candidates for ministerial jobs that leaked over the Internet were also met with disapproval among protesters, who doubt the independence of the candidates who would form the new government.
Protesters view the system as inherently corrupt and incompetent, which has so far only exploited sectarian divisions rather than provided basic social and economic services to all people.
The current Lebanese protests are at their peak of paralysis of the sectarian system. Protesters view the system as inherently corrupt and incompetent, which has so far only exploited sectarian divisions rather than provided basic social and economic services to all people. While Hezbollah wields political and economic power in Lebanon, protesters increasingly see it as part of the system that failed them.
Having transformed from a guerilla group fighting Israeli occupation into a formidable political and military organization since the early 1980s, Hezbollah has managed to gain support from the grassroots as well as the political establishment of Lebanon. For years acting in parallel with the Lebanese state, it has provided education, healthcare, and grocery stores, and managed agricultural and construction projects among other things to thousands of Shiites in Lebanon.
Hezbollah also supplied water to besieged residents of Beirut, who had no running water during the war with Israel in July 2006. Consequently, Hezbollah and its allies enjoy majority power in the parliament. But if they were to form a government, they would face global isolation because Hezbollah is designated a terrorist organization by a large portion of the international community.
Therefore, while Hezbollah has weaved itself into the social fabric of Lebanon, the ongoing political and economic crisis has exposed it as an anachronistic force that is holding the country back rather than helping it move forward.
To a large degree, Hezbollah has managed to gain prominence in Lebanon over the past three decades by externalizing the threat and building a parallel social and economic structure in the country. But as Lebanon’s economy continues to unravel and the current political system no longer represents the people, popular discontent threatens Hezbollah’s political standing as well.
The situation worsened still after Hezbollah and its Shiite ally movement, Amal, violently attacked protesters and destroyed their camp in Beirut in November 2019.
The situation worsened still after Hezbollah and its Shiite ally movement, Amal, violently attacked protesters and destroyed their camp in Beirut in November 2019. Amal began to look at the Hezbollah as a problem, and not a solution. Protesters even began to openly call Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Statements by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, that protesters were paid by foreign embassies caused a mass outrage. In response, protesters began running a hashtag #IAmFundingTheRevolution on Twitter. Facing increasing delegitimization in the eyes of the Lebanese people, Hezbollah may be facing its greatest existential crisis to date. Afraid of losing hard won gains, Hezbollah runs a risk of further isolation within Lebanon if it continues to physically attack and smear protesters with falsehoods.
The signs are already there. After the clashes between protesters and Hezbollah in November, doubts began to emerge among its supporters about the positive role of the organization in Lebanon. Unhappy with Hezbollah’s violent response to what they see as legitimate claims, some Hezbollah fighters have abandoned the organization, turned against it, and joined the protesters.
Hezbollah had hoped that it would quickly quash the protests with violent means. What it did not realize was that the loss of popular confidence would not be re-gained through force, and Hezbollah’s past military successes may not matter to people anymore if their struggles and grievances are not taken seriously.
Going forward, Hezbollah may face even more street pressure as Lebanon is in dire need of external financial help to prevent a total economic collapse.
Going forward, Hezbollah may face even more street pressure as Lebanon is in dire need of external financial help to prevent a total economic collapse. However, Western and Arabian Gulf nations’ sanctions against Iran-backed networks, including Hezbollah, may prevent Lebanon from getting the necessary aid.
In fact, former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s inability to secure 11 billion USD in aid right before his resignation was due in part because of Hezbollah’s strong political presence in Lebanon. The U.S. is holding back 105 million in security assistance to Lebanon.
Hezbollah still enjoys the dedication and loyalty of more than 20,000 active fighters and close to 30,000 reservists, according to estimates of IHS Jane’s, an open-source intelligence consultancy. So, it has a relatively better chance of survival than other political parties in Lebanon.
But feeling the heat after the attacks on domestic protesters, and faced with a disintegrating economy, Hezbollah may need to use more than diplomacy and negotiation to survive politically. A violent path may doom Lebanon’s fragile political and economic architecture and no one seems to have an answer.