Lebanon's Oligarchy Under Pressure
Since Oct. 17, Lebanese protesters have taken to the streets against the ruling oligarchy. The protesters show no sign of backing away from demands for officials to step down and be held accountable.
What triggered these protests was a government decision to impose a tax on WhatsApp calls. This popular uprising took the political class by surprise. While some have belittled this leaderless movement by describing it as the “WhatsApp revolution,” deeply rooted political and socio-economic problems have pushed many Lebanese to say enough is enough.
External influences have been decisive in breaking apart the core of oligarchy rule in Lebanon over the past 15 years. The assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 was a milestone. The political fallout eventually ended Syria’s role as the major power broker in Lebanon. It also created a political divide between one camp supported by Iran and Syria and another endorsed by the United States and Saudi Arabia. In May 2008, Iran dealt a blow to U.S.-Saudi influence in Lebanon when Hezbollah militarily subdued the March 14 Alliance in confrontations across Lebanon. The second milestone was the Syrian uprising in 2011. The conflict spilled over as Lebanese leaders took sides in what ultimately became a civil war.
Lebanon has since become the forgotten crisis. The international community’s emphasis is on keeping political and social order in the country, and for good reason. The country has hosted Syrian refugees and international peacekeeping forces, and there was a need to manage a maritime dispute between Lebanon and Israel over who benefits from Eastern Mediterranean gas exploration. In 2014, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Iran agreed on a formula that involved empowering relatively neutral politicians to lead the country. In 2016, Washington and Tehran renewed this deal, which brought to power two rivals, President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hezbollah gradually became kingmaker in Lebanese politics as external powers took a step back. The current uprising wants to end Lebanese leaders’ dependence on the great powers’ management and to dismantle the sectarian political system that emerged from the Taif Accord that ended Lebanon’s civil war nearly three decades ago.
Meanwhile, there has been a gradual decline in the influence of Lebanon’s two most important leaders, Saad Hariri and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. This decline has weakened the country’s political regime. Riyadh has gradually withdrawn from Lebanon politically and financially, and Saudi Arabia’s regional leverage is also waning. Moreover, Saudi Arabia not only cut off its support of Hariri, but it also arrested him in November 2017 and tried to force him to resign. Shorn of crucial financial support, Hariri’s base began to shrink, as was evident in the 2018 parliamentary elections. Cities and towns that traditionally back Hariri have seen street protests in the past few days; there is nothing to hold people back.
Nasrallah’s national appeal has faded since Hezbollah in 2005 shifted to a partisan posture in Lebanese politics to fill the vacuum left by Syria. Nasrallah’s decision in 2013 to intervene in Syria at Iran’s request took a financial toll on Hezbollah and its supporters, but it also led to a surge in deaths on a foreign battlefield -- these fighters were often given no public funeral, nor were explanations given for their deaths. Nasrallah has been in hiding since the July 2006 war with Israel, and he communicates in speeches broadcast on large screens, rather than attending himself, which limits his interaction with Hezbollah supporters. Moreover, the Iranian regime has given Lebanon less time and fewer resources over the past few years as Tehran has expanded its regional activities and come under U.S. sanctions.
Nasrallah and Hariri shed a political rivalry that had long fed sectarian narratives, mobilized their bases, and secured the support of their regional benefactors. They have both lost their value for their supporters.
We are witnessing a systemic failure in Lebanon. The country’s function as a rentier state with a co-sectarian form of power-sharing is breaking down. Lebanese politics has been paralyzed since 2005, unable to resolve issues over power and the distribution of resources, and unable to implement needed reforms. The Syrian civil war has shut down Lebanon’s trade with its neighbors and slowed the country’s economic growth. This has exposed the country’s structural problems. Public debt now exceeds $85 billion, which is more than 150% of GDP. Most of this debt is internally owed to Lebanese banks. Basic services are not fully provided, including electricity, clean water and air, public transportation, and garbage collection.
The staggering income inequality in Lebanon is also an issue. According to Oxfam, seven Lebanese billionaires have personal wealth of $13.3 billion, which is tenfold of what half the population holds. Moreover, the wealthiest 1% in Lebanon have more wealth than 58% of the Lebanese population. This income disparity has been brought up by protesters, who link it to corruption. Protesters have expressed that they are unwilling to foot the bill for the economic crisis -- Lebanese leaders should pay instead. But it is not clear how this objective might be reached. Moreover, the Lebanese public sector is now inflated, ineffective, underpaid, and in large part corrupt. Any decision to cut its size without offering job alternatives will end the basic offering of the rentier system. Most politicians are not ready to face the fallout, given the scarce resources they receive from their regional backers.
This is a pivotal moment in modern Lebanese history. Protesters have rebuked the whole political class, as well as its sectarian agenda that masks a thrust for power. The oligarchy is now united in hoping to manage these protests by improving the conditions of the status quo, rather than altering it. Unlike the 2005 protests challenging the Syrian regime, these protests are run by ordinary citizens and not by political leaders. They are decentralized, both in rural and urban areas. Local groups are emerging in every city. Incidentally, they coordinate their activities via WhatsApp, the same communications platform the government wanted to tax. It is a leaderless uprising without a clear roadmap for demands or a mechanism to implement them. This is the most exciting and most worrisome aspect of this uprising. But the Lebanese street has awoken, and their demands won’t easily be put to rest.
Joe Macaron is a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington DC. The views expressed are the author’s own.