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Hariri announces reforms, so will Lebanon get its revolution?

Protesters wave the national flag in downtown Beirut on October 19, 2019.
Protesters wave the national flag in downtown Beirut on October 19, 2019. Anwar Amro, AFP

Demonstrators calling for fundamental changes vowed to keep up protests after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Monday announced his cabinet had approved economic reforms. But can Lebanon break out of an entrenched political system?

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Sandwiched between antagonistic neighbours, with a diverse populace governed under an archaic power-sharing arrangement between religious groups, Lebanon has put up with dysfunctional governance for so long that it has spawned a quintessentially Lebanese protest culture.

On Sunday, when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese across the country demonstrated for a fourth straight day, the protest signs were biting, hilarious and unfailingly hit the bull’s eye. “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit,” read a placard waved by a teenage girl in the Lebanese capital. A few metres away in the heart of Beirut’s slick downtown district, a protester smiled assuredly at news cameras as she brandished a banner proclaiming, “The power of the people is stronger than the people in power”.

Barely 24 hours later, the people in power appeared to have recognized the power of the people. On Monday, Prime Minister Hariri’s cabinet – comprising ministers from rival constituencies and parties under an unwieldy coalition government – overwhelmingly approved a raft of economic reform proposals.

Hariri had given his ministers until Monday night to approve the reforms, failing which, he implied, he would resign. That threat was averted when the cabinet, during a nearly five-hour emergency meeting, approved measures that included 50 percent salary cuts for current and former presidents, ministers and lawmakers.

Announcing the reforms in a speech broadcast live on all local TV stations, Hariri described the measures as a "financial coup," noting that no government in Lebanon's history has taken such steps before.

But the prime minister’s sweeping reform package failed to impressed Lebanese people on the streets or in the ivory tower of academia.

“If Saad Hariri turns into Che Guevara, he will still not have credibility. There’s a real crisis of trust in the politicians. The promises and proposals – helping the poor, cutting the debt – coming from them are not being taken seriously, even if the measures are perfectly sound,” said Karim Emile Bitar, senior fellow at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) and international relations professor at the Beirut-based St. Joseph University, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.  

Sectarianism ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’

The spark for the latest protests were a new set of proposed taxes – including one on WhatsApp calls – to address Lebanon’s massive public debt, the world’s third-highest debt to gross domestic product ratio at more than 140 percent, according to Moody’s, the rating agency.

The additional fiscal burden proved to be the final straw in a country beset by infrastructural problems and poor services, including a failing state electricity system that forces Lebanese residents to rely on expensive generators during daily power cuts.

But as protesters began taking to the streets last week, public anger spread from economic to political problems confronting Lebanon, including corruption and an antiquated, colonial-era confessional system, which divides power between the country’s religious communities.

The system works to maintain a balance of power with ageing warlords-turned-politicians from the civil war era still in office while the legacies of dead ones, from political dynasties, live on with their scions supplying the next generation of national leaders.

“Much more than an economic and financial crisis, Lebanon is going through a profound regime crisis, an institutional crisis, a spiritual and moral crisis unprecedented since the end of the war,” noted Bitar in an op-ed in the French language Lebanese daily, L’Orient Le Jour. “The time has come to lay the foundations for radical and structural reforms of the Lebanese political, economic, social and environmental systems.”

Speaking to FRANCE 24, Bitar acknowledged that an overhaul of the Lebanese political system is a challenge. “It’s still deeply entrenched, it’s still a conservative society,” he conceded. But, he noted, the presence of young people, women and civil society activists on the frontlines of the latest protests could open a space for more fundamental change.

“The Lebanese now know how to detect bullshit. They know that inflicting sectarianism remains the last refuge of the scoundrel,” explained Bitar with a laugh. “Politicians have been using communal fears to prevent citizens from organising. For the first time, they’re failing to do that. People are fed-up with the usual techniques of pitching the Shia versus the Sunnis or one group against another. It’s not working. The Shia are protesting against their own leaders. These are economic grievances, not sectarian ones.”

All together in unity

Lebanon has been experiencing demonstrations over the past few decades including the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” that saw thousands of Lebanese demanding the withdrawal of Syrian forces following the assassination of then prime minister, Rafik Hariri, the current prime minister’s father.

But the protests were also followed by pro-Syria demonstrations called by Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement. While Syrian troops eventually withdrew from neighbouring Lebanon, the counter demonstrations underscored the deep divides in Lebanese society.

This time though, the protests have cut across class and communal divides with extraordinary scenes of demonstrators in the southern Hezbollah heartlands joining the national movement.

In a televised speech Saturday, Nasrallah rejected calls for a government resignation insisting the country could not cope with a political crisis during an economic crisis.

"Everyone should take responsibility rather than being preoccupied with settling political scores while leaving the fate of the country unknown," said Nasrallah. "All of us have to shoulder the responsibility of the current situation that we arrived at," he added.

His speech did not appear to soothe his followers with thousands taking to the streets the next day in southern cities and towns such as Sour, Nabatieh and Sidon. “It’s quite unprecedented. Nasrallah, in his latest speech, missed an opportunity, he gave the impression of supporting his political allies. He didn’t seem supportive of his followers’ grievances,” said Bitar. “But Nasrallah remains a popular figure. His constituency remains strong.”

Back to business

As the days turn into weeks and then months, it’s questionable whether protesters will be able to keep up the momentum for change.

Hours after the Lebanese cabinet approved emergency reforms Monday, several demonstrators maintained they would remain in the streets. In Beirut, protesters continued to sing and chant in the heart of the city after sundown.

"We don't believe that they can change in two days," Fadi Abou Dargham, a 55-year-old jeweler, told Reuters.

Schools, banks and businesses were closed Monday with banks set to remain shut on Tuesday.

“Ultimately people are going to have to face day-to-day concerns and go back to daily life, they could succumb to fears if banks are still closed,” said Bitar. “There’s a lot that has been said about the resilience of the Lebanese people. But the system is still resilient.”

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