As Lebanon's politicians stall, its people suffer hopelessly

As Lebanon's politicians stall, its people suffer hopelessly
Comment: Lebanon's political class displays a tolerance for stalling that contrasts strikingly with the sense of urgency that the situation demands, writes Nizar Hassan.
5 min read
15 Mar, 2021
Lebanon's economic crisis has led to a collapse of the Lira and purchasing power [Getty]
Fifteen months ago, we titled a podcast episode "those who stall, those who suffer", referring to Lebanon's political establishment delaying government formation due to disagreements over their shares of ministries, despite the economic meltdown and the popular rage in the streets.

Unfortunately, the country is in a very similar situation today. The difference? Lower protest momentum, and a dramatically worse socio-economic and political situation.

In the last two weeks, a new wave of protests across Lebanon has seen many roads blocked with burning tires, and thousands marching in Beirut and South Lebanon, after the national currency hit an all-time low against the dollar.

The exchange rate crossed the perceived milestone of 10,000 LL/US Dollar, and is closer to 14,000 today. This means that prices, which had already been increasing dramatically in the last year, are going on a new upward drive.

Meanwhile, most local salaries remain stagnant at their pre-crisis value. Teaching at a public school and joining the army used to be seen as well-paid jobs, highly desired especially in rural communities with fewer opportunities.

Now, a full time teacher makes around $150 per month if they're lucky, and a soldier just less than $80 per month. That's less than two and half dollars per day for a soldier and often their family, putting them on the extremely poor end of the spectrum.

  It might not be a moment of uprising like the evening of October 17 2019, but the grievances and anger just are as real  

This deterioration outraged a population already struggling with little to no aid beyond the subsidies on necessities; subsidies the authorities are expected to start lifting soon where they haven't already. It might not be a moment of uprising like the evening of October 17 2019, but the grievances and anger just are as real.

After forming what has been called a "government of puppets" disguised as technocratic 12 months ago, the ruling class kept accumulating failures and sabotaging solutions until Hassan Diab's cabinet resigned following the tragic port explosion, and became a caretaker government.

You might think that in such pressing moments, a country's rulers would rush to renew their political mandate and restore active governance. Instead, the government's caretaking period has already lasted more than its active reign.

The counterrevolution that followed the uprising brought back Saad Hariri, the prime minister overthrown by the uprising itself a year earlier, into the PM designate position. Ever since, Hariri and President Michel Aoun have failed to agree on a cabinet formation.

The disagreements are not about parties competing for key ministries to implement rescue policies; they are about the number of ministries - i.e. how large a piece of the pie- each of the oligarchs and ruling parties would get. Aoun and the party he founded demand a third of the seats to allow them to veto major decisions, while Hariri refuses. The same old story, only with a poorer and less hopeful people.

Read more: Protests in Lebanon as local currency continues to slide

Apart from the usual politicking, the establishment does not seem particularly eager to end this political vacuum, a tolerance for stalling that strikingly contrasts the sense of urgency that the situation demands.

It is arguable by now that the oligarchy, or a powerful part of it, is intentionally postponing a resolution to avoid being blamed for the bitter period and difficult policies Lebanon is expecting.

Neither Hariri nor his partners in the upcoming cabinet will want to be known as the ones who lifted subsidies off necessities at the expense of the people's purchasing power, or those who further cut down electricity flow due to fuel shortage, while the falling exchange rate exacerbates the already pathological levels of inflation.

Whether or not the stalling is intentional remains speculation. What is certain, however, is that the ruling class has not only delayed government formation, but also actively hindered any improvements on other levels.

Just last month, when the country had already been suffering with severe electricity cuts due to administrative incompetence, it was hit by the scandal when it became clear that many of its MPs had violated the public vaccination policy and received shots at the parliament building.

Responding to the news, the world bank threatened to stop funding the vaccination programme. This sent MP Elie Ferzli, a widely-disliked loyal ally of the Syrian regime and member of Gebran Bassil's parliamentary bloc, on a journey of hysteric attacks against the world bank management, including a racist mocking of the name of its regional director.

  The country is in a very similar situation today. The difference? Lower protest momentum, and a dramatically worse socio-economic and political situation  

Ferzli's embarrassing theatre did a good job eclipsing the earlier and more serious scandal where the judge leading the public investigation into the port blast was sacked from the position based on complaints from two of the ministers who were summoned by the judge and refused to be interrogated.

Yes, you read that right: Ministers who are targets of investigation into causing one of the strongest non-nuclear explosions in history, had the impunity to go after the judge rather than answer questions. As they were both members of Nabih Berri's bloc, one does not have to wonder where the leverage behind this move came from.

The news was humiliating to the families of those who lost lives or homes to the explosion. But perhaps the most significant issue with the official investigations is that it seems to have completely ignored journalistic investigations which have convincingly demonstrated that importing the explosive ammonium nitrate to Lebanon was decided by and paid for Syrian businessmen close to Bashar al-Assad's regime.

There is a lot to say about the impunity enjoyed by Hezbollah and the Syrian regime in Lebanon, and its role in restoring old "vertical" divisions between supporters and opponents of Hezbollah.

This polarisation strongly overshadows the progressive gap that the uprising had established between supporters and opponents of the political establishment as a whole. As a result, the chance of another spontaneous anti-establishment uprising like that of October 17 is greatly reduced.

Nizar Hassan is a Lebanese organiser, researcher and podcaster based in Beirut. He is a co-founder of the progressive political movement LiHaqqi, he researches workers rights and social movements, and co-hosts The Lebanese Politics Podcast.

Follow him on Twitter: @Nizhsn

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.