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Lebanon: The revolution that has come full circle

By Raphaël Gourrada
Posted on Wednesday, 21 October 2020 01:53

Lebanon Protest
Anti-government protesters hold up torches as they lit a giant flame over a metal statue that reads in Arabic: "October 17, Revolution." next to the site of the Aug. 4 deadly blast in the seaport of Beirut that killed scores and wounded thousands in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

In October 2019, the Lebanese took to the streets to demand an end their corrupt system. One year and several disasters later, nothing has changed.

On 17 October 2019, the large Lebanese squares were suddenly flooded by jubilant and peaceful crowds. Society was once again taking a stand, contradicting analysis who would otherwise describe their efforts as apathetic.

The first victory was undoubtedly what led to Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation on 29 October, resulting in the fall of a cabinet called “national unity”, which bought together almost all the political forces denounced by demonstrators. The election of Melhem Khalaf – an unqualified lawyer – to the post of President of the Bar Association, on 17 November, was another victory suggesting a real turning point for citizens.

Lack of payment and health crisis

Financial institutions, notably the Central Bank of Lebanon (BCL), were also the target of attacks from the population, while the Lebanese pound plunged dramatically towards record low rates (one dollar for 8,500 Lebanese pounds today). The shortage of dollars, the restrictions on currency withdrawals, as well as the refusal of the BCL to take the largest deposits in order to bail out the public coffers, continued to fuel popular discontent.

The resignation of civil servants protesting against the irrational intransigence of banking groups, as well as the revelation of a complete Ponzi scheme, the main reason for the country’s financial collapse, were all indicators of the cataclysm that was to follow.

In March, with the global health crisis loomed over Lebanon along with inflation of more than 100% making daily life for the Lebanese unbearable. Prime Minister Hassan Diab officially declared the Lebanese State unable to pay its debt, thereby setting the stage for default, a first in its history.

READ MORE Lebanon: Chronicle of a tragedy foretold

And so began the slow decent into hell. The health crisis heightened anger and led to fears that the thaoura (“revolution”) will turn into hunger riots. At the time of the lockdown, the protests were struggling to resume. The movement had a painful second wind after the explosion of 2,750tn of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port on 4 August, symbolic of Lebanese administrative mismanagement.

Waiting strategy

Paris’ efforts at mediation and its policy of increasing pressure by President Emmanuel Macron did little to bring about an urgent response in undertaking fundamental reforms. The unsuccessful initiative by France will only have, in the end, strengthened a ruling class clinging to power.

Throughout this entire institutional and social crisis, the ruling class has shown incredible resilience. Time is once again the main weapon of these elites. Playing on social fatigue, disharmony and organisational deficit of the forces that have emerged in favour of the thaoura, remains the guiding line of the main parties, despite other strategies.

While some people, in particular Saad Hariri, tried to co-opt growing demands in an effort to present themselves as credible alternatives to a power to which they already belonged, others (represented by Hezbollah and the Amal party) quickly opted for the violent delegitimisation of the protest movements.

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Finally, the other main component of the regime, grouped behind President Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, has been the strategy of waiting. While the Diab government resigned on 10 August, the new Prime Minister, Mustapha Adib, who parachuted into catastrophe on 31 August, threw in the towel less than a month later, unable to impose a cabinet accepted by the traditional political forces.

Ubiquitous turnaround

The deadlock in negotiations with the IMF, the inflexibility of the Lebanese leaders who found a political respite within the French initiative, and the breathlessness of protests after a year of militancy have finally let to a sudden turnaround in recent weeks: the potential for Saad Hariri to become Prime Minister, almost a year after his resignation as a result of pressure from the public.

17 October 2020 was indeed a sad anniversary as the same Lebanese took to the same streets, chanting the same slogans from a year ago, denouncing an unchanged situation. If the flame has not been extinguished, the next step will be to reinvent Act II of the thaoura. The prerequisite for this reinvention must include unity against the system, organisation and precision on social projects and the establishment of precise and achievable conditions.

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