Lebanon's divisive new cabinet faces a near impossible task amid heightened protests and increasing repression

Lebanon's divisive new cabinet faces a near impossible task amid heightened protests and increasing repression
Comment: Lebanon has formed a controversial new government in a polarised, charged atmosphere, and protesters are not going to be easily pacified by its promises, explains Rami Khoury.
5 min read
22 Jan, 2020
The Lebanese people continue to protest [Getty]
The fourth consecutive month of Lebanon's unprecedented political and economic crisis kicked off this week with three dramatic developments that will interplay in the coming months to define the country's direction for years to come: Escalating protests on the streets, heightened security measures by an increasingly militarising state, and now, a new cabinet of controversial so-called "independent technocrats" led by Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab.

Seeking to increase pressure on the political elite to act responsibly amid inaction vis-a-vis the slow collapse of the economy, the protesters had launched the fourth month of their protest movement, which had begun on 17 October last year, with a 'Week of Anger', stepping up their tactics and targeting banks and government institutions.

There was a step change in the tactics with violent clashes, outbreaks of small fires, and attacks on banks and government agencies.

Hundreds were injured, mostly protesters, but also some security personnel. Protesters openly called for the "downfall of the military state" and the "banker state" they blame for their economic and political misery.

Beyond the large nationwide demonstrations, new tactics have included almost daily smaller protests at government agencies or officials’ homes, targeted and temporary street blockings, crowds picketing police stations to release detainees, and shaming officials by hounding them out of restaurants, concerts, meetings, and other public events.   

Despite this shift, however, the protesters' main aims have remained constant since the uprising started: Forming a new government of truly independent specialists who can tackle the country’s most pressing threats, led by the collapsing economy and services, then oversee transition towards a new accountable political system free of the corruption, inefficiency, and indifference that most people blame on the traditional sectarian spoil-sharing system.

The ruling class crackdown

Days before announcing the new cabinet, whose members have generated very mixed public reactions and were immediately rejected by the protest organisers, the ruling elites responded with intense security measures against protesters. 

Indeed, the new government has been announced in the midst of a security crackdown defined by greater violence and more arrests, and fences and walls erected around some government buildings. 

Some 500 people were treated for injuries in the past ten days, including a few who were hit in the face or body by tear gas canisters, water cannons, and rubber bullets.

Two young men each lost an eye, a woman alleged that interrogators threatened her with rape, and others were filmed being beaten as they were taken from vans into police stations.

Over 100 demonstrators were detained last week, but most were let go after crowds gathered at the detention centres to demand their release.

A few hurled firecrackers and stones at the police, tried to attack them with tree branches and uprooted metal street signs and security barriers, or smashed bank facades and ATM machines. 

Local analysts blame a variety of groups for the heightened violence, including extreme leftists, destitute youth with no future, middle class protesters whose patience had run out after 3 months of state inaction, or thugs from major political groups who sought to scare the citizenry into ending the protests. 

For its part, the authorities said they needed to maintain order and prevent the destruction of public and private property. 

Questions of legitimacy

The new 20-member government was named essentially by only half the main political parties. It starts its work in this highly charged and polarised atmosphere that will persist, because most people see Diab’s government as simply a new formula for sectarian political chieftains to indirectly control state power.

Most of the ministers are not widely known political figures, and while a few are respected experts in fields like law and foreign policy, the majority were named by political parties and are close allies, subordinates, or advisers of some of the leading sectarian leaders who are the target of the protests in the first place.

Activists feel deceived, angered, and humiliated by what they see as the ruling elite’s attempt to perpetuate its power through a smoke-and-mirrors operation that will not deceive the citizenry. Yet the government’s appointment and its anticipated approval by parliament create a new dynamic that could result in a shift in protest tactics.

Many of the "revolutionaries" who blocked main and secondary roads throughout the country on Wednesday morning are debating two strategies: keep going with their street disruptions and open rejection of the government because it seems to perpetuate the sectarian elite’s control of power, or shift towards pressuring the ministers with transparent accountability mechanisms to ensure that they carry out the reform promises they expect. 

The security agencies' more severe crowd control measures -- at one point army troops filed into central Beirut carrying RPG’s -- is widely interpreted here as a sign that the sectarian ruling elite fears it may be losing its grip in the face of growing and more defiant street protests by a citizenry that is ever more poor and hopeless.

Political leaders who worry that their usual sectarian loyalty means of forcing citizen compliance with their policies are no longer effective may have decided to crush the protests by force. 

Lebanon imports Arab regime dysfunctions

These local developments should also be seen against the backdrop of a much more troubling reality: Lebanon is especially noteworthy today because it has joined the wider arena of similar Arab dysfunction and protest, which has been defined by two troubling trends among Arab states in recent decades — the pauperization and helplessness of citizens, and the militarisation and detached arrogance of the government.

Most Lebanese now mirror the political anger, economic stress, and psychological humiliation — even dehumanisation — that is so evident in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Egypt, and other Arab societies where protests of different scales have gone on for the past decade.

Few of Lebanon’s stresses are unique in our distraught Arab region where many desperate and increasingly impoverished citizens struggle against their government’s negligence, criminality, and increasing militarisation.

Lebanon will soon reveal if it will persist in this direction, or pull back from the likelihood of more deaths in its streets which increasingly resemble those of Iraq, Sudan and even Syria.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow, adjunct professor of journalism, and Journalist-in-Residence at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative.

Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri