This blog was updated on Oct. 29 to reflect the resignation of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Nationwide anti-government demonstrations in Lebanon are likely to persist in the coming weeks despite Prime Minister Saad Hariri's resignation on Oct. 29.
Mass demonstrations broke out Oct. 17 in response to a proposed tax bill imposing levies on the use of WhatsApp calling and other
internet calling platforms. Thousands of protesters gathered at Riad El Solh Square in central Beirut, as well as in Tripoli, Tyre, Baalbek, and towns throughout the Bekaa Valley. The proposed tax bill has subsequently been withdrawn and the government has promised to enact significant political and economic reforms; however, the protests show little sign of abating. Unlike previous demonstrations that manifested along the lines of sectarian and political affiliations, the recent protests appear to be unified across sects as the public stands in solidarity against the ruling elite. Protesters are now demanding the government’s resignation, threatening the country’s political stability as four ministers have heeded the demands and stepped down.
Economic Crisis and Austerity Measures
Lebanon has one of the world’s highest public debts. In September, then Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced an agreement among Lebanese politicians to declare a state of economic emergency and accelerate public finance reforms. Despite a series of austerity measures passed by Parliament in recent months to address the crisis, both foreign and local credit ratings remain negative. Deposits into Lebanon’s banking sector have continued to decrease, resulting in dwindling currency reserves. The lack of hard currency has resulted in a growing dollar crisis that has produced a myriad of negative effects. Companies are forced to buy dollars above the fixed exchange rate and many businesses, most notably gas station owners, maintain that the country's shortage in dollar reserves has made it difficult to pay their suppliers. As a result, fuel distributors have organized a series of recent strikes in efforts to receive government concessions.
In addition to strikes, there have been numerous protests in recent months against the country’s deteriorating economic conditions. Demonstrations have been organized by various political parties and civil society groups but have typically only been attended by those affiliated with the demonstration organizer. These demonstrations have condemned alleged government corruption and demanded remedies for economic grievances. The government faces considerable pressure to reverse the country’s economic decline and has introduced several proposals to cut costs and increase revenues ahead of a proposed 2020 budget. In order to unlock pledged donor money and investment from abroad, the government must approve the 2020 budget complete with fiscal reforms.
Advent of Protests and Government Response
Information Minister Jamal Al-Jarrah announced Oct. 17 that the cabinet had approved a charge of 20 US cents per day for calls using WhatsApp and other internet calling platforms. Nationwide demonstrations began that evening in opposition to the tax and have morphed into Lebanon’s largest protests in five years. The protests appear to have grown organically and spontaneously in response to widespread social discontent and are not organized by a single leader. Protests devolved into violence Oct. 18 when demonstrators and security forces clashed in front of the Government Palace in downtown Beirut. Riot police used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse protests and dozens of people were arrested. At least 60 security personnel and 23 demonstrators were injured as a result. With the exception of these clashes, the protests have remained largely peaceful. Anti-government demonstrations are not uncommon in Lebanon; however, these demonstrations are notable in that they transcended the country’s deep sectarian divides. The protests represent the greatest single threat to the current status quo and the political elite since the 2015 “YouStink!” movement.
In response to the demonstrations, the government revoked the proposed tax plan and proposed a series of reforms which included slashing the salaries of politicians by half. Hariri addressed the nation in a speech Oct. 21 to announce an unprecedented reform package; however, the government’s efforts have not succeeded in quelling protests. A general strike was launched Oct. 21 and demonstrators are increasingly demanding the removal of Lebanon’s entire ruling class. Four ministers from the Lebanese Forces party - one of Hariri’s allies - resigned from the cabinet Oct. 19 in response to the protests. Protests have been comprised predominately of young people who are frustrated by the government’s inability to affect change.
Protests Likely to Continue
Protests are likely to continue in the coming weeks due to widespread social discontent, public mistrust of the government, and skepticism regarding the proposed reforms. The current political elite is likely hoping that the protests will subside, akin to the recent Egyptian and Iraqi protests; however, if they do not abate Lebanon will enter a period of uncharted instability. Widespread resignation of politicians would threaten Lebanon’s political stability and jeopardize the delicate system of power-sharing among the country’s various sects. Political upheaval would leave the country more fragmented and fragile than ever before; a new government would struggle to reverse the growing economic decline and promote social stability amid deep political divisions.
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