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Coronavirus Stalled Lebanon Protests. Now the Country Is in Flames

The virus is still spreading, but the economic crisis is the existential threat to the country

Zvi Bar'el
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Anti-government protesters block a highway with burning tires and wood, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, June 11, 2020.
Anti-government protesters block a highway with burning tires and wood, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, June 11, 2020. Credit: Photo/Hussein Malla
Zvi Bar'el

The firebombs thrown by hundreds of protesters at government buildings and banks in the streets of Beirut and Tripoli, burning tires, police's use of tear gas and the Lebanese army’s deployment in a major show of strength are not only a reminder of the great scale protests that broke out in Lebanon before the coronavirus crisis; it is the lava that has been waiting unwillingly for some three months, and will no longer be stopped.

Lebanon is still infected with the coronavirus, but it is the economic crisis that is an existential threat to the country. On Friday, Prime Minister Hassan Diab called an emergency government meeting to decide on new economic measures and suggest solutions that could quell public rage, at least for the short term. Calls were heard in the street for the resignation of the government and the governor of the central bank, Riad Salameh, whom the public sees as an enemy and the cause of this years-long economic crisis. But none of these things happened. The governor has kept his job and the government is still in office.

As for the economic measures, the decision was to channel more dollars into the market to reduce the exchange rate of the dollar to the Lebanese pound, which has shot up over the past few days to about 7,000 pounds to the dollar, as opposed to the official rate, set in the 1990s, of 1,507 pounds to the dollar. The rate did go down a little after the government met, but it is still unclear how many dollars the central bank can send into the market when its coffers are empty and the national debt stands at 170 percent of the GDP. In addition, international trade -- particularly export to Arab countries which passes through Syria -- is in deep freeze, and the International Monetary Fund to which Lebanon turned for a loan is still dragging its feet in talks with Lebanese officials.

“We are in an economic crisis but Lebanon is not bankrupt,” Diab declared last week. His words sounded hollow in the face of reports of unemployment reaching some 40 percent and the government’s fears over its ability to pay the salaries of its employees.

A youth walks past a burnt down branch of a Lebanese bank after it was set on fire and vandalized by protesters earlier, in al-Nour Square in Tripoli, June 12, 2020.
A youth walks past a burnt down branch of a Lebanese bank after it was set on fire and vandalized by protesters earlier, in al-Nour Square in Tripoli, June 12, 2020.Credit: AFP

The hundreds of protesters on motorbikes who filled Al-Nour Square in Tripoli demanded first and foremost employment. Talk of belt-tightening, slowing down imports and cutting government spending do not speak to the hearts of the protesters who for many months, even years, have not been paid by regular workplaces. “We don’t have anything to lose. It’s better to die of the coronavirus than die of hunger,” a young woman from Beirut told a local television journalist. “I learned a profession at university; I worked in marketing for an advertising agency until I was fired. I have a family but I have no life and no future. What does it mean to be a Lebanese woman today? It’s to die a slow death,” she said.

The imposition of new American sanctions on Syria this month with the passing of the so-called Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act in Congress, might mean Lebanon could land another blow. According to this law, the sanctions will also apply to anyone who did business with the Syrian regime or assists it in any way. Thus, Lebanese banks or businessmen with ongoing commercial ties with Syria might be penalized, and this could happen while Lebanon is still hosting about a million Syrian refugees.

The fate of Lebanon’s request for a loan from the International Monetary Fund is also unclear – its approval depends among other things on U.S. consent. Hezbollah’s membership in the Lebanese government could serve as a pretext to prevent this essential loan. On the other hand, it is Hezbollah that’s shoring up this government; it is opposed to the resignation of the government and the central bank governor. Anyone seeking political stability in Lebanon, the kind of stability that might be able to steer the country out of crisis, will also have to accept the presence of Hezbollah in the government.

Riot police push back demonstrators near the government house in Beirut, Lebanon, June 12, 2020.
Riot police push back demonstrators near the government house in Beirut, Lebanon, June 12, 2020.Credit: Hussein Malla,AP

A functioning government is also a basic condition for the $11 billion that donor countries pledged two years ago. But even if the donations and the IMF loan are approved, they will come with conditions that the Lebanese government will have difficulty meeting. Economic reforms have not been the strong suit of Lebanese governments over the years. Such reforms require legislation to regulate ties between the central bank, the government and the standing of Lebanese banks. They will also require pervasive and comprehensive oversight into the conditions of the IMF loan, transparent and fair transfer of national resources into private hands, and, in short, they will require a shattering of the economic-political tradition of distribution of resources by ethnic and religious affiliation, overseen by the country’s political and economic barons. Such an earthquake, the dream of many Lebanese people, does not seem in the cards at the moment. Lebanon is caught now between the understandings of what must be done economically, but politically, it is unable to do it.

The demonstrations, opposition and protest movement that is expected to expand civil uprising against the government, understand this situation all too well. Even if they are able to bring down the government or the central bank governor, they will lead Lebanon into another paralytic period of elections and the appointment of a new government. According to Lebanese experience, it will require many months to reach an agreement and even when it does; it won’t be able to ensure real change in the structure of the economy. That is because such agreement will demand compromises and there will be pressure from the political and ethnic elites in charge of the country today.

Lebanon is not unique in the Middle East, where the “coronavirus spring” has once again pitted regimes against the poverty-stricken, the unemployed and the helpless, who in their despair take to the streets and threaten the stability of their countries. This crisis is made all the more severe by the difficult economic straits of wealthy countries that in the past had been able to extricate poor regimes from crisis. The “coronavirus spring” might turn out to be a much more serious strategic threat than the Arab Spring.

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