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Sami Atallah, LCPS executive director

November 2019
Lebanese Protests: Lack of Trust in the System

Nineteen days after the start of the popular uprising, roadblocks are still in place, people are protesting by the hundreds of thousands across Lebanon, and schools and universities remain shut. Triggered by increases in taxes, people took to the streets seeking social and economic justice. In light of this, Prime Minister Hariri came out first to promise a set of reforms, hoping to appease the demonstrators. It took eight days for President Michel Aoun to address the protesters for the first time and to invite them to the presidential palace to talk, without offering any clear mechanism or agenda. When both attempts failed at calming the streets, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah stepped in, not only to support the government and the presidential term, but also Hariri’s agenda. Fourteen days of protests finally brought down Hariri’s government. In total, Aoun, Hariri, and Sayyed Nasrallah had three televised speeches since the beginning of the protests hoping to appease the protesters with a set of promises but nothing has so far worked. The problem has deeper roots and it is beyond passing laws or changing government; it is largely about the lack of trust between citizens and political parties.
All three leaders came out bruised from the popular protest. Hariri lost the premiership. His original goal to elect Aoun as president three years ago to become prime minister has not gone according to plan. President Aoun’s term is shaken. The attack on the head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), believed to be Aoun’s successor, Gebran Bassil, exposed inter-family rivalry. Although symbolic, two of the party’s MPs withdrew from the bloc. Sayyed Nasrallah, who tried to prevent the government’s fall, came across as siding with corrupt politicians against the people’s demands. The resignation of Hariri, which Hezbollah probably saw as a “coup”, also showed the limits of his power in the confessional system that he sought to preserve. Perhaps Hariri, who came out weakest of the 2018 parliamentary election, resigned to improve his bargaining position in the next government. While several factors may have been part of his decision, popular protest changed the political calculus. This is not insignificant.
The last two weeks and a half revealed three major issues. One, while it is not unusual that political leaders from different political camps support each other in times of stress, this is maybe the first time that Sayyed Nasrallah explicitly came out to preserve the very same order that his own party challenged historically. It is remarkable how through the years, Hezbollah has evolved and became integrated into the Lebanese political system to now become its savior. The byproduct of this position is that he had to protect the confessional oligarchs and their corrupt policies that hollowed out the state. For Sayyed Nasrallah, preserving the system to avoid political vacuum seems to be more important than fighting or seeming to fight corruption. While this position might be expedient in the short term, it may become a much bigger headache for Hezbollah to carry the weight of a rotten state in the medium term.
Two, political leaders’ endorsement of Hariri’s reform plan exposes once again their unwillingness to reform the state and the economy in a way that would serve citizens’ welfare. While the paper aims to primarily reduce the budget deficit, fight corruption, and embark on public-private partnership, among other things, it lacks credibility and consistency. For one, although it does spare people from additional taxes this year, it does not restructure the tax system to make it fair, as currently two-thirds of it are regressive in nature.
While the paper incorporates the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform’s strategy to fight corruption, it does not provide for the establishment of an independent judiciary, which is key in instituting the rule of law. Although in his different speeches the president listed a number of draft laws that he had proposed to fight corruption, he failed to mention that he refused to sign the law that would establish a national council to fight corruption. Under the pretext that he wants to make amendments to it, it seems that he wants judges to be appointed by politicians and not fellow judges, a proposition that would hardly fight corruption.
However, the challenges that the country is facing are not in passing laws—they are much deeper. For one, some laws that are passed are not implemented. So those who argue that reform is possible through the passing of specific laws are either naïve or misleading the public, as this will be the “end” rather than the “start” of the reforms. Lebanon’s parliament has passed more than 30 laws that have not, or cannot, be applied since no implementation decrees have been issued by the government. Also, critical laws such as those pertaining to fighting corruption, retrieving stolen money, or procedures to reassess state contracts, require that key institutions such as parliament, the judiciary, and oversight agencies have the authority and independence to pursue their objectives. It is impossible for these laws to be properly exercised by the same political parties that are accused by the public to be the culprits. In other words, the country needs institutional change in order for accountability to exist.
This is why it is very hard not to “belittle” the reform paper, with its flaws and lack of seriousness, some of which I have expressed elsewhere. Without institutional change, Hariri’s reform paper, which could be adopted by the next government, will fragment the state further and will possibly increase corruption. There has been no accountability mechanism to insure elected officials did their work, and there has been no real push for actual reforms. All three leaders have blamed the political system of muhasasa, but no party has suggested a serious and viable alternative.
The protests showed that it is no longer a question of a new government, or drafting new laws, or even applying them. The trust toward the political elite has been broken, and promises are no longer enough. Political parties used the end of the Syrian occupation in 2005 as a new lease on life, blaming the Syrian presence for hindering any reform and real change. Almost 15 years later, the political and the socio-economic situations have only gotten worse. Political leaders failed to grasp the pain of the people and to take their demands and anger seriously. It is for all those reasons that one cannot blame protesters for not believing politicians’ renewed promises, which feel hollow if no real concrete steps are taken. Lebanon is in serious need for another system of governance.

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