Lebanon protests and prospects for peacebuilding

Protesters lining the streets of Beirut last year © Ali Hamouch

The ongoing protests in Lebanon have produced new forms of civic engagement that could lead to a reinvigorated movement and improved government accountability.

The protests in Lebanon, which have just entered their sixth month, were sparked by a severe economic downturn and the government’s inability to provide the most basic public services, such as electricity, waste management, social security and others.

Unlike previous civil society demonstrations, mounting economic grievances, precipitated by Lebanon’s most severe economic crisis, explain why the 2019 protests were able to garner the largest and most sustained support from across geographical, sectarian and political divides, and across the large Lebanese diaspora.

Lebanon’s consociational model of democracy, where executive power is organised and shared along confessional lines, has been in place since the end of the country’s civil war in the 1990s. It places great emphasis on elite negotiation, and therefore the role of the political elite is seen as central in moderating and curbing inter-group conflicts. The Lebanese political elite represents different sects and is committed to preserving the existing system through building a relationship of political clientelism with their followers, further consolidating their supremacy.

Confessional groups in Lebanon are generally subject to conflicting interests of internal and external influences. There is a clear pattern: whenever Lebanese sectarian politicians find themselves losing to their opponents, they would try to extend the scope of conflict and invite external supporters to defeat their opponents. The result is a continuous series of negotiations and compromises amongst the political elite to maintain their supremacy.

In an unprecedented event in the recent history of Lebanon, a social movement, driven by popular anger at the political elite rather than by the political elite itself, was able to prompt the resignation of the country’s prime minister in October 2019.

The movement also prompted the judiciary to take actions – arguably insufficient ones – regarding cases of corruption committed by low-profile public employees. The significant role of women and young people came to the fore ; women are leading marches and forming human shields to protect male protestors from police crackdowns, while students have been going on strike by organising teach-ins in public spaces with their teachers. This accentuates a reinvigorated civic engagement among those historically marginalised groups, with discussion and dialogue circles being held in public spaces across the country to raise awareness on the constitutional and legal frameworks for advancing reform processes.

Past the rage, in for the long haul

The first two months of the 2019 movement witnessed remarkably peaceful protests despite efforts by strong-armed men of political parties to disturb and turn the protests violent.

However, since January, the protests have taken another turn with uncertain outcomes. Groups of protestors declared a “week of rage” with attacks on banks and public properties and attempts to break into the Parliament building. Security forces responded forcefully with teargas and rubber bullets, yielding several injuries on both ends, and among journalists. Violent sporadic clashes between protestors and supporters of the new cabinet also took place. Given Lebanon’s history is rich with examples of minor scuffles quickly escalating into widespread political violence, social unrest and higher levels of police repression, the protests have the potential to take a turn toward more acute violence.

This turn of events requires careful monitoring, particularly as the economic situation continues to worsen and the recently appointed cabinet – in the words of its premier Hassan Diab – seems to be “unable to protect and provide for the Lebanese people as their trust in the state continues to erode”.

What began as an economic crisis now spiraled into political altercation amongst the established sectarian parties themselves on the one hand, and between those parties and the social movement on the other hand. This, along with the sporadic violent clashes, highly reduced the momentum of the protests in large public spaces.

The role of Lebanon’s Central Bank (BDL) and private banks in financing corruption of the political elite in the form of excessive government debt and harsh restrictions on account holders with small deposits became visible a few months before the protests, and they emerged as new conflict actors. As such, economic interest-based groups that organised themselves after the October protests have been the most active, particularly since January, in staging protests and sit-ins in front of the BDL premises and head offices of private banks. They also used live streaming features of social media to put pressure on private banks and raise public awareness on the illegal capital control measures taken by banks.

Economic activists, journalists and university professors are also playing a substantial role in opening the discussion around a new, more inclusive economic model and educating the general public through expert dialogue sessions and the use of social media for increased popular pressure on the cabinet.

The deepening economic crisis and the recent government decision to default on its Eurobond maturities may have alleviated protestors’ concerns that paying the debt would highly reduce the governments’ ability to import basic commodities such as wheat, medical supplies and fuel and thus, affected the street momentum. However, it also highlighted the need for quick action on the side of the government at this critical time. Despite that, smaller protests continue as a reminder that a failure of the government to implement promised reforms may quickly bring hundreds of thousands to the streets again.

Prospects for peacebuilding and cooperation

The need for coordinated political messages amongst activist groups was less urgent at the beginning of the protests but is more crucial now with the prolonged nature of the movement. Activist groups are still reluctant to address their political differences, and fearing this could widen cleavages on major issues such as Hezbollah arms, relations with the Syrian regime, secularisation of the state, etc. According to data recently analysed by International Alert, they are also reluctant to coordinate amongst each other for fear of creating one front that would either be open to negotiating with or be penetrated by the political parties.

Past and current movements in Lebanon show that citizens across divides continue to meet in social spaces. However, encounters continue to be mostly confrontational and show a deep polarisation along sectarian, class and political lines. There are limited opportunities now for popular-level dialogue across political groups, where each group continues to engage in discussions within their own sphere. As such, for this movement to transcend such divides, activist groups should build bridges through opening discussions on issues of public concern. They should also facilite inclusive decision-making and deliberative democracy processes on issues such as economic recovery models, electricity, social security and others. Such discussions should ensure expert input, the presentation of a wide spectrum of political positions and participation of citizens from different areas and political affiliations and inclinations.

For this movement to transcend divides, activist groups should build bridges through opening discussions on issues of public concern.

Lebanon’s confessional political system has long been a major impediment to reform efforts brought forward by civil society, which is secular by nature. Even discussions on social matters are highly restricted by the deeply rooted political confessionalism that places structural barriers on any discussion outside its sphere. Lebanon’s history also shows that civil society has limited influence over state policies. As such, for this movement to be a countervailing power against state domination and corruption, and thus drive reform, it needs to be better organised and acquire proficiency in networking and associating for cooperative action.

The political outcomes of the movement remain unclear and the potential of the movement to affect national policies and challenge the sectarian, power-sharing nature of policy making is yet to be seen. However, some paradigm shifts have already occurred and cannot be easily reversed.

The movement has already produced new forms of civic engagement and if sustained at the grassroots level, could lead to reinvigorated movement on specific issues such as the debate on a new economic recovery model, the abolishment of the confessional power-sharing system, or even the emergence of new political parties.

New levels of citizenship engagement, political awareness and economic literacy including amongst “the silent majority” (i.e. 51% of eligible Lebanese voters did not participate in the 2018 parliamentary elections) and the previously disengaged young people, has emerged. If nurtured, it could demand accountability from future governments.

With smear campaigns launched by the political elite and their supporters against some activists for allegedly receiving foreign financial support, international organisations will need to approach the ongoing events with careful consideration, ensuring they facilitate locally grown peaceful activism through local and grassroots organisations and groups rather than be seen as imposing an international agenda.

Ultimately, no peacebuilding effort can succeed if it is not brought about by the local communities that are most affected.

Read more: Lebanese youth are reclaiming public spaces with arts and dialogue.