Just one week in Lebanese politics saw the start of the holy month of Ramadan followed soon after by a further devaluation of the local currency, new protestors breaking the lockdown rules, and the Lebanese witnessing a new phenomenon via a video clip on social media: a man wrestling with police officers while repeating the words “I’m hungry. . .I’m hungry.”
This latest grave spat of violence and disorder kicked off on Friday, April 24, when the Lebanese pound crashed to a new all-time low of 4,000 LBP to $1 USD (down from a fixed peg of 1,500 pounds to the dollar in place for 30 years). Effectively, this meant that for those unfortunate to have savings in the local currency, their savings were worth about a third of what they were before the crisis began in October of last year. For those who have no savings though, life took on a new level of desperation and futility as supermarket foods had, in some cases, quadrupled in price.
The lull in the political atmosphere during the corona crackdown was woefully misjudged by the elite.
But the lull in the political atmosphere during the corona crackdown was woefully misjudged by the elite who stood by a new banking regulation set by a central bank governor – himself facing $2 billion USD embezzlement accusations – which ruled that anyone with US dollar savings could only withdraw in local currency, at a new market rate of 4,000 LBP or thereabouts. The misjudgment was a stunning example of the tone- deaf leaders running Lebanon who fiddle while Rome burns. As was a one hour monologue on TV by the central bank governor himself deflecting accusations of incompetence.
Wide-scale discontent with the entire political system, which allowed militia leaders to run the country like their own private companies, using religion as a fear tactic to keep support from their own kin, are over. The game that these leaders played so well, dividing the religious groups and stirring ethnic fear, is up.
The Lebanese won’t be fooled again.
On Monday night, April 27, the protests, which were more prominent in Sunni strongholds like Sidon and Tripoli and involved burning up to 20 banks, reached a new tide mark in both their desperation and political significance. One protestor lost his life in Tripoli to a round (some say a live one) from the army.
The death of this 26-year-old man has focused everyone’s minds, except those in power, as to the very real threat of the country descending into anarchy. Remarkably, the elite feel quite confident about riding out this storm as they slowly shuffle papers and argue over the fine print of the latest rescue package. Lebanon’s new Prime Minister announced that a new rescue plan will be “examined” in the coming days, seemingly unaware of the speed that Lebanon is descending into chaos.
What is unfolding is a growing new wave of violence – not linked to previous protest movements – which appears intent on overthrowing the present government. To the bystander, this new battle now has become a more lucid affront to the Hezbollah led government, a “no confidence” vote of the Hezbollah-aligned President Michel Aoun.
Or so it would seem.
The protest movement has not organized itself and has not merged into a credible opposition.
Sadly, the protest movement in general has not organized itself and not merged into a credible opposition but remained opaque and aloof in its demands for change.
And the government and its powerful leaders know it. The elite, egged on both by Saudi Arabia and Iran who both think that each can win a waiting game in Lebanon, have not factored the desperation and discontent of too many people who just a few weeks ago were wondering how they were going to find a job, and this week are wondering how to feed their own families. “We can’t even afford the cheap, local white cheese in the shops,” one citizen told Inside Arabia via WhatsApp.
The tipping point is now here. The Lebanese are now ready to fight, rather than merely protest. Or at least that’s what we might believe.
Reports from trusted sources told Inside Arabia that the riots were not organized and agreed on by Hariri, Gaegae, and Jumblatt – three recalcitrant politicos who also have their eyes focused on a “win-win” scenario if the present Hezbollah led coalition falls.
In reality it is Hezbollah itself who is the mastermind behind the riots, as contrary to what many believe, the Aoun government and Hezbollah do, in fact, have a plan. They sternly believe Hezbollah taking control of the country is the only way forward. But to do that, the notion that Hezbollah can be defeated, has to be crushed. Hezbollah forces restoring law and order in Tripoli and in Saida is the wily ruse.
The question of how much longer the Hezbollah government can stay in power is still valid however, when the Lebanese begin to realize the game which is being played.
Aoun, being a military man, must surely be considering a military state of emergency in Beirut, Saida, and Tripoli, which he almost did in 2016 during the garbage demonstrations. This we may well see in Lebanon if this present government insists on closing its eyes to the economic situation when most Lebanese are dumbfounded how Aoun did not appeal to the IMF, UN, or the EU for food aid weeks ago.
Aoun’s supporters will argue that on April 6, Aoun appealed for help, but merely referred to the CEDRE aid package of $11 billion USD which was penciled in for Lebanon in Paris in April 2018 – but only if a swathe of reforms were met. Donors may well have been confused by this statement and not considered it as emergency aid for food. Or thought it too dangerous to hand over that kind of money to a government mired in corruption allegations.
Aoun’s priorities are not saving a currency in freefall or even finding food for those hungry, but how to capitalize on the chaos.
In either case, it bothers not Aoun. His priorities are not saving a currency in freefall or even finding food for those hungry, but how to capitalize on the chaos.
Yet, he is not alone in this way of thinking.
Hariri’s role even in the wings of politics, also cannot be ignored. In the last few days in office as Prime Minister in December, he appealed to a number of countries for food aid. Was he covering his own back against opprobrium knowing what was coming? Is this what is at the heart of the matter? Political point scoring? Perhaps. Many respected analysts said when Hariri resigned after a stand-off with Hezbollah that the move was a cunning stunt merely to lay the ground for his return. The orchestrated chaos in Tripoli might even play into Hariri’s hands when the truth emerges.
But what Lebanon needs is not Hariri to come back but an initiative from the elite which secures their business status while trading democratic accountability for a future generation of leaders. The protestors’ call for early parliamentary elections is a step in the right direction, given that the parliament is the most corrupt institution in Lebanon, but a new parliament will be nothing more than a posse of fresh-faced thieves if reform cannot go ahead.
Fiscal reform certainly, which banishes the rich from not paying taxes coupled with judiciary powers to investigate and prosecute those who embezzle public funds, is a no-brainer. But also, Lebanon needs an independent anti-corruption body made up of retired EU police officers (which the EU in Brussels would certainly help them set up) headed by someone who is whiter than white and prepared to make enemies.
Lebanon needs to decentralize its power structure.
And, lastly, Lebanon needs to decentralize its power structure, so that not only does it abandon the confessional system, which is the bedrock of prevalent corruption and actually installed leaders like Aoun, but also wholly embraces a federal system of governance, not unlike the Swiss model.
President Aoun and Riad Salameh, the central bank governor, both resigning would be progress. But what Lebanon really needs is a new system which asks a much more intelligent question, which extends beyond the polarized limits of being with Hezbollah, or against it. Lebanon needs a third way. And neither Mr. Hariri nor Mr. Aoun can deliver that as they are not only stuck in the past and have invested everything in the business of graft and grand illusions but have no understanding of what governance means. In almost 30 years, they have feasted too much. Lebanon is still hungry.
 Conference for Economic Development and Reform through Enterprises (CEDRE)