A Hard Fork in the Road: Lebanese Exceptionalism in Transition

A government that divides the people also brings  people together by showing the true nature of their incompetence in the face of repeated crises, even amongst the base of political support. Lebanon has been facing an extreme economic downturn, mass anti-government protests, a pandemic, and now a devastating explosion caused by human error. The blast of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate at the port has created a re-spark of popular protests across the capital in the wake of the explosion. The protesters and the general population are placing complete blame for the economic downturn, lack of social services and the port explosion on the government. The protestors claim that the government is incapable and unwilling to provide honest transparency and reform to revive the economy, much less handle the investigation for the explosion. Corruption has eroded public trust of the government since the end of the Civil War in 1990. The economy can not function with extreme corruption as international aid will likewise be ineffective without transparency of the disbursement. As President Macron outlined during a state visit after the blast, “International aid will not go to corrupted hands.” The mismanagement by incompetent leaders in Parliament, the Cabinet, and the President and Prime Minister’s highest office are echoed not just by the people, but high ranking government officials such as the former Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti’s in his resignation letter on August 3rd. The question is whether Lebanon will become the next failed state or if they are an exceptional multi-ethnic democracy in the shaky transition to a third republic. Lebanon is in a crisis- how the government navigates the port explosion, economic reform, corruption, and the mass protests will signify the future direction of the state. 

Since the signing of the Ta’if Agreement the government of Lebanon and the core political parties have relied on sectarian politics to enrich themselves in power and wealth. When the October 2019  protest swept the nation, protesters highlighted the government’s slow response because the political parties that form the shared government are split along civil war era factions of the conflict. Creating any meaningful change or reform is a slow process that must be carefully negotiated across the Parliament and the Cabinet. As with many unstable governments, the only quick tool for response is the use of deadly violence. This is true of the current post-port explosion protests and the October (19th) Revolution through April 10th. At least ten demonstrators were killed by police, and over 1,268 people injured during the October Revolution as reported by the Human Rights Watch in a constantly updated protest blog. The protests carried on into COVID-19 lockdowns, and have since intensified as the reality of the port explosion has driven people back into the streets in mass demonstrations. Fires have been set near the parliamentary building, and clashes between the security forces of protesters have taken place on a nightly basis. Some of the protests have turned into riots with small explosive devices and rocks tossed at the police and military. Human Rights Watch, in the live blog, has unconfirmed reports of security forces and unidentified plain clothed individuals using live rounds against protesters and rioters. 

To end the nightly protests, the government will be forced to either double its efforts by increasing the use of violence on the people, causing a revolution (failed state) or give in to the demands of the people by restructuring the foundation of governance. Syria, Libya, and Egypt are three regional examples of what the future of Lebanon may look like if the government chooses to continue down the path of escalation of force. The government is under the complete microscope of the international community since the explosion has shocked the entire world; thus, suppression, waiting out the protesters, nor the resignation of the entire government is a realistic option. Further, changing the face of the leadership does not do away with 30 years of poor economic management and corruption embedded within the fabric of the state. The protesters demand meaningful reform and change of the way in which they are governed and the services that the government offers. 

The explosion might be the wake-up call for the new Lebanese government to take honest and transparent steps to restructure the economy, power-sharing mechanisms, and reviving social services that will save Lebanon’s future. Additionally, the port explosion has become a symbol of national unity of the various religious sects to demand change, as the economic and social mismanagement that was at the core of the October Revolution has been proven to be a deeply rooted crisis. The resignation of the government is superficial at best, as the protests have only increased, the core issue remains a holistic reformation of the entire political and economic system that has allowed for rampant corruption and mismanagement. This reality is starting to sink in within the highest political elite, as with the resignation letter of the Foreign Minister days prior to the Port Explosion. The Ta’if Agreement was the short term solution to the end the civil war, not the progressive agreement that will foster social and economic development for the future of the Lebanese state. 

Roots of October

The October Revolution began after the announcement of new taxes that were put in place as a way for the government to address the deepening economic recession. The legislation includes an increase in fuel, cigarettes, and the introduction of a WhatsApp call tax. The World Bank in a fact sheet profile of Lebanon updated on April 21st, 2020 has predicted the depth of poverty caused by the recession is estimated to reach 22% of the population at the lower end of the poverty line and 45% fluctuating at the upper end of the poverty line. As of August, an estimated 75% of Lebanese people require crucial aid, and 33% have lost their jobs before the port explosion, as reported by Axios. This comes at a time when the value of the Lebanese Lira lost 75% of its value against the dollar. The economic fallout has reached the fragile banking sector, which was forced to place restrictions on personal banking withdrawals of 400 USD per person a month, the currency that Lebanese people rely on for paying for goods and services. The GDP growth has dropped to 0.2 % from 0.7% between 2017 and 2020. The economic recession started in 2019 and is further affected by the mounting foreign debt; 1.2 billion USD of foreign debts was defaulted on in March 2020.

 If people cannot afford food, people won’t spend money on excess items; the tax revenue from consumer sales will be nothing. The economy for ordinary Lebanese people has reverted to a bargaining system as access to cash has been severely limited, and as the unemployment levels continue to increase. The cost for food has increased 58% from October 2019 through April 2020. The only social safety net that exists in Lebanon is the National Poverty Targeting Program, which is being severely overwhelmed by the number of people who are now at the lower end of the poverty line. The reason that the Lebanese government is unable to provide social services is because of their public debt to GDP ratio. According to Inside Arabia, the public debt is 79 billion USD or 150% of their current GDP. Furthermore, the United Nations Human Crisis Report of January 2020 reports that the Syrian Civil war has exacerbated the economic and social goods crisis as 1.5 million Syrian refugees now account for one in four of the overall population. 

The Syrian refugees add an additional layer to the already complicated economic and social situation in Lebanon. A significant portion of the Syrian refugees are employed in precarious working conditions in the Lebanese low-skilled agricultural and industrial regions, a study by the International Labor Organization points out. The majority of the Lebanese unemployed are low skilled workers who are competing with Syrian refugees for work in these regions. Intense pressure has been placed on the Lebanese government to deport the Syrian refugees with the World Bank claims of the government’s cost as being 7.2 Billion USD. The Lebanese government is becoming increasingly hardline in its stance on the refugee population in what can be seen as an attempt to pass blame from their own economic mismanagement to an at-risk and war-torn population. The resemblance to the Palestinian refugee crisis that, in part, lead to the Lebanese civil war has been called out by some Lebanese people. 

Division and Unity 

A devastating human-caused, but non-political explosion that has killed over 150 people, and injured an estimated 5,000 people, is a point of collective unity and rage for the Lebanese people against what they see as incompetency at the highest levels of government. The protests since the October Revolution have rejected divisions and governance based on ethno-religious identity, a call for merit based elections. The blame for such a catastrophe can not be pushed to Sunnis, Shia, Christians, Syrians, or Israel; thus, the only entity that can receive blame is the core leadership in Beirut. This is important for the October Revolution since the government has a history of deflecting blame to different groups or nations when protests occur. The validity of the claims by the October protests has become popularised across the nation as the group trauma from the port explosion is being expressed across the country in the streets. The public outcry also gained more traction as the Lebanese government arrested 16 port workers that they deemed responsible. The protesters do not accept the arrestee’s culpability as they see the government as the only guilty party just as the resignation of the government failed to prevent an escalation of protests. 

The Beirut Port explosion is a turning point for the demonstrations and governance structure in Lebanon. Traumatic events, such as the Beirut port explosion will serve to unite the people for a common interest in forcing the government to take real action or risk losing power. The new government will have to make impactful changes in how it is structured, its role in providing governance, social goods, and economic reform. With international pressure for transparency for aid, assistance, and the spirit of the Lebanese people continually in the streets, real change is now possible to steer the future of Lebanon away from a complete social and economic collapse. The political leaders in Lebanon cannot deflate the situation or superficially act as they once had: the Lebanese people must use this opportunity in the global spotlight to effectively demand reform. The port explosion is a tragic event that should have never happened. The origins of the fragmentation in governance, which in part helped cause the government’s inaction to handle the ammonium nitrate safely are stemming from the Ta’if Agreement. 

Governing by Ethnicity in the T’if Agreement 

Toward the end of the Civil War, the Ta’if Agreement of 1989 was constructed for the means of laying out the groundwork for a comprehensive peace agreement that would bring about the united and sovereign nation of Lebanon. The agreement expanded on Lebanon’s future as a unitary and constitutional democracy that encompasses free and fair elections, religious freedoms, secular judiciary, and a robust minister (executive). The structure of this power-sharing agreement is, of course, modeled in a way that accounts for the two dominant religious sects, Christians and Muslims. The President is to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister is to be a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament through tradition is Shi’a Muslim. The Ta’if agreement further stripped the Presidency of the many powers that it once held to be shared with the Prime Minister and Parliament. These powers of the PM post-Ta’if include joint signings of international agreements, the PM as the head of the cabinet, and the signing of decrees given by the President. The PM is the head of the government as the President is the head of the nation and the military with the PM as the second in command, each having shared duties that once primarily belonged to the Presidency. The agreement then paved the way for how the Parliament was then established and further amended in the Lebanese constitution in both Article 22 and 24 Sections A, B, and C. The Members of Parliament (MP) are elected by equal representation between Christians and Muslims with proportional representation of each confessional group and geographic location. The actual number of each group is not accurately portrayed in the makeup of the representatives in the Parliament since Lebanon has not conducted a census since 1932.

Governance, representation, and power-sharing based on religious lines can have the effect of preventing the competition of ideas. Barriers are then set in place that can restrict the most competent to be in the right position for the right job at the right time because of the allocation of seats to the confessional group rather than entirely on merit and experience. This is echoed by the October Revolution and the current protests. The strict sectarian power-sharing system of religious quotes representation exacerbates the fact that Lebanon is facing a shortage in people with professional capability that are residing within Lebanon, and are willing to work in the current political system. The protest have echoed this idea that the nation has gone through a brain dumb because the opportunity cost to remain in Lebanon is often more significant for those with expertise and know-how. The population of the Lebanese diaspora is nearly twice as large as the current population of Lebanon. On average, 44% of all new immigrants from Lebanon to the EU hold a postgraduate or professional visa in a highly selective European immigration process. Lebanon’s economy and individual families rely heavily on the immigrant population sending money back to the country, which they can’t access because of the fragile banking institutions. Highly skilled professions are shrinking fast as high competition over low skill labor jobs is adding the unemployment and underemployment rate. 

Problems in Power Sharing 

Ethno-religious identities in Lebanon have been the historical center of division in the country. Self-interested warlords, leaders, and political groups have competed for power in the country since independence from the French mandate on January 1st, 1944. The primary source of power came from the manipulation of the oldest tool in history, religion. The modern political parties all trace their roots to the civil war and the powerful warlords that gained influence and political sway based on ethnic divisions. As such, the political leaders exist today by provoking ethnic tensions from 1975 for political points and votes. The politicization of factions and religious identities from the civil war era has fractured and prevented the Lebanese government from taking swift actions on the collapse of the economy, social goods, and much-needed reforms. The decision-making process in Lebanese government is slow and based on their ability to form coalitions between groups. The October Revolution has called the current power-sharing mechanisms archaic and unrepresentative of what Lebanon is today, a power-sharing arrangement that is holding the state back. 

The national unity and the image of the protests have been united under the red and white cedar tree flag rather than a political party or religious banners. They are calling for change. The Lebanese people are demanding a new government free from the scars of their grandfather’s civil war. What can turn Lebanon into a failed state is if the anger and momentum are co-opted by non-secular hardliners that bring religion and identity politics into the revolution. If that happens, the Lebanese government will have an opportunity to double down on its efforts of placing blame to keep power. The outcome of such an action will be further detrimental to the economy, the social structure, and the unity of the nation. Outside actors who seek to gain political sway will exploit the power vacuum created by an unmalleable, fragmented, and weak government in this case. The civil war from 1975-1990 dealt with a social environment that was centered on religion being used politically in the government, which ended with a fractured state that was unwilling to compromise. The power-sharing mechanisms put into place in the Ta’if Agreement should be seen as a starting place rather than an endpoint solution if Lebanon is to recover.

 As a state today, Lebanon must be viewed as an example of an exceptional democratic state in transition that is recovering from a history of colonialism. The country’s economic destruction and the division over religiosity is a significant part of the story, but not the defining narrative of classifying Lebanon as the next failed state. The government, the people, and the business leaders see the chaos that has happened, not just in their history or the war with Israel, but in the destruction of Syria during the civil war. The protesters, even under threat of violence by the state security forces, have remained relatively peaceful. The COVID pandemic has been detrimental to the people and the economy. Still, the focus on true reform has remained the principle of the protesters. The Beirut port explosion will act as a point of unification that will turn the October protest into a popular secular movement. The Lebanese government, under the eye of the world, will have no choice but to act at the highest level of competence to pass economic and social reform that rebuilds the country into its next phase. The Ta’if Agreement ended the civil war, the Arab Spring brought hope, the October Revolution called out the government, and the Port explosion gave undeniable truth to the calls of the protests.

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