Counter-revolution: One year later are Lebanese hopes for a new order dashed?

In her debut piece for Encyclopedia Geopolitica, Middle East analyst Marie-Christine Ghreichi, who researches corruption and political protest in the region, examines the situation in Lebanon, drawing on her experience working in the country. Lebanon has seen a tumultuous year, with mass political unrest, economic calamities, a devastating explosion in Beirut, the coronavirus outbreak, and the resignation of two Prime Ministers since the summer. What can we expect to see next?

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Lebanon has come full circle in recent weeks after the former Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, was re-appointed almost exactly one year after his resignation in response to a popular uprising in October 2019. In the most half-hearted show of support, he received a slim 65 votes out of 128 from the Lebanese parliament, with 53 abstentions. After Hariri was re-appointed, some of his supporters clashed with anti-establishment protesters in downtown Beirut and burned down a large 11-meter clenched-fist icon that had become a symbol of Lebanon’s uprising that began on October 17th last year. The next morning, a new, larger version had already been re-erected. Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib resigned on September 26th, after his efforts to usher in a non-sectarian Cabinet were thwarted. The former ambassador to Berlin was chosen on August 31st to form a Cabinet after the previous government resigned following the  Beirut port explosion. He had faced immense opposition from the political parties Hezbollah and Amal, who demanded the presence of Shi’a members in Cabinet and posts within the finance ministry.  

In the months before the protests of October 2019, Lebanon found itself inching towards an economic collapse. The economy grew a meagre 0.2% in 2018, holding the third highest public debt burden in the world. Its credit rating was downgraded earlier this year, and unemployment reached 20%, according to the IMF, which also noted the systemic corruption in Lebanon and the Government’s inability to implement reforms to address these problems. Between January 2019 and January 2020, the Consumer Price Index in Lebanon jumped from 113 to 129 for food, from 152 to 191 for clothing, from 106 to 110 for basic housing needs (water, electricity, gas and fuels), and from 113 to 140 for household maintenance. As of August 2020, Lebanon’s CPI growth was measured at 120.0 %, compared to 112.4 % in the previous month. Moreover, these pressures are compounded by the enormous brain drain currently plaguing the country. Between mid January and mid November of 2019, approximately 61,925 Lebanese left the country and have not returned, compared to 41,776 during the same period in 2018. Some 19,263 people left Lebanon during the last three months of 2019, compared to 14,129 in 2018. By late September, the circulation of US dollars plummeted, with people unable to withdraw USD from Lebanese ATMs, seriously impacting companies importing gas, wheat and medicine, “all of which needed to pay in dollars but sold their goods for Lebanese pounds.”

Buckling under these economic pressures, October last year saw Lebanon erupt into a series of widespread demonstrations, which would soon become known as the October Revolution, amassing somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million protesters in the streets and mobilising Lebanese expats in 35 countries around the world in 90 cities. These appear to have been triggered by the state’s failure to adequately put a stop to the worst wildfires in decades, which burned large swathes of the countryside on October 15th, as well as a proposed tax on calls made via WhatsApp, the most widely used and nominally free mobile communication app in the country, and the impending economic crisis. The movement mobilised Lebanese citizens of all sectarian backgrounds, ages and classes across the country, beyond typical locations of social contestation, demanding the removal of the political elite, an end to rampant corruption, and an overhaul of the entire political system.

Despite this significant departure from the status quo of social and political life in Lebanon, the revolutionary moment appears to have stalled. On August 4th, 2020, some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port of Beirut exploded, killing at least 190 people and injuring at least 6,500. It also resulted in an estimated $10–15 billion USD in property damage, and left approximately 300,000 people homeless. The ammonium nitrate had been stored in a warehouse without proper safety measures in place for the previous six years, having been confiscated by the Lebanese authorities from the cargo ship MV Rhosus, which had docked in Beirut and then been declared unseaworthy. Human Rights Watch declared that the investigation into the incident failed to bring any credible findings, given that it lacks legitimacy due to political interference and a lack of impartiality in the legal system. However, the ruling elites’ failure to address the presence of the explosive material in the port building and the subsequent detonation is perhaps the starkest indicator of political corruption and negligence by the Lebanese authorities. 

Various conspiracy theories have circulated regarding the cause of the explosion, some placing blame squarely on Hezbollah, whilst others point to foreign meddling on the part of Israel or the United States.  The very cruel possibility of chalking up this catastrophe to callousness and negligence is far too simple or easy to swallow for some.  Moreover, this failure serves as the final nail in the coffin of the second Republic’s claim to any legitimacy or semblance of a social contract.  Even before the explosion in August, Lebanon was quickly descending further into economic crisis, beginning in 2019. The Lebanese pound is and will likely continue to be in freefall, with half of people living below the poverty line. The pound has lost 81% of its value in the last year; fears of continued inflation prove odious for the already exhausted security forces who have seen their salaries decrease by up to 80%. These developments are compounded by persistent increases in the price of essential food goods and the decision by the Central Bank to end subsidies on basic provisions, as it is haemorrhaging its reserves to bring fuel, wheat and medicine into the country. 

Triggering memories of the 2015 trash crisis, a major Beirut landfill is reaching capacity and hospitals are increasingly burdened by a lack of supplies and a surge in coronavirus cases. The August explosion itself resulted in the loss of economic activity worth between $2.9 billion and 3.5 billion, according to the World Bank. Public sector reconstruction and recovery requires some $1.8 billion to $2.2 billion. In the event that a government can be formed, the Lebanese state must institute substantial structural changes to its economy to re-enter IMF negotiations, which have been put on hold since July. President Michel Aoun himself stated that if a new government is not formed soon, the country would be heading towards “hell, of course”. 

The arrival of French President Macron to Beirut in the days following the explosion has evoked feelings of both hope and disdain in different quarters of the stricken Lebanese population. The President comforted people on the streets while effectively scolding the political establishment for their role in the destruction.  Macron returned on September 1st to mark 100 years of the declaration of the French Mandate in Lebanon.  He also reaffirmed his initiative to hold a donor conference for Lebanon after 4-6 weeks, on the condition that a technocratic government, made up of non-sectarian experts, is formed during this period to take forward his 6-month roadmap of much-needed reforms.  The Lebanese state’s failure to meet these requirements has dried up any chance of France’s initiative breathing life back into the spiraling economy, with Macron accusing the political elite of betraying their obligations to the Lebanese people and for committing collective treason.

With little hope remaining for the French rescue effort or any sort of urgent domestic response, distressed citizens have been leaving the country in droves.  According to Information International,  the average number of people leaving the country daily increased from 3,100 before the day of the blast, to 4,100 people after the incident. The longer Lebanon limps on without Government, beset by dire economic conditions, the more difficult recovery will be, creating chronic problems that could take generations to reverse

As of today, with the precarious economic situation and fears surrounding the explosion of Coronavirus cases in recent weeks, many Lebanese have been unable to overcome their anxieties enough to return to the streets and protest. Moreover, political fatigue appears rampant among those remaining in the country, further hindering a return to the widespread of last year. Whilst the re-appointment of Prime Minister Hariri was met by jubilation among his supporters, and contestation among his detractors, the vast majority have remained oddly silent. The public rage exhibited in the months leading up to his re-appointment has given way to this fatigue, with some even welcoming his return in hopes it will bring stability to the country. Hariri has vowed to form a government of specialists in order to adhere to and implement the French white paper. The formation of a government will allow for increased foreign support to re-enter the country, bolstering macro-economic conditions by stabilising inflation and the currency. In the immediate hours following his re-appointment, the Lebanese pound exchange rate moved from around 9,000 pounds to the US dollar to 6,700 pounds. Moreover, in the minds of many Lebanese, such a development would give them a chance to breathe or make their way to a better life abroad. 

Despite these challenges, protesters gathered in Beirut on October 17th to honour those killed in the explosion and to continue their movement’s aim of building a new Lebanon, divorced from its corrupt, sectarian and divisive past. It is difficult to ignore a shift in the mentality of those who supported a movement that liberated Lebanese citizens from their dependency on their respective Zaim, sectarian political leader. Eschewing this infantilisation offers the first step in creating a new state that offers meaningful, robust and universal citizenship.  Perhaps the spark of October 17th and this shifting mentality will be reignited once an opportunity or economic stabilization re-injects energy back into the polity. However, this also threatens to make people complacent, preferring this stability over a return to the economic hardships of this period.  In the event that the system continues to spiral outside the bounds of not only dignified life but also subsistence, people may no longer be able to afford basic goods but also the choice of not revolting. As Emerson said, every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind. Recent events suggest that the fatigue and fear that had dampened protests in recent months may be beginning to lift, and observers can expect to see continued social unrest in Lebanon going into 2021 as Hariri seeks to form a government to implement French proposals, revive the economy, and restore some semblance of stability, whilst grappling with sectarian demands, political dislocation, and, of course, Covid-19.  

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Marie-Christine Ghreichi received her Master’s from Sciences Po, Paris specializing in International Security with a focus on Diplomacy and the Middle East Region. After completing her studies in the United States where she supported a transitional justice research collaborative, she worked with Catholic Relief Services in Beirut, Lebanon before then coming to Paris to pursue her master’s degree. Her previous research has focused on corruption, social mobilization and accountable governance in the Middle East.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encyclopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Cover Image: Beirut protests 2019, Shahen Araboghlian