The Lebanese people have taken to the street since October 17 to protest the country’s current economic disparity and the government’s mismanagement and corruption. What started as a protest against increased taxes on products and services ranging from tobacco to WhatsApp calls has devolved into a collective indictment against the Lebanese ruling class.
On 29 October Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation in an attempt to assuage the civilian uproar. While the resignation temporarily cooled tensions, protests have reignited and citizens have demanded more reforms including some protesters calling for the entire political system and all government officials and politicians to be replaced.
In contrast to previous protests and revolutions, this unrest is not divided on sectarian or political party lines. Rather, a mass grassroots uprising has formed to fight against the inadequacy and corruption of the Lebanese political class.
While the protestors’ demands are broad, dissatisfaction with government economic policy and deep-seated corruption have been consistent throughout the duration of the ongoing street protests.
Economy and Corruption
Lebanon’s economy has tanked and currently sits at 0% growth, precipitating a wide-reaching economic crisis. Protesters have accused the government of stealing money from the Lebanese people and creating a pervasively corrupt economy. This has caused a litany of problems for both the Lebanese economy and its people.
In the country’s second-largest city, Tripoli, unemployment has been estimated at 50%, and many citizens feel they have no future economic prospects. Economic uncertainty and poverty have clearly deepened the distrust and anger with the government.
As to how the economy has got so bad, according to protesters, there are multiple answers and mistakes the government has made in recent years.
One of the loudest critiques of the government has been corruption, which not only has taken money out of the hands of the average Lebanese household, but it has also frozen foreign investment into the country, only worsening the already woeful economic conditions for many Lebanese people.
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun has been attempting to position himself as the solution to corruption within the country, and he had thousands of supporters in the streets trying to spread his message. However, anti-government protests in the following days have roundly rejected Aoun’s overtures and outnumbered his supporters.
Without investment, Lebanon’s economic woes will only worsen as its massive debt piles up and threatens an even bigger economic and political crisis.
Before protestors took to the street en-masse, former Prime Minister Hariri had been exploring options to increase foreign investment, specifically from the United Arab Emirates. Hariri visited the UAE to plead for a cash injection into Lebanon’s debt-ridden economy, and the UAE agreed to lift a travel ban on its citizens to Lebanon.
While Saudi Arabia and Western allies of Lebanon have made fewer public announcements about the ongoing developments, UAE announced they are still mulling over projects that were proposed nearly a month ago in their meetings with Hariri.
However, protestor’s dissatisfaction is only mounting and outside help from UAE can only go so far. The UAE and other foreign investors are also unlikely to invest heavily or relieve the economic problems if the uncertainty around the political future of Lebanon is not resolved.
Perhaps even more important than potential future UAE investment, the White House announced the United States would freeze military aid to Lebanon and hold out nearly $105 million from the Lebanese Armed Forces. The shortfall could potentially impact the reaction of the Lebanese government to protestors on the streets and puts President Aoun in a difficult spot to form a new government.
Historically, the United States has supported the Lebanese Armed Forces as a vehicle to fight the Iranian-backed political party Hezbollah. Many voices in the United States Congress, State Department, and security apparatus have condemned the move.
While it is difficult to read the current erratic intentions of American foreign policy, many other states in the region will likely be looking at Lebanon with bated breath. Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel, and more all have great interests in the small country and could potentially try to interfere in the country’s future political alignment if protests persist.
While Lebanon’s political future is unstable and uncertain, changes are surely coming. The country’s current economic situation and political alignment are clearly untenable.
With infrastructure crumbling, the Lebanese pound falling, and unemployment, inequality and unrest exploding, street protests will continue until the material conditions change.
Whether that takes the form of a civilian-led political revolution, technocratic policy changes, or brutal repression remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Lebanese people will keep searching for answers and perhaps look to take matters into their own hands.
Until corruption within the country is tackled and the needs of protestors are met, foreign investment is unlikely to flow into the embattled nation.