Lebanon protests one year on: Outlooks for recovery and change

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the nationwide movement that swept across Lebanon following popular protests in October 2019.

A group of volunteers have a meeting
People volunteering to help clean up the streets after the Beirut seaport blast. © Hussein Kassir/Alamy

Since then, events in Lebanon have been unfolding into an interwoven web of crises, the last of which is the massive Beirut seaport explosion on 4 August.

Yet, this year has seen a breakthrough in public awareness, among the people but also the political elite, that the system is in dire need of reform and that in the midst of turmoil, there are openings for positive and peaceful change.

This analysis provides a deep-dive into some of the key dynamics that led to this point and considers the outlooks for recovery and peaceful change.

It is based on our earlier in-depth analysis of the situation following the October protests as well as our forthcoming analysis of the context since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Lebanon as it stands now and the roots of intersecting crises

To understand how the deeply rooted and pervasive corruption underlies people’s anger toward the ruling political elite, one would only need to look at the Beirut blast in 2020, the yearly wildfires, the garbage crisis in 2015 and its environmental repercussions, or the longstanding lack of electricity, healthcare and other basic services. All were microcosms of the ineffectiveness of the current political system to provide safety, security and stability to its residents – nationals and non-nationals alike.

Longstanding and seemingly intractable financial crises

Massive currency devaluation, multiple exchange rates, hyperinflation, unemployment and economic contraction are some of the facets of a currency crisis that resulted from four longstanding, intractable and connected crises.

Lebanon’s post-war economy is highly dollarised and heavily reliant on external financing through foreign inflows of remittances and direct investments. External factors – such as the crisis in Syria and international financial sanctions on politicians, businesspeople and other individuals with suspected ties to Hezbollah and the Syrian government – coupled with internal weaknesses in Lebanon’s export sector and an economy reliant on imports, resulted in a deficit in the balance of payments since 2011 and the Central Bank using up its foreign currency reserves.

This affected its ability to finance basic commodities imports and intervene in the foreign exchange market to uphold the official exchange rate, leading to the emergence of a parallel exchange rate, which is currently around six times more than the official one.

Over the years, post-war monetary public policy has kept interest rates on deposits high, to support banks in attracting foreign funds, ensure availability of US dollars and maintain the official exchange rate at the expense of investing in the ‘real economy’.

As shortage of foreign currencies intensified in 2015, the Central Bank started applying financial measures to gain time and refinance losses it had incurred along with commercial banks through luring in large funds from new investors with high interest rates to pay off older investors, creating what has been referred to as a “regulated Ponzi scheme”.

In parallel, this allowed commercial banks to make extraordinary profits, ultimately only really benefiting shareholders and large depositors, and causing a concentration of 25% of the national income with only 1% of the population.

As a result, the Central Bank and the banking sector emerged in September 2019 as one of the major conflict actors in the eyes of the public that are mutually supportive of and closely aligned with the political elite.

When the banking sector opposed the cabinet’s recovery plan in April this year, members of parliament from almost all political factions joined efforts and formed a committee to design a different recovery plan that takes into account the interests of the banking sector. This appeared to indicate that the conflict is between socio-economic classes that crosscut all political sectarian groups, i.e. between the shareholders, elites and large depositors fighting to maintain their interests on the one side, and the middle- and lower-income classes who are bearing the brunt of currency devaluation and hyperinflation on the other.

Nonetheless, with deep polarisation long dividing the political elite along geopolitical lines, the conflict does still have a confessional and political dimension.

Simultaneously, mismanagement and corruption has left the public sector struggling to finance a chronically large public deficit and public debt. Economic policies gave primacy to the financial sector and debt creation through high interest rates.

The political class had used this ‘rentier’ economic model to maintain power for over 30 years. It bargained to capture economic and political rents from state assets through public procurement and contracting along sectarian lines, while downplaying the conflict spillover into inter-group struggles and ignoring the growing deprivation of the people.

The power networks of the political elite and some of their allies are deeply entrenched in various administrations and across sectors, and state institutions often function to serve the political and economic elite along the logic of politics of apportionment (muhasasa), while disregarding accountability measures. This is demonstrated, for example, in the role of state institutions in supporting large infrastructure projects that downplay environmental risks, such as building dams or solid waste incinerators, or the banking system bypassing laws and implementing unlawful arbitrary capital controls over the past year.

As a result, Lebanon entered a vicious cycle of rising public debt, high interest rates, depressed investment and growth, and an oversized banking sector.

Considering the above, a crisis in the real economy was inevitable. Economic growth has slowed since 2010, hovering around 1%. Currently, the economy is contracting and moving into a deep recession. Sectors such as agriculture, industry, trade and services are suffering from shortages of funding, an inability to deal with the rest of the world through the international banking system because of unlawful restrictions on their deposits, the complexity of a multiple exchange rate system and lower consumer demand, among other things.

Small and medium enterprises, which comprise around 95% of businesses in Lebanon, are most affected and are the front runners in closing their doors, leaving dire implications on livelihoods for many.

Nationwide protests sweep across the country

As Lebanese began to feel the implications of these crises, they took to the streets on 17 October 2019, ostensibly triggered by a tax on WhatsApp calls, but in essence driven by popular anger at the political elite for their longstanding ineptness to respond to basic needs, including healthcare, electricity, water and social security.

And these protests were different. Previous social movements and protests between 2008 and 2015, which came in response to calls for abolishing the confessional political system or the emergence of the garbage crisis, were led by civil society activists, attracted the middle class and more educated, and were critiqued by detractors as elitist. The October movement started organically and reached out across geographical, religious and class divides to socially excluded groups.

The movement witnessed remarkably peaceful protests between October and December, despite efforts by strong-armed men of political parties to disturb and turn the protests violent. Unprecedented in Lebanon’s recent history, a social movement driven by popular anger at the political elite was able to prompt the resignation of the country’s then-prime minister, Saad Hariri, in late October and push the political elite to appoint a new prime minister, Hassan Diab, from outside the traditional club of prime ministers.

However, from January, the protests took 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, causing injuries on both sides, and among journalists. There were also violent sporadic clashes between protestors and supporters of the new cabinet.

Protests abated between March and May, largely due to COVID-19 containment measures, which restricted mobility and large gatherings.

But the protests returned in May and June with violent confrontations between protestors and security forces in Tripoli and Beirut.

Hassan Diab’s cabinet, which earned a vote of confidence by a majority of parliamentarians in February, did not meet the expectations of the protestors. Up until its resignation following the 4 August Beirut blast, the cabinet was faced with popular protests and mistrust, as protestors continued to perceive it as a continuation of the failed management of previous cabinets.

Despite further deterioration in the economic situation and the protests succeeding in questioning the effectiveness of the ruling political elite’s management and oversight, the political elite was able to maintain its position in power without offering solutions, amid heightened geopolitical tensions and instability, which further polarised political issues in the country.

Beirut seaport blast

Institutional negligence and corruption in Lebanon became international news on 4 August, with the Beirut seaport blast, which shook the entire country, killing over 200 people and leaving over 6,500 wounded and many thousands more with the trauma of losing loved ones, livelihoods and homes. Approximately 40,000 buildings and around half of Beirut’s establishments were damaged, including four major hospitals and 178 schools.

The popular anger that ensued prompted another cabinet to resign – this time that of Hassan Diab – after news surfaced that senior Lebanese officials reportedly knew for six years of the ammonium nitrate storage at Beirut’s seaport, but failed to act.

Compounding growing dissatisfaction and mistrust in state institutions was the national government’s general absence in leading relief and response efforts to aid the affected people and uplift the disaster-stricken city of Beirut.

This has led many across the country, from different backgrounds – Lebanese and non-Lebanese – to take their own initiative and act quickly in support of those affected. In the first week of the blast, solidarity with the victims and survivors saw thousands of volunteers and civil society organisations mobilising as first-responders to support relief efforts, organising clean-ups, donating blood, offering shelter, and distributing food and care packages.

In the weeks that followed, Beirut municipality and the Lebanese Armed Forces coordinated relief efforts by national and international NGOs amid a continued absence from the national government. The French-led donor conference on 9 August mobilised around US$300 million to fund relief efforts, going directly to NGOs through UN agencies amid a popular movement, inside the country and among the Lebanese diaspora, to block channelling funds to government institutions because of a loss of trust.

Ultimately, the October movement succeeded in bringing down two governments within the span of one year and in ensuring that international donors do not channel relief funds through the state institutions, but it has not been able to bring forward a government that meets its demands and expectations.

Almost two months after the blast, families of victims, much like the rest of the Lebanese people, are left with unanswered questions as to who is responsible for the deadly blast that rocked the country. Further stoking public anger at the political class, the government-led investigation into the disaster is yet to conclude its results and make them public, and officials have been stalling or refusing to sign decrees dismissing three officials who are under investigation from their posts, and who happen to be closely affiliated to the political elite.

COVID-19 exacerbating existing inequalities

Daily life has been transformed since 15 March when the country was placed under lockdown and continuing measures, including evening curfew and restrictions on movements outside the home, to curb the virus’ spread. While lockdown measures have been intermittent since then, the pandemic and the response put further pressures on an already exhausted health system and interacted with existing political, economic and social dynamics. COVID-19 has deepened and accelerated concurrent crises in the country.

Although the pandemic can affect virtually anyone, its implications exacerbated inequalities in a country with no social safety policies or mechanisms in place. Poverty reduction or social safety net measures would have guaranteed equal access to social welfare, healthcare, education, employment and other basic needs. But the reality is that, in a country where almost all basic services are privatised, such services remain disproportionately accessible to those who are financially better off.

In a World Food Programme survey released in June 2020, more than 30% of Lebanese respondents reported losing their jobs since the outbreak of COVID-19, as did almost 40% of Palestinian and more than 50% of Syrian refugees. Poverty is spreading and deepening, affecting 55% of the population, not only because of the secondary effects of the COVID-19 containment measures that shutdown many small businesses and left low-skilled day workers unemployed, but also because of the economic crisis since September 2019 and the longstanding, interconnected financial, monetary and political-structural crises.

The series of difficult events during the past year have left Lebanon without a government-implemented economic recovery plan and have certainly shaken up the establishment status quo. But it is important not to conflate such a ‘victory’ with the ability of non-violent popular protest or solidarity initiatives alone to bring about the much sought-after fundamental change in the political system and political economy.

A person with glasses overlooks a  protest.
Overlooking the massive popular protests that swept Beirut, October 2019. © Ali Hamouch

Contesting opportunities for change

The collapse of Lebanon’s political economy and model

For every political system to survive, it needs to be built on an economic model that sustains it. The post-war economic model built for Lebanon went through de-industrialisation and relied heavily on two pillars: a banking sector, the primary function of which was to ensure a constant inflow of US dollar remittances and to stabilise a weak local currency; and import facilities, such as the Beirut seaport, to provide for Lebanon’s general consumption.

Within less than a year, both pillars have been hit by the economic crisis and the Beirut blast. With 70% of Lebanon’s imports – including basic commodities such as food, fuel and medical supplies – flowing through the Beirut seaport, there are concerns about the country’s ability to survive food and health insecurity.

Unable to unlock foreign aid and with people’s deposits being decimated, the political elite is no longer able to uphold the patron-clientelist exchanges through rent seeking of state assets and redistributing them among its power networks. Shaken up with popular anger, the elite came to realise that the political economy and system upon which it has survived for over 30 years is now broken.

Yet, this does not mean that the elite is ready to forfeit control. It is still there, trying to regain faltered legitimacy and weather the tide of a growing and vibrant civil society that has always been quicker to react to the people’s needs in times of crises.

Because of that, the traditional political parties put aside their disputes to ensure that solutions to the economic crisis do not destabilise the status quo and to protect their private interests, confessional supporter base and patronage networks.

Recent events, including the political elite’s initial commitment to French President Emmanuel Macron’s programme of implementing anticorruption measures and an audit of the central bank and banking sector, and the subsequent rollback to wrangling to divide certain ministries in the new cabinet along political sectarian lines, have shown that the elite is renegotiating conditions with the aim to reproduce itself in the same way that it has done previously – through political concessions and compromises.

This time around, there are new players on the block: the October movement groups, which are struggling to influence the changes.

Now is the time for good governance reforms

Coping strategies to this stark reality include inward migration to the rural areas, in light of global restrictions on travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, outward migration, both regular and irregular, and shifts to low-skilled labour and precarious employment, in search of better livelihoods. The number of Lebanese who left the country and did not return in 2019 jumped by 42% on the previous year. Adding to the already significant Lebanese diaspora across the globe, this most recent pursuit of outward migration among the country’s youth would risk an additional ‘brain drain’.

There are other, more negative coping mechanisms too. These include theft, burglary, cutting down on meals, increased reliance on food parcels and deprioritising education for children to ensure their and their families’ health and livelihoods needs are met. Any proposed economic recovery programme must capitalise on young people’s – women and men – human capital and tap into their roles and potentials in this political and economic reform process.

As these trends are worsening with the continued economic meltdown and in a country where virtually all basic services are privatised, the question is whether this will reinforce the pre-existing clientelist relations with the political elite or lead to new forms of clientelism. While some would argue against the viability of clientelist relationships, as the traditional allegiance to political leaders (Zaim) is faltering and the state’s resources that feed clientelism are decimated, others fear that the opposite could happen.

The growing role of local service providers and civil society in leading the response to the Beirut blast could make way for further privatisation of such services, which end up being controlled and delivered by private networks. If no good governance measures and overarching, sustainable social and economic strategies are put in place, this could mean reproducing new clientelist structures and further entrenching divides among people based on class and financial privilege instead of political or sectarian affiliation.

Still a spontaneous movement, or the consolidation of new political organisation?

The October movement saw nation-wide spontaneous protests involving a cross-section of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese around the country, and support from across the large Lebanese diaspora. The movement created a reinvigorated civic activism and increased awareness of and interest in economic and political debates, particularly between October 2019 and February 2020 and among youth, despite political infighting and heated geopolitics.

The emerging key conflict issues that fuelled one year of nationwide protests – though intermittent in frequency and with varying levels of popular galvanised action – saw general fatigue from the deepening economic crisis and the COVID-19 restrictions on mobility and large gatherings, which has stalled the momentum of the movement since March.

However, the movement has since seen the emergence of new groups based on location, interests and causes, as well as nascent groups that are relatively more experienced in political activism and that emerged following the ‘garbage crisis’ in 2015 and the municipal elections in 2016.

Despite broad agreement by activist groups and protestors on the demands of the movement and the level of political activism of some groups, the movement is generally described as ‘spontaneous’, with some form of organisation and flexible coordination, but not to the extent of reaching an overarching programme for reform.

Taking stock of the achievements of the movement thus far seems like a contentious task in a country that is mired in layers of crises of its political system and economy. However, in hindsight, the movement succeeded for the first time in the recent history of Lebanon to prompt two governments to resign under the pressure of street protests and without demands from political parties or foreign actors. The movement also prompted the judiciary to take actions, although arguably not sufficient ones, to meet their demands – regarding cases of corruption committed by low-profile public employees. And at a minimum, the movement shed light on the pervasive corruption and inefficiency of the confessional power-sharing system, and the political elite’s inability to resolve their internal conflicts.

It is true that the need for coordinated political messages among activist groups was less urgent at the beginning of the protests, when movements followed the rhythm of the street. But this became more crucial with the prolonged nature of the movement and particularly after the first wave of violent confrontations between protestors and the security forces in January.

Yet, diverging views on Lebanon’s confessional political system has long been a major impediment to reform efforts brought forward by civil society. 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.

Therefore, this lack of a unified political vision, and the ambiguity around the leadership and/or the coordination mechanism, for fear of creating one front that would either be open to negotiating with or be penetrated by the political parties, are key issues in maintaining divisions between the protestor groups and the communities opposing the protests. This is a division that was further entrenched by the political elite in many ways, to dissolve the movement and regain faltered legitimacy among their supporter bases.

Persisting intergroup barriers amid deep political polarisation

Past and current movements in Lebanon show that citizens across divides continue to meet in social spaces. However, public perceptions with regards to intergroup relations are worsening and there are limited spaces for meaningful engagement across political, sectarian and class divides, where each group continues to engage in discussions within their own sphere – a tendency that is amplified in social media communications.

Although the days following the Beirut blast saw thousands of Lebanese and non-Lebanese acting in solidarity to support the stricken people of Beirut, even in the aftermath of the explosion, faultlines among Lebanese and between Lebanese and Syrian refugees threaten to grow in the midst of divisive narratives, increasing fears of instability, crime and growing inequality.

The divides between the March 8 and March 14 political alliances that characterised the decade after the withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Lebanon, has re-gained prominence with the growing US pressure on Iran. This is also reflected among opposition political groups and parties.

The pro-Syria/Iran March 8 alliance (which includes Hezbollah, Amal Movement and was later joined by the Free Patriotic Movement) and the opposing anti-Syria March 14 alliance (which includes Future Movement, Lebanese Forces and the Progressive Socialist Party) were formed following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. As the alliances were formed along geopolitical lines rather than on a common understanding of political and socio-economic grounds, they were thrown into question by the political settlement between two of the opposing parties in 2016.

The divide was also partially overtaken by the socio-economic demands of the October movement, particularly in the first months from October to January, where protestors generally joined efforts – while their views on the Hezbollah arms and the international sanctions against the party, for example, remained divided.

The divide remerged among the political elite when the political settlement took a hit following the October 2019 protests and later deepened in relation to Hezbollah’s arms and relationships with the Syria government, with the US intensifying its actions against Iran and its allies. Despite the division being more pronounced among the political elite, it also shows – though to a lesser extent – within the opposition political groups and parties.

Uncertainty as to what and who caused the Beirut blast is further allowing speculations and divisive narratives to permeate at the political and community levels. Political parties are using the same tools of sectarianism, clientelism and divisive narratives to rebuild their constituencies. While calls for Hezbollah’s disarmament and the relations with Israel, for example, are also occasionally being used to widen divisions between protestors and re-group them along traditional sectarian and political alignments and loyalties.

A group of volunteers
Volunteer crews organising the clean up effort following the Beirut seaport blast on 4 August 2020. © Elizabeth Fitt/Alamy Live News

Opportunities for (re)building inter-community and citizen–state relations

A broken citizen–state contract and a dire need for a new people-centred one

Growing mistrust in government institutions and appointments by the political elite is exacerbated by the latter’s own lack of ability to develop and implement reform and recovery plans, and provide solutions for longstanding mismanagement and corruption.

This has been further compounded by the absence of the central government from leading on relief efforts in response to the Beirut blast. Instead, Lebanon has been witnessing a growing role of wider and more diverse civil society and grassroots groups that are acting in place of the central government to provide services and aid the affected.

According to a local peacebuilding analysis that International Alert conducted between June and August, local solidarity initiatives included emergency response and disaster management committees (consisting of active community members and sometimes operating under the scope of the municipality), humanitarian assistance groups (consisting of active community members and/or civil society organisations providing food, shelter, clothing and cash assistance to those in need) and agricultural initiatives by small collectives (for food security purposes and sometimes integrating barter activities).

But can such nascent grassroots groups and solidarity initiatives alone pave the way for reform and positive change?

Social solidarity and bridging community divides for change

The reality is that such locally grown initiatives are ultimately bound by the absence of institutional governance reform. And while solidarity initiatives can lay the foundations for long-term peace if this solidarity and these networks can be supported and sustained beyond the immediate aftermath of the explosion, for reform and change to be advanced, popular dissent must be channelled towards building a clearly defined and long-term vision that can shift the power imbalances through participatory and democratic processes.

In the short- to medium-term, this means grassroots and activist groups creating their own spaces for dialogue, coalescing to push for a people-centred economic recovery, and organising citizen action across divides that can negotiate for government accountability.

Here, it is important to look at socially marginalised groups across the country and ensure that barriers hindering dialogue and cooperation with them are addressed. Because despite a vibrant civil society and burgeoning networks, women and young people in Lebanon, especially those from lower socio-economic classes and periphery regions, continue to be marginalised from political decision-making and from the protest movement. This results in significant constituencies with limited positive outlooks for their future or the capacity to affect meaningful change in their lives.

In the longer term, more inclusive and participatory political engagement will help rebuild citizen–state trust and strengthen the democratic process. In this sense, elections are the way for gradual change and there are openings for new leadership and political figures to emerge and be represented in government institutions if they organise well. Winning elections that can tip the power imbalance and challenge the status quo has less to do with organising protests and more to do with building an electoral base.

The latest results of the student council elections held in the Lebanese American University (LAU) – Beirut and Jbeil campuses – indicate a clamour for change among youth. Nascent political groups under the banner of the October movement won a sweeping victory earlier this month in LAU’s elections, the country’s first major test for youth political movements since October 2019. The groups succeeded in winning every seat they ran for in both campuses, culminating in 14 seats against 16 seats for representatives of the traditional political parties, upending the sectarian politics that have dominated on-campus activism for decades.

Despite criticisms by elections observers of how the university ran elections this year – with issues related to lack of ballot secrecy and limiting candidates’ spaces for coalescing for unified electoral programmes – this win is seen by youth political groups and the October movement supporters in general as marking a window of opportunity for a longer term path towards change. The presence of social movements, the growing public consciousness and appetite for change means that these new movements could be part of the renegotiation process and push for a more participatory political process.

What role do local authorities have in improving citizen–state relations?

While longstanding political tensions are rising, the rapidly deteriorating socio-economic conditions and poverty remain among the main triggers of tensions, as communities struggle to make ends meet and compete over dwindling resources and services. This is increasing a sense of insecurity, with incidents of theft, petty crime and harassment on the rise.

Against this backdrop, communities expect municipalities to provide services, ease community tensions and ensure security, despite general acknowledgement that municipalities’ resources and capacities are limited. The October movement and the elevated awareness it has generated contributed to local groups and communities becoming better able to understand the role of municipalities beyond party politics and/or family affiliation.

But how can municipalities step up their efforts amid the economic crisis? The crisis has had a dire effect on the central and local authorities’ ability to collect taxes and fees, and so there will be fewer funds to redistribute to municipalities. With a lack of decentralised laws that give municipalities autonomy to design localised programmes and budgets in response to the growing pressure on services, they are faced with threats of interrupted financial sustainability. As such, it is essential for the careful planning by municipalities about how to spend their limited resources to feed into central government planning, as municipalities are best positioned to identify both their own as well as community needs and vulnerabilities.

Here, there is an opening for civil society to contribute to (re)building trust and improving relations between municipalities and local communities through developing the capacities of municipalities in good governance measures that take into account principles of transparency and accountability, and that use methods of community engagement and participatory planning and budgeting.

For such an approach to yield long-term sustained results, it needs to be centred around the needs of communities, conflict sensitive and responsive to the different needs of social and gender groups, including historically marginalised youth and women. It also needs to take an intersectional approach to analysing the needs of such groups, looking at the intersection of gender with other societal markers such as age, nationality, religion, location, rural/urban, host/refugee, disability/ability, etc.

This new reality puts local networks and authorities at the forefront of not only responding to the growing needs of communities, but also easing and preventing tensions and building long-term peace.

Simultaneously, civil society and international organisations, including those that are leading and responding to the ramifications of the Beirut blast, need to develop clearly communicated good governance mechanisms that ensure accountability to the affected communities. This will require walking a fine line between improving coordination with local and state authorities and not replacing state institutions, nor being complacent and allowing for piecemeal operations and replicating inequalities.

One year after the October 2019 protests, Lebanon stands at a critical juncture now and the focus should be on rebuilding citizen–state trust, resolving intra- and inter-community tensions, and supporting local networks and authorities to rebuild that trust.