Lebanon uprising renews its momentum as ruling class stall after Hariri resignation

Lebanon uprising renews its momentum as ruling class stall after Hariri resignation
Analysis: The resignation of PM Hariri achieved one demand of Lebanon's protesters, but the ruling class has so far ignored the root causes of the uprising, giving it fresh momentum
9 min read
05 November, 2019
Demonstrators in Beirut gather against the establishment.
Following the resignation of Lebanon's prime minister after nearly two weeks of unprecedented nationwide anti-corruption demonstrations, protesters are pressing for new leadership and what they call a "clean government", but the process faces institutional inertia and stalling by the ruling class.

With last week's resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri bringing down the whole government, protesters succeeded in their first major demand after staging daily mass rallies across Lebanon since 17 October calling for the removal of the entire political elite they accuse of incompetence and deep corruption.

Triggered by a proposed tax on Internet-based messaging apps such as WhatsApp, those protests have quickly turned into a broad cross-sectarian call throughout Lebanon to bring down the political sectarian system that’s been ruling the country.

Read more: Special coverage of the Lebanese protests

"I’m at a dead end," Hariri admitted when he stepped down, declaring that "no one is bigger than the nation."

The following day, President Michel Aoun formally accepted his resignation, and asked him to continue in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet is formed, as required by Lebanon's constitution.

In his speech after the premier's resignation, Mr. Aoun stated the next cabinet should include ministers chosen based on competence, not their political allegiances, calling for the formation of a "homogenous" government.  

As Hariri and the other ministers continue to conduct affairs until the new government's formation, the president is expected to hold consultations with MPs to select a new premier who in turn will create a fresh cabinet and gain the parliament's confidence.

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What's next for Lebanon?

While there is no constitutional deadline for parliamentary consultations, demonstrators urged the head of state to initiate such meetings as soon as possible in order to speed things up. Facing mounting pressure, Aoun is supposed to set a date this week for the awaited start of discussions, according to an official source.

But so far, despite a four-hour meeting between Mr. Aoun's son-in-law foreign minister Gebran Bassil and Mr. Hariri, the process has yet to start as of Tuesday morning.

The now resigned cabinet included top representatives of most of Lebanon's sectarian parties, among them Mr. Bassil, who represents President Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a political ally of the powerful Iranian-backed group Hezbollah, which had opposed the government's resignation.

Only partially satisfied at news of PM Hariri's departure, the protest movement also demanded the president appoint a prime minister who is not politically affiliated who will then ensure the quick establishing of a cabinet able to implement key reforms to tackle the country's economic and financial crisis.

Comment: Hariri resigns, but the start of the revolution is not its end

In addition to the cabinet's resignation and the formation of a technocratic one, hundreds of thousands who have rallied against the state corruption are calling for an end to the sectarian political system, early parliamentary elections and the return of stolen public funds.

"We demand the new cabinet be fully independent and specialised. They have to fix the economy as a number one priority", Mark Germanous, member of non-sectarian Sabaa party at Beirut branch, emphasised. "We also call for early legislative elections because the current parliament doesn’t represent people anymore".

Although the law doesn't specify a timeframe for parliamentary consultations, the Sabaa partisan thinks they should have taken place immediately. "You can’t delay the discussions, they should be held right away [given the circumstances] otherwise the country’s situation will get even worse than this", Germanous said.

Can a technocratic government solve the impasse?

Hariri announced his resignation on 29 october [Getty]

It is unclear whether the new executive will be purely technocratic, as many protesters and some parties demanded, with apolitical professionals and experts in charge, or a mix of political and independent technocrats where ministers have suitable knowledge to manage their respective portfolios while remaining aligned to some degree with a political party or bloc.

"A technocratic government is a possibility," political analyst Amal Saad-Ghorayeb told media. "It would have to ensure a short-term stabilisation of the economy, which has spiralled out of control these past weeks, while ensuring economic reforms pass quickly, otherwise mass protests will erupt again," she added.

Since Hariri's announcement, life briefly returned to a semblance of normalcy in the country after two weeks of unprecedented cross-sectarian protests with main roads re-opened, banks resuming operations, schools and universities open again last week. However demonstrations have resumed since Sunday night, with some roads blocked across the country and sit-ins staged outside banks and government institutions in several key cities from north to south.

Much uncertainty lies ahead in this new political limbo, with no clear alternative to the current leadership at a time where the country's economic crisis has reached a breaking point.

Public debt is estimated at 150 percent of GDP, making Lebanon one of the world's most heavily indebted states, growth figures are negative, prices of some basic goods have increased between 15 and 30 percent in recent months, and inequality is widening to the extent that the richest 1 percent of the population claims one quarter of the national income whilst many of the rest struggle to find decently paid work.

There has been mixed news and conjectures in the last few days with regards to political consultations for the next cabinet. Hariri is a favourite candidate and is likely to be re-designated to form the new Lebanese government, based on statements made by leaders of major blocks. One senior official reportedly said that he is ready to be prime minister again under condition it includes technocrats and can quickly implement reforms and, instead, keeps out a group of top-tier politicians who were in the outgoing coalition government, without naming them.

Yet his return to the premiership, whether heading a full technocratic or a mixed politico-technocratic government, would not go down well with the demonstrators who already rejected a change of cabinet under Hariri at the height of the protests since they want to exclude the political elite they accuse of overseeing rampant corruption and mismanagement.

Hezbollah and Amal, the two main Shia parties that did not want a collapse of the government, are thought to be against a technocratic one.

The country's political and economic mismanagement by a sectarian political class has led to a decline in living standards for citizens from all sects

Key members of the outgoing cabinet, including Hezbollah and the Christian president's FPM have warned repeatedly over the chaos a government resignation could cause.

The FPM, which is the largest bloc in both parliament and cabinet, is said to be keen on keeping its leader Gebran Bassil, one of the most reviled figures among protesters, without conditions.

The FPM-Hezbollah-Amal Movement camp is the most powerful in parliament.

Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea, for his part, whose four ministers resigned from Hariri's administration, reiterated his call for the creation of a salvation (technocratic) government "made up of independent and clean-handed figures who have specialization".

Is Hariri preparing for a comeback?

It is very uncertain who may be Hariri's successor. Lebanon's confession-based system divides power between its sects in order to guarantee the representation of the different communities in government, whereby the president must be Christian, the prime minister Sunni and the speaker of house Shia. Which makes government formation in Lebanon a very long process, considering political divisions, with the last cabinet taking nine months to be born.

Demonstrators criticise the sectarian power-sharing system for creating patronage networks throughout Lebanese society and thwarting development at the state's expense. Critically, the country's political and economic mismanagement by a sectarian political class has led to a decline in living standards for citizens from all sects.

Read more: Hariri prepared to become Lebanese PM again but under 'certain conditions'

"The way the system was conceived is dependant upon these power dynamics in relation to all the various religious sects. Any change needs to be effected from within", Israa Darwish, research assistant at the American University of Beirut (AUB), explained.

"That’s why we’re asking for a new (non-sectarian) executive and fresh elections to bring in a parliament that reflect the aspirations of the Lebanese people as one nation, then we can then get rid of this system altogether", she continued.

Many of the country's largely unchanged ruling elite originate from political parties or families that have been in power since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Antoine Al Khazen, a businessman with knowledge in Lebanese politics, suggested that several parties objected to the cabinet resignation because they are aware of the lengthy and complicated process that establishing a government entails.

He admitted that pressure on the streets is key to having a new executive in place, provided that it is created within the shortest period. "There’s a lot of incompetence in the political class, many politicians are busy with competing against one another over power and preventing others from doing their job", the businessman added, "this means poor governance, people simply no longer trust this government".

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Notwithstanding the dysfunctional sectarian system and lengthy allocation of ministerial posts, with the country's escalating economic crisis, the Lebanese political class cannot afford a delay and needs to move swiftly to name a new prime minister who is acceptable both to them and to the protesters.

President Aoun himself considers a government in caretaker capacity a form of "vacuum" that should not last for a very long time, though he wants to make sure consultations result in the nomination of a figure who garners the parliament's majority.

Maha Yahya, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, argued in a commentary published that a "more likely option is to endorse a national salvation government headed by an independent Sunni, one acceptable to Hariri". The cabinet would be made up of either independent candidates or a mix of experts and political appointees. "Consensus among the political class for such a cabinet is necessary", she wrote suggesting that political parties may be obliged to reach such consensus to avoid chaos.

For Darwish, to bring back public confidence the leadership should give early signs of concrete steps and show people they are doing something about the country’s situation.

"If they keep the discussions behind the curtain, we'll know nothing and get nowhere. We want them to start consultations in parliament now and move on", the AUB student pointed out.

Al Khazen believes "the seriousness of the problem" is clear to the political elite pushing them to respond in a quicker way though, he anticipated, it would take more than what the protest movement hopes. "If they wait for too long, people can certainly come out again in masse".

Meanwhile, street mobilisation has picked up again after a weekend of revived protests across the country as Lebanese are pressing to see their other demands fulfilled. Maintaining momentum will be crucial during the coming days to that effect.

"We won’t leave the streets until all of our demands are met," Germanous said.

"All we can do is wait and escalate things if we see they don’t act quickly".

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist covering the Middle East and North Africa

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec