October 2020 marked a year of sizeable political protests in Lebanon. Protesters demanded a complete overhaul of the system. The protests see the coming together of people in a way that spans beyond Lebanon’s religious sects, going against the sectarian tradition of political mobilisation in the country. This time, people mobilised along class lines. They pursued an end to the sectarian state system, alongside a smattering of social justice demands.
1. Sectarian neoliberalism
Lebanon’s political and economic system can be described as sectarian capitalist, or perhaps, more specifically, sectarian neoliberal, in its make-up. In this system, the state adopts a laissez-faire approach towards the economy, while the various branches of the state apparatus are entrenched in sectarianism: elites from each sect are given perpetual control of certain posts.
For example, the position of president must always be held by a Maronite, the prime minister must always be a Sunni, and speakership of the house is reserved for Shia. The system has become more solidified since the end of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and the signing of the Ta’if Accords which, despite making slight alterations to parliamentary mathematics and reducing presidential powers, resulted in the maintenance of a political system built around sectarian affiliation.
Alongside this sectarian dimension, the country was always one of the more free market-orientated nations of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, at least since the end of colonial rule. Lebanon has long relied on its financial sector, acting as a link between the West and rest of the MENA region. However, since the 2008 global economic crisis and a resulting drop in income from other sectors, Lebanon has become increasingly dependent on its financial sector. Hinrichsen points out that this has led to an increase in inequality between economic classes.
Traditionally, the Lebanese state had minimal involvement in supporting the poorer members of society. Rather, sectarian organisations and branches of political parties have stepped in to provide welfare programmes, major infrastructure projects, and education and healthcare support. While these projects have been profitable for those providing such services, the Lebanese from lower income backgrounds face little prospect of escaping economic hardship.
2. The role of parties
Political parties in Lebanon have two important functions in the sectarian capitalist system. On the one hand, they implement policies in accordance with the neoliberal leanings of international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund. The staple policies favoured by these institutions are well outlined in the work of Williamson. In Lebanon, we have seen concerted efforts towards deregulation of the tax system, cuts in public spending and privatisation of some state-run companies.
The state hands out contracts to companies which have strong links to parties and politicians from all sects. In the years since the Ta’if Accords, this process has even come to include previously outcasted parties, such as Hezbollah.
As Daher points out, following the devastation to large cities during the civil war, Hezbollah and businesspeople with close links to the party have fared especially well in the construction industry. Though quantifying the true financial benefits earned by Hezbollah can be difficult as dealings with interchangeable circles of political and commercial elites lack transparency.
This corruption can be underlined by the country’s score of 28/100 on the 2019 Corruption Perception Index report, placing Lebanon 137th in the world alongside the likes of Russia and Uganda.
The other major role the parties have is to maintain the current system and ensure that dissent does not get out of hand. Entrenched, state-sponsored sectarianism proved to be an effective tool for political elites seeking to suppress any nascent, class-based solidarity among Lebanese workers. Instead of uniting over shared, class-based interests, workers become divided over sectarian issues.
The sectarian entrepreneurs of Lebanon’s political parties also play a key role in maintaining high levels of “groupness” among each individual sect. However, as Brubaker’s scholarship on groupness indicates, levels of solidarity within an ethnic group or ideological sect can fluctuate over time and space.
The diverse nature of inter-sect solidarity of the current protest wave in Lebanon therefore appears to show a decline in the sense of groupness in each sect, with popular classes marching together in unison. This recent drop in group solidarity within each sect has been met by the expected response of political elites. For example, Hasan Nasrallah was quick to urge his followers to abstain from protesting, when demonstrations first gripped the country in the latter part of 2019.
3. Lebanon now
As Hinrichsen points out, the current economic situation in Lebanon is largely due to the state’s overdependence on the financial sector. This reality has become more emphatically pronounced in the past decade with the country’s decline of tourism and related services. Financialisation, coupled with refusals to diversify the economy, to broaden the tax base and to adequately collect taxes owed by the wealthiest, leave the Lebanese economy totally exposed to the inevitability of a crippling national debt.
Banking deposits, used to keep the Lebanese system afloat, dried up in 2019, and were followed by the disappearance of foreign exchange reserves. This was no problem for creditors who, by hook or by crook, were always going to be paid back. It was, however, a sizeable issue for those outside elite circles and left with miserable austerity.
Lebanon has long been one of the world’s most indebted countries, with its sovereign debt reaching 180% of GDP by the end of May 2020. Meanwhile, unemployment hit 35% nationwide even earlier last year, according to reporting by Agence France Presse.
The Lebanese pound has plummeted in value, and the government has subsequently sought to tightly cap the amount of money people can withdraw from cash machines. Inflation is also out of control, with many workers simply unable to afford to feed themselves and their families. People who had previously managed to eke out a middle-class existence are now having to attend charity projects and soup stations.
The global health crisis, as a result of COVID-19, has not helped circumstances either, causing a further economic slowdown, and is due to continue to hamper the summer tourist industry (which would usually see thousands in the Lebanese diaspora return for sunny vacations).
The government has done very little to try and curtail the worst impacts of this economic crisis, in either its slow-building sectarian economic form, or in the very sudden conflagration spurred by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
No policies outside of the neoliberal orthodoxy are under consideration to resolve these problems. Instead, in the weeks leading up to the protests, the Aoun-Hariri-Berri administration attempted to introduce a flat tax on WhatsApp calls. This sort of regressive taxation is typical of the neoliberal playbook of both the Lebanese state and many of its international backers. It was such measures that provided the spark for the October 2019 protests, which continue intermittently to this day.
Progressively wider swathes of Lebanese society are tired of the parties claiming to represent them, then focusing only on their own long-term survival and enrichment. While writing this article, I spoke to people living through the corruption in Lebanon. I felt particularly struck by the following comment by Celina, a student from Beirut:
“When the revolution started and people were demanding change, my father told me, ‘Even if all the politicians were put to trial or died, their descendants will take their place. It’s like a kingdom with many kings. It’s a never-ending cycle of corruption and greed.’”
This comment underlines the argument that the problems in Lebanon are not the result of a few bad apples but, rather, these problems are systemic.
Perhaps most interestingly of all, the protests show no sign of abating. Recently, protesters refused to leave the street, even after the resignation of Saad Hariri. Equally, the protests did not cease after the resignation of Hassan Diab over the Port of Beirut Disaster in August 2020. Hence, we can see that the issues at play stretch far beyond one or two unpopular prime ministers.
One of the main slogans of the protests has been “All means all!” Protesters want an end to the current system, embodied by the unquenchable power that was enjoyed by the elite and the austerity policies that dragged far too many people into abject poverty.
These goals are not being articulated in a socialist jargon, but rather revolve around staple social justice demands. These range from genuine action on the horrific surge in poverty and unemployment, to a vehement opposition to the selling-off of public land. In this sense, we can draw comparisons not just to other social justice protests taking place across the world right now, but also to the protest movements which became known collectively as the Arab Spring.
As the Lebanese protests gain momentum once more, observers are left wondering where, when, and how they will pan out. Sectarianism is dying a slow death in Lebanon, and there will be significant questions over how the ruling class can maintain their political or economic status quo as a result.
Now, the elite seem committed to maintaining business as usual. Meanwhile, on the protesters’ side, the question will be: through what institutions can we begin to solidify our demands, and better, coordinate our efforts?
Up until this point, there has been no real involvement from political parties. Trade unions, decimated and co-opted by the elite, sat idly by on the side-lines. It can be argued that both political parties and unions continue to fail the people, who they are meant to serve. Yet, for any success to come from the movements for change in Lebanon, they will need to coalesce around some reliable structures and sets of objectives. When this happens, the question of the state’s response will gain an even greater relevance.
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