Lebanon currently holds among the highest debt to GDP ratio in the world, and a banking sector pressured into collapse, as the majority of its population finds themselves on the brink of poverty. This dire situation was caused by Lebanon’s structural problems, corruption and the political elite’s rent-seeking. These recent developments only prove the extent to which the Lebanese crisis is inherently political at its core, resulting from an absence of good governance and rational economic policy, as well as the political practice of invoking foreign protection and financing.
The situation is additionally complicated by the entrenched practice of sectarian politics in a country of eighteen officially-recognized sects. The political elite’s rent-seeking has reinforced their dependence on sectarian politics marketed as a necessity to preserve the tenuous balance between the sects and prevent the collapse of the entire system.
The repercussions of these corrupt practices gradually accumulated and eventually erupted as a civil protest movement in 2015. Since then, it has become clear that the political forces have chosen to handle the crisis by aborting any popular movement to maintain the status quo despite the differences in their political interests.
Greater Lebanon’s Collapse and the failure to build a state in a sectarian country
Since its establishment under French rule following the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, Greater Lebanon has not succeeded in establishing a national identity. The French instituted leaders of sectarian groups and distributed quotas among them, favoring the Maronite Christians above all other sects since the writing of the 1926 constitution. Since then, Lebanon has been fraught with minority concerns and sectarian conflict, making it impossible to form a cohesive national identity.
Since Greater Lebanon’s establishment, the Lebanese people have reached a series of agreements, starting with the 1943 National Pact, which distributed powers among the sects in favor of the Maronites, based on the 1926 constitution which had been drawn up soon after the country’s establishment.
The Pact created terrible socioeconomic inequality. While the capital of Beirut and Mount Lebanon prospered, the peripheries suffered from poverty, unemployment, and poor services.
In 1958, the Lebanese right wing promoted the signing the Baghdad Pact, a Cold War alliance of Middle Eastern states, which tipped the country into further conflict, ultimately producing a new agreement in which Lebanon returned to a policy of non-engagement with its alliances and axes. The agreement imposed a measure of balance in the distribution of public service jobs, and Lebanon entered a phase of political and administrative reforms that did not address the deeper-rooted problem of sectarian discrimination. The Chehab period in the late fifties and sixties witnessed vigorous attempts to build a state with reliable institutions and public administrations.
With the start of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) armed resistance, clashes erupted between the army and Palestinians, which led to the signing of the Cairo Agreement, the third such agreement besides 1943 and 1958. Under the auspices of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Lebanon agreed to allow the PLO to establish military bases in southern Lebanon and run the administration of Palestinian refugee camps. Armed clashes between the Jordanian army and Palestinian armed resistance in Jordan prompted the Palestinian leadership to further centralize in Lebanon.
However, disagreements led to a devastating civil war that invited military intervention from multiple fronts, turning Lebanon into a theater for regional and international conflict, in addition to being a testing laboratory for all the tactics and techniques of wars. Conflict erupted between the Lebanese and Palestinians, Muslims and Christians, and the Shiites and Sunnis among themselves, all of whom became entwined in conflict with Israel and Syria. This eventually led to the signing of the Taif agreement by all Lebanese parties represented in Parliament, with the objection of the army chief and head of the transitional government, Michel Aoun. Aoun launched a war of liberation in retaliation that was cut short by the Syrian air raids on Baabda Palace following a settlement between the West and Hafez al-Assad, leading Aoun to flee for the French embassy and ultimately France.
Sect is the password
Lebanon’s situation is complicated by the sectarian calculations that govern the Lebanese powers’ political and socioeconomic decisions. Factions rely on this system of sectarianism to attract their constituency, confront their opponents, summon regional powers to support them, and build difficult to penetrate financial and political empires.
According to this equation, political factions shared the functions and resources of the state in two stages:
- In the first stage between 1992 and 2005, power and interests were distributed, under Syria’s direct sponsorship and administration, between the Future Movement, Marada, Kataeb, Amal Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party, and Hezbollah, according to the priorities of these parties and their allies. This stage prioritized regional interests at the expense of the local.
- The second phase started in 2005 following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the Syrian army’s withdrawal and continues to today. In this phase, the Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces became prominent players on the political and governmental scene.
Since then, sectarianism and clientelism have reached their peak and citizens are left with no redress to rights except through exclusive networks of patronage. Even the selection of government ministers is restricted by sect and parties are prevented from designating people from another sect. High and low ranking public service jobs and even laborers are limited to those affiliated with parties, and positions are divided according to each sect’s share.
As for public projects, tendering frequently takes place through mutual agreements between parties over the distribution of shares. In other words, public resources are relegated to private benefit, and corruption infiltrates all public sectors. Electricity and power, waste collection, fuel, illegal communications and internet, marine property, infrastructure and contracts, public utilities such as casinos and government hospitals, and relief funds are all subject to the logic of sharing the spoils.
The spark of civil protests: August 2015
2015 is commonly known as the year when the Lebanese civil movement began, a movement which broke free of political, sectarian and alignments and expressed popular frustration and anger over the mismanagement, political corruption, and deadlock in the decision-making process. This movement stemmed from two successive decisions made by Parliament to postpone the parliamentary elections, the first on May 31, 2013 and the second on November 20, 2014 due to “the instability in the country caused by to the conflict in Syria and the lack of agreement on a new electoral law.” In this period, the country witnessed a presidential vacuum that began in May 2014 and continued until the end of October 2016. Ironically, the parliament extension was implemented under the pretext of avoiding a vacuum, following the parliament’s inability to elect a President of the Republic, agree on a law for parliamentary elections, decide on salary scales, approve the budget, and pay salaries on time. Therefore, the entire Lebanese system was thrown into a political and constitutional crisis.
On July 17, 2015, the contract of Sukleen, the company in charge of waste management in the capital and a number of adjoining areas, expired. Additionally, the Naameh landfill that hosted the capital’s garbage had just closed. Trash accumulated in the streets and the government seemed to completely lack any initiative to solve Lebanon’s political crisis. Indeed, the pervasive corruption and erosion of state institutions could find no better metaphor than the heaps of trash gathering on the streets. At the time, citizens demanded simple measures towards “adopting a sustainable method of waste treatment, sorting it at the source, and treating it in specialized centers in each district.” On July 21, the ” tul’it rihetkun” (“You Stink”) group was formed, a group not numbering more than fifteen at the time, which moved to throw the waste at the government palace. August 22, 2015 marked a major turning point in popular participation in the demonstrations, as well as the security forces’ choice to use excessive force.
Despite its rightful demands, the civil movement was unable to transform into a solid national organization traversing sectarian and regional divides and failed to bring forth influential representatives to sway the Lebanese public opinion.
The point of no return
After a presidential vacuum that lasted for more than two and a half years, which took its toll on the state, administration, and economy, Michel Aoun was elected President of the Republic on October 31, 2016 following a political settlement between the Lebanese Forces (Samir Geagea – Maronite) and the Free Patriotic Movement (Michel Aoun – Maronite) known as the Maarab Understanding. The Future Movement (Saad Hariri – Sunni) joined the Lebanese Forces by making a settlement with the Free Patriotic Movement. This settlement led to Aoun’s election and Hariri’s assignment to form a government in which the Lebanese Forces would be represented alongside the other parties.
On December 18, 2016, Hariri formed the first government under Aoun, and on June 14, 2017, the government approved a new law for parliamentary elections. It adopted proportional representation, divided Lebanon into 15 electoral districts and gave voters the right to cast preferential votes for the judiciary. For technical reasons, the elections were postponed for the third time until May 2018.
However, Hariri’s resignation from Riyadh in early November 2017, had a resounding impact on the Lebanese political scene and financial and economic conditions, after which Saudi Arabia adopted a more disengaged policy towards Lebanon till the present day.
The elections took place, and Hariri was once again designated prime minister on May 24, 2018, and formed a government on November 31, 2019, with the delay of more than nine months the first indication of the fractured relationship between the political leaders.
With the worsening financial situation and drop in the Lebanese lira’s value, on October 17, 2019, the Hariri government announced its intention to impose a fee on free electronic messaging applications such as WhatsApp. The decision ignited the anger of the Lebanese people who had already started to see signs of a severe economic crisis a few weeks previous, and took to the streets to express their disapproval of the decision, chanting: “The people want the fall of the regime.” The banking sector began to falter as bank owners and influential figures illegally transferred their wealth abroad, according to the lawsuits filed by more than one party against both domestic and foreign banks.
Under popular pressure, Hariri resigned on the twenty-ninth of October, about two weeks after the protests erupted and after clashes between demonstrators and supporters of Hezbollah (Hassan Nasrallah – Shiite) and the Amal movement (Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri – Shiite) who tore down the demonstrators’ tents and beat them in the capital’s center. The Free Patriotic Movement, as well as the Shiite duo, i.e., the Amal Movement and Hezbollah, resented Hariri’s resignation.
On December 19, Dr. Hassan Diab was tasked with the formation of a ‘one-sided’ government, which, despite presenting an acceptable economic strategy, neither gained the confidence of the local population nor the international community. Diab’s government was unable to market the plan and mobilize positive international public opinion for the plan amid the political elite’s unwillingness to carry out the necessary reforms or share the losses incurred by the country. The people were left to pay the losses instead of them redistributing to the state, the Central Bank of Lebanon and other private commercial banks.
The main initiatives presented and their failure
1- “Memorandum on Lebanon and active neutrality”
The political situation rapidly deteriorated, and the Diab government proved incapable of making any change on any level. In light of this, on July 5, 2020 Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros Al-Rai called in the Maronite village of Diman for an adoption of a policy of “active neutrality”, which he re-explained in a memorandum published on August 17, linking neutrality to three interconnected, complementary and indivisible dimensions:
First, Lebanon’s refraining from “entering coalitions or axes, political conflicts and wars regionally and internationally; the abstention of any regional or international state from interfering in its affairs, dominating it, invading or occupying it, or using its territory for military purposes.”
Second, Lebanon’s solidarity with human rights and popular liberation causes, especially of the Arabs, in which their countries and the United Nations are in unanimous agreement. Therefore, Lebanon will continue to defend the right of the Palestinian people and work to find an equitable solution for the Palestinian refugees, especially those who live on its territories.
Third, strengthening the Lebanese state through its various institutions: military, judicial, legislative, and executive, in order to guarantee its internal security, and to defend itself against any land, sea or air aggressions from Israel or any other state. Moreover, a neutral Lebanon also needs a just and swift resolution to the issues of border demarcations with Israel, in accordance with the Armistice Agreement, as well as for State of Syria to accept Lebanon’s border as internationally recognized.
Al-Rai’s proposal, however, did not meet the endorsement of all Lebanese parties, especially Hezbollah. For example, the head of the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council, Imam Sheikh Abdul Amir Qabalan, rejected the idea of neutrality, saying: “It is absurd and despicable to find someone who sympathizes with traitors and agents under various headings aiming at distorting the image of Lebanon that is resistant and victorious over the Zionist enemy.” Meanwhile, Gebran Bassil, head of The Free Patriotic Movement, asserted that the movement supports Lebanon’s neutrality of Lebanon, and that they had proposed this issue in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well, considering that “neutrality is a form of strategic positioning.” This debate carried on until August 4th.
2- The French initiative: The explosion of August 4th and Macron’s Gambit in Lebanon
On August 4, 2020, Lebanon was struck by the tragedy of the Beirut port explosion. The blast could be heard as far away as the island of Cyprus, 240 km from Lebanon, and was considered one of the most violent and largest non-nuclear explosions in history.
A day and a half after the explosion, French President Emmanuel Macron headed to Beirut, his presence having a marked impact on the people whom he walked among and addressed affectionately. At the end of his tour, Macron addressed the political class in a press conference, saying: “I am waiting for clear answers from the Lebanese authorities about their commitments to the rule of law, transparency, freedom, democracy and the necessary reforms.”
Six days after the explosion, Diab’s government resigned under pressure from ministers and political forces that wanted to get rid of Diab and his government. On August 31, 2020, Aoun assigned Lebanon’s Ambassador to Germany, Mustafa Adib, to form the government after the latter obtained a majority of 90 votes out of 120 in Parliament.
Macron returned to Beirut on the first of September, the first centenary of Greater Lebanon, to meet the Prime Minister-designate, as well as the President of the Republic. Macron said that he would “propose to Lebanese officials a new political pact to change the regime” and carry out the reforms demanded by the international community. “This explosion must be the beginning of a new era,” he said. However, during his meetings with Lebanese officials and heads of parties, Macron did not present any proposal for a new political charter.
The French President met, during his two-day visit, with eight political forces, namely the “Future Movement”, “Amal Movement”, “Hezbollah”, “Free Patriotic Movement”, “Socialist Party” and “Marada Movement” (Suleiman Franjieh – Maronite), the “Lebanese Forces” and the “Lebanese Kataeb” (Sami Gemayel – Maronite). He also met Patriarch Al-Rai in the Pine Palace.
During this visit, Macron launched his famous initiative aimed to form a six-month government task force made of technocrats to implement reforms, the most prominent of which were:
1- Rehabilitating the Beirut port by launching tenders in accordance with impartial procedures and conducting an impartial and independent investigation that enables the complete truth to be revealed regarding the explosion’s causes, with the support of Lebanon’s international partners in the relevant areas of cooperation and expertise within a reasonable timeline. It also called for establishing control gates, strengthening control in the Beirut and Tripoli ports and the Beirut airport, as well as at other border crossing points, and decreasing transactions, according to the administration’s deadlines.
2- An immediate resumption of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the rapid approval of the preventive measures requested by the IMF, including legislation relating to capital control and the auditing of Banque du Liban’s accounts (by immediately initiating a bank audit for this purpose).
3- Appointing officials to the electricity sector’s regulatory authority within the framework of Law 462/2002 without amendments, while providing this authority with real capacity to carry out its work. Launching tenders for offers related to gas-powered electricity generation plants, which are considered a priority to reduce the use of generators.
4- Executing judicial appointments (judges of the Supreme Judicial Council), financial appointments (members of the Capital Markets Authority) and sectoral appointments (for regulatory bodies of the electricity, telecommunications, and civil aviation sectors) in accordance with transparent criteria based on competence, in conjunction with Parliamentary approval of a proposed law on the judiciary’s independence.
5- Appointing the members of the National Anti-Corruption Commission and giving it the necessary capabilities to carry out the tasks entrusted to it and to actually launch its work.
6- Immediate implementation of customs reforms.
7- Public procurement reform by preparing, adopting and implementing a bill on public procurement reform.
8- Organizing new legislative elections within a maximum period of one year, provided that the electoral law is reformed to fully include civil society, allowing Parliament to be more representative of civil society’s aspirations.
On September 8, 2020, the US administration imposed sanctions on the political assistant of the Parliamentary Speaker and former Finance Minister, Ali Hassan Khalil, as well as the leader of the Marada movement, Minister Youssef Fenianos, which undermined the French initiative. Additionally, given the rejection of the “Shiite duo” of the principle of “rotation” in key ministries or the nomination of any Shiite minister except by themselves, the French initiative was emptied in both framework and content.
Mustafa Adeeb stepped down and Saad Hariri became Prime-Minister-designate. Yet, despite a period of nine months and more than 19 visits to the President of the Republic as well as several trips abroad, all his attempts to form a government failed.
On July 26, the Prime Minister Najib Mikati was tasked with forming a new government, and succeeded on September 10 to form one after more than a year since the French initiative and the resignation of the Hassan Diab government following the port explosion. Nonetheless, obstruction of reforms began the moment the resigned government prepared an economic recovery plan in April 2020 without being able to approve it in Parliament. This means that reforms are very unlikely to occur before the parliamentary elections to take place in 2022, nor before the end of Michel Aoun’s presidential term.
The French initiative was completely exhausted, and the French president did not obtain the global success story he wished for, nor did he extend a lifeline to Lebanon to avoid it sinking into collapse.
Towards the abyss
Lebanon is now rushing full speed towards implosion and fragmentation. The recurrent security incidents throughout the country are only further evidence, as is the disintegration of the middle class to levels of poverty which have neared 60% of the Lebanese population, or nearly 75% by another stark estimation.
In a UNICEF report, figures indicate horrific results, stating that 77% of Lebanese families do not have enough food or money to secure their need for food alone, and that 60% of families borrow to buy food and basics, that 30% of children sleep hungry and 30% of children are unable to receive necessary treatments or primary health care.
Moreover, Lebanon is also currently witnessing its third wave of displacement in its history, and with such skyrocketing rates of emigration and desire for emigration in recent months, experts warn that the expected outcome “will be dire through a loss that is difficult to compensate for the Lebanese human capital, which is the main course in rebuilding the state, society and economy.” This prediction is consistent with the World Bank’s assessment, which estimates that “Lebanon will take between 12 and 19 years to recover.” Yet, there is no way to recover without a plan, and while waiting for a significant breakthrough, Lebanon is fast on the path to demise. With time, disastrous results are expected for the most vulnerable groups during the country’s disintegration.
Today, the obvious question seems to be political: what is politically necessary to stabilize Lebanon’s situation for the decades to come?
There is consensus in Lebanon and abroad on the country’s need for a new social contract that contributes to restoring the lost trust between citizens, the state and its institutions.
The Republic, with all its constitutional institutions, has failed to supply solutions for old and emerging problems, and so both political and financial institutions are on the verge of collapse, with the judiciary also compromised through direct political interventions.
The formation of a government is an opportunity to catch breath and put a needed halt to quickly deteriorating situation to address the numerous pervasive crises. However, there are pressing existential questions that need to be asked regarding the financial and economic model, the distribution of powers, the pivotal regional alignments, or the lack thereof. This is crucial to formulate a new national agreement which can rebuild a country so carelessly demolished by its politicians.