Explained: What is Happening in Lebanon?

Story so farLebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced his resignation on October 29 following two weeks of street protests that brought the capital Beirut to a standstill and led to violence between rival political factions. Mr. Hariri, who failed to placate the protesters despite promises to reform the economy, said on Tuesday, October 29, that he had hit “a dead end” and hence decided to quit.

Why protests?

The trigger was a government proposal to impose a $6 monthly tax on WhatsApp users to raise funds following disastrous forest fires that burned thousands of acres. The government immediately withdrew the proposal after the October 17 protests, but the protesters never left the streets.

They demanded an end to “corruption” and the resignation of the country’s powerful elite with more and more people joining them. The country has been going through economic difficulties for some time. The Lebanese pound (also known as the lira) has slipped steadily in recent weeks against the dollar amid a currency crunch. The pound has been officially pegged at 1,500 to a dollar for over 10 years. But amid a worsening currency crunch, banks have introduced curbs on dollar withdrawal. In the black market, the value of pound fell up to 1,750 to a dollar.

Many Lebanese were also angry with the government’s handling of the wildfires. The country is also facing electricity and water shortages, and has seen protests in the recent past over garbage pileup in cities. So there was a pule-up of public resentment against Lebanon’s ruling elite. The WhatsApp tax unleashed this anger, leading to mass protests.

What do protesters want?

What began as a protest against a tax has snowballed into a movement for systemic change. The protesters see Mr. Hariri’s resignation as a victory, but they want more leaders to follow suit. “All means all of them,” is one of their main slogans. Lebanon has a confessional system, which was introduced after the 1975-1990 civil war, in which a Christian will be President, a Sunni will be Prime Minister and a Shia Parliament Speaker. Roughly 54% of Lebanon population are Muslims (Shias and Sunnis make up 27% each), 40.5% Christians and 5% Druze.

The complex religious dynamics turned Lebanon into a geopolitical theatre for foreign players. France retains some influence through the Maronite Christians, while Saudi Arabia has leverage over Sunni political parties (including Mr. Hariri’s party) and Iran backs the Shia parties, Hezbollah and Amal. The protesters believe the leaders are more concerned about their friends and patrons abroad than addressing more pressing civic and administrative issues at home.

They want both President Michel Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berry to resign along with the Prime Minister and the confessional system to overhauled for a new secular, democratic political order.

Is the crisis over?

President Aoun could reject the resignation of Mr. Hariri and ask him to form a new Cabinet. Or he could ask him to continue as a caretaker Prime Minister until fresh elections are held. Even forming a new Cabinet would not be easy in Lebanon’s sectarian system.

It took nine months for Mr. Hariri to form his coalition government that was sworn in in January. And it’s not clear whether a new government or even fresh elections would placate the protesters, as under the current system, the establishment parties would secure more or less the same number seats. The protesters’ calls for systemic reforms will be met with strong resistance from the establishment parties which have built sectarian political constituencies over the past two decades and would not like their influence to be swept away.

Hezbollah, the powerful Shia party-cum-militia, has already said the protests were instigated by foreigners. So it’s a dead end, not just for Prime Minister Hariri but also for the country’s established elite as well as the street revolutionaries.

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