Almost five months on from the beginning of Lebanon’s thawra (revolution), the protest movement finds itself at an impasse. The movement was triggered by a series of crises, including a failed response to wildfires in southern Lebanon and the former government’s announcement of plans to introduce new taxes on products such as petrol, tobacco, and the free use of Internet phone calls. Although views of protestors differ as to the precise goals of the movement and the best strategies to bring about reform, the thawra has several core demands. They include the appointment of a new government of genuine independent technocrats, the recovery of stolen public funds, holding any corrupt political figures to account, and early elections (the next ones not being until 2022). Ultimately, the protestors seek an end to Lebanon’s sectarian political system enshrined in the 1940s, an almost impossible goal.
Lebanon is in the grip of an economic and financial crisis, the worst to hit the country since the end of the Civil War in the 1990s. On 9 March, Lebanon defaulted on a USD 1.2 billion Eurobond debt, the first of its kind in the county’s history. Further, a US dollar shortage has led to tightened withdrawal caps at Lebanon’s banks. This means that depositors are limited to withdrawals of a few hundred dollars per month from their own accounts, despite rising prices of food, medicines and other basic items. Only the ultra-wealthy and those connected to the banking elite are able to avoid these restrictions.
This situation has led to violent reactions from the public, including the destruction of bank property and ATMs, and in one case a depositor taking a bank employee hostage. The shortage of dollars has also forced Lebanese businesses to turn to a parallel market where one US dollar sells for up to LBP 2500 (AUD 2.76), while the official rate when withdrawing limited amounts from banks is LBP 1507 (AUD 1.66). As a result, businesses that rely on hard currency and imported goods purchased in dollars are struggling to survive. Those with LBP bank accounts have watched their income and savings reduce in value by almost 50 per cent. This is encouraging many protestors to remain on the streets.
To date, however, none of the protestors’ demands have been met, apart from the resignation of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government. The new government under Prime Minister Diab received a vote of confidence in Parliament in mid-February, even as large protests were ongoing outside Parliament. Despite protestors’ demands for genuine political renewal, the new government is undeniably the old guard and was largely crafted by Hezbollah, a powerful pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim political party and militant group. While these new government officials appear ‘on-paper’ as technocrats, they have never held prior political office, were installed by one of the main political parties, and are believed to represent the same corrupt interests of the old government, under a new name.
The protestors are now left with a stark reality. Those that are persisting in their demands for meaningful change are facing violent confrontations, including with internal security forces, the army and supporters of pro-Iranian parties backing the new government. Protestor numbers have already reduced significantly over the course of a brutally cold Lebanese winter. It seems increasingly likely that the thawra will dissolve and the new government will be left to devise a solution to a virtually unfixable financial crisis. Prime Minister Diab has described attempting to resolve the crisis as a ‘suicide mission’. Now, his government must simultaneously grapple with a state of emergency over COVID-19.
The question then arises: where to for the thawra?
If the movement can regain its fire, it could place significant pressure on the new Diab government, causing it to resign or force early elections. However, this is unlikely given Hezbollah and its allies’ backing of the new government. This coalition (led by Hezbollah) enjoys a comfortable majority in the Parliament, which it will not relinquish easily. Even if protestors were successful in forcing early elections, this would also not guarantee the success of their preferred candidates given the strength of the sectarian mindset in the country.
Alternatively, the movement could alter its approach to negotiate with the Diab government to adopt a reform program. However, if negotiation is even an option, it is not clear who or what speaks for the protest movement. The thawra’s lack of centralised leadership and organisation is simultaneously a key strength and a significant weakness. Any negotiations would also be asking the same feudal and religious ruling elite the protestors want to overthrow to reform the system. The odds of meaningful change are therefore low.
Despite what appears to be a dead-end for the protest movement, it would be inaccurate to suggest it has been a failed effort entirely. The thawra has been highly successful at drawing domestic and international attention to the endemic corruption and structural issues facing Lebanon’s political system. For the most part, the protest has also been peaceful.
For the thawra to have further success it is clear it will need to re-energise and adjust its tactics for achieving change, regardless of its particular goals.
Stephanie Zughbi is a former Sydney Branch Director at Young Australians in International Affairs.