Lebanon’s status as a reliable, stable nation in the tumultuous Middle East has been upended in the last several days as the country has been consumed with protest. Protests began last week, catalyzed by the introduction of a series of new taxes, including ones on mobile messaging apps like WhatsApp (Tawil: 2019). As is often the case, protests have spread, and the retraction of the tax has done little to quell the protestors (Tawil: 2019). The protestors now have larger goals in mind, calling for sweeping economic and political reform after years of government inefficiency, corruption, and mismanagement.
Lebanon’s recent political history has been unusual and might be blamed for part, if not most, of its recent difficulties. Lebanese politics is, due to de facto agreements made after the Lebanese Civil War, profoundly sectarian. This system, run primarily by unelected officials chosen through a system of patronage, has been overseen by a congress whose initial mandate expired in 2013 (Freedom House: 2018). The heart of the issue, however, are feelings of government impotence. The Lebanese people express frustration with the massive national debt, which now is 150% of the GDP (BBC: 2019), a stagnating economy, and an inability to contend with crises ranging from Syrian refugees to forest fires (Yee: 2019). The tax on WhatsApp and similar apps, popular in part due to high prices charged by the state-owned mobile service providers, was the spark to release the built-up frustration.
Following the announcement of the tax, protests began, their numbers swelling from dozens to hundreds of thousands (Tawil: 2019). The protests, populated by people from across Lebanon and of all sects, has directed its anger generally towards the government. Angered with its apparent inefficacy, protesters admonished the government for the country’s economic state and corruption (Tawil: 2019). In a nation frequently divided over sectarian issues, the commonality shared by those participating is remarkable. As many participating in the protest have expressed, the concern is with the future of Lebanon (Yee: 2019).
The protests have already clearly taken an effect on the ruling government. Not only was the tax on messaging apps nearly immediately withdrawn, but the cabinet has approved sweeping economic reform in hopes of placating the protesters (Lebanon Protests: 2019). These reforms include a revised budget with no new taxes and a 0.6% deficit, a cut in pay for top government officials, and millions of dollars in loans and grants for low-income families. It is not, however, clear whether these reforms are enough to satisfy the protesters. Demonstrations have continued into the weekend, with many calling for full-scale political revolution (El Deeb: 2019). Many people seem to believe the current government’s thirty years of mismanagement an ineffectiveness is evidence enough that revolution is necessary for real change to occur. As such demonstrators have rejected the proposed economic reforms, and instead called for parliamentary elections for the first time in nearly a decade and a restructuring of the cabinet (El Deeb: 2019)
The events in Lebanon are extremely interesting as a study for democratization and the state of partially free countries. Ostensibly, these protests did not break out due to a wave of democratic fervor, but instead due to a boiling over of economic frustration. Lebanon is a case study in the legitimacy of partially free regimes, reminiscent of part of the argument made by Linz and Stepan in “The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes.” In their definition of legitimacy, they focus in part on the ideas of efficiency and efficacy, the government’s ability to identify solutions to problems and put them into place. People tend to view movements towards democracy as ideologically driven, inspired by the obvious morality of democratic government. More often, however, the fall of non-democratic regimes comes due to a failure of performance legitimacy. This seems to be the case in Lebanon, as protests center on the many ways in which the government has failed to deliver economically to its people.
It will be interesting, then, to see how events in
Lebanon play out. In some ways, Lebanon looks like it may be primed for true
democratization; people are calling for revolution, elections are a priority
for demonstrators, and more moderate economic reforms have been rejected. On
the other hand, complaints about government seem to be more about its failure
to deliver economically than its undemocratic characteristics. It is conspicuous
that protests began after the announcement of taxes, and not after the legislature
once again pushed back mandated elections. Would the people of Lebanon be satisfied
with a non-democratic government that satisfied its material needs, or would it
demand the ideals of democracy? If democracy is demanded, is that because it is
viewed as the only way to secure those material provisions, or because it is
the “right” form of government? It seems at this point that Lebanon has reached
a critical point at which change must occur, the nature of that change will
reveal much about the state of democracy both in that country and beyond.
El Deeb, Sarah. “Lebanese Block Roads as Mass Demonstrations Enter 10th Day” October 26, 2019. The Associated Press. Accessed October 26, 2019. https://apnews.com/336c8d5615584c1ab90d80eb5ee443bb
Fadi, Tawil “Protests Spread across Lebanon over Proposed New Taxes.” October 17, 2019. The Associated Press. Accessed October 23, 2019. https://apnews.com/fd81d795e3a2486f866abe6211b7194d.
“Lebanon.” n.d. Freedom House. Accessed October 23, 2019. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2018/lebanon.
“Lebanon Protests: Huge Crowds on Streets as Government Acts.” October 21, 2019. BBC News Accessed October 23, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50118300.
Yee, Vivian. “Lebanon Roiled by Second Day of Protests as Frustration Over Chronic Corruption Boils Over” October 18, 2019. The New York Times. Accessed October 23, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/18/world/middleeast/lebanon-protests.html.