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Enough of sectarian politics in Lebanon

Fadi Nicholas Nassar (Geopolitix)
Filed on November 11, 2019 | Last updated on November 11, 2019 at 10.25 pm

The international community can play a role in ensuring a successful and stable transition.

Since October 17, hundreds of thousands of protesters have mobilised across Lebanon, calling for an end to corruption, sectarianism, and the broken political and economic system. The mass demonstrations, largely branded as al thawra, the Arabic word for revolution, were triggered by plans by the Lebanese government to tax WhatsApp calls.

The tax, advanced in the aftermath of the government's inadequate response to one of the country's worst environmental crises, was presented by officials as an austerity measure to reduce the country's exorbitant national debt, currently estimated at 150 per cent of gross domestic product.

In response to the nationwide protests, the government quickly scrapped the new taxation measures. But, as protesters have made clear, the movement is not just about reversing austerity measures; it is a collective struggle against political elites and the system responsible for the country's political and economic woes. It is no coincidence that one of the earliest slogans sung across the country was the same one shared around the Arab world during the Arab Uprisings of 2011 - al-sha'ab yurid isqat al-nitham (the people want to bring down the regime).

In the context of Lebanon, references to the regime relate to the intimate consolidation of sectarianism and clientelism in the country, which has centred political and economic power in the hands of a small number of sectarian elites. The denunciation of the entire political class is nothing short of revolutionary as it transcends sect, region, generation, and traditional allegiances to political dynasties and parties.

Given the unprecedented nature of the situation, the international community may feel unsure of how to respond. An important consideration is that any response that does not take into account the depth of the issues and the protestors' rejection of the government and greater political system, risks repeating the mistakes in responding to the Arab Uprisings in 2011. So, what can the international community (especially donor countries which are sustaining the government) do in such circumstances without infringing on the country's sovereignty and inadvertently tainting the grassroots reputation of the movement in Lebanon?

While any changes to the country's political system should be determined by the Lebanese themselves, the international community can play a role in ensuring a successful and stable transition. The question is whether donor countries will support the protesters challenging the illiberal order or the existing government. This is a critical question, as it is unlikely that the current government would be able to sustain itself, or its political clout, without continued economic aid and foreign direct investment from donor countries.

Lebanon's dependence on foreign aid is particularly concerning as it is suffering from one of the world's largest national debt ratios and is on the verge of a calamitous economic crisis. Well aware of the dependency of the Lebanese government on this aid and its alarming national debt level, donors who gathered last year in Paris at the Conférence économique pour le développement (CEDRE) and pledged around $11 billion, have conditioned its receipt on austerity measures to cut the country's negative balance.

At this point, economic austerity will do little to remedy the corruption issues and deficits of trust between the people and the government. The Lebanese government has been unable and unwilling to use public funds to seriously invest in the country's public infrastructure. Protesters have lamented the abysmal state of public services. While the government and ruling elite continue to present themselves as the vanguards of stability, the massive trash crisis (that has yet to be properly resolved) and the recent environmental crisis underscore the scale of the problem and the inability of the government to meet the needs of the people.

The UN could support by providing an independent team to monitor any elections and safeguard the implementation of necessary democratic procedures. If possible, future stimulus packages could be conditioned on the formation of a new government, following the above recommendations.

A final role that the larger international community can play, especially the UN, is protecting the safety and freedom of demonstrators. International pressure to allow peaceful protests will go far in reducing human rights violations and protecting civilians from intimidation and harassment, facilitating the release of anyone detained for protesting, and safeguarding the public's fundamental right to assembly, free speech, and political expression.

To be clear, Lebanon shows no indication of following a similar trajectory to Muammar Qaddafi in Libya or the regime of Bashar Al Assad in Syria. Its political system is different, and it is unlikely that a nationwide military crackdown by the army would take place in the country. It would, therefore, be wrong to try and frame the current uprising in Lebanon as a carbon copy of protests in Egypt, Libya, or Syria, or to downplay them as a mere response to harsh austerity measures.

- IPI Global Observatory

Fadi Nicholas Nassar holds a PhD from the King's College London


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