What is behind the protests in Lebanon?6 min read

Like countless other states around the world right now, Lebanon has turned to protest. Currently, Lebanon is experiencing one of its worst economic crises ever and this crisis helped to spark protests motivated by countless underlying frustrations of the Lebanese people. These protests are the product of a weak state, and the current government is clearly not strong or efficient enough to serve its citizens. 

For starters, the Lebanon Pound has proven to be extremely unstable and has fallen sharply in comparison to the US dollar (BBC, 2019). While there are some US dollars in circulation throughout the Lebanese economy, there are not enough to satisfy the demands of those who want and need a more stable currency than the Lebanon Pound. Along with this, due to a lack of funds, the Lebanon government was unable to put out an “unprecedented” wildfire within their own country (BBC, 2019). As a result, neighboring countries had to send aid to intervene. This whole fiasco absolutely hurt the legitimacy of the Lebanese government and showed how unable it was to protect its own citizens from disaster. 

A large factor in this inability to respond to this unprecedented wildfire resides in the Lebanese governments lack of funds. In an attempt to combat this lack of funds the Lebanese government attempted to implement a new tax plan. Tabacco, Petrol, and even the use of WhatsApp were part of this proposal. Unsurprisingly, this proposal was disastrous and ended up sparking major protests across the country. It was clearly a desperate move to attempt to pay off their debts. The State currently sits at a 150% debt to GDP ratio, and are currently the third most indebted nation in the world (BBC, Protests, 2019). The proposed tax plan makes sense from the perspective of the government when one factors in this large amount of outstanding debt. While they do need to pay off their debts, implementing more taxes on a stagnant economy would only hurt it further. The people are already suffering enough from the current economic crisis. Youth unemployment is around 37% and the overall unemployment rate currently sits at 25% (BBC, 2019). Increasing taxes would only hurt the economic welfare of Lebanon further, and economically, the Lebanese people were wise to place their foot down on this disastrous plan. 

There are countless other reasons that have made the current situation in Lebanon worth protesting. A large reason for this is due to the fact that the government has been made extremely inefficient and unfit to serve the people. A large portion of this inefficiency can be accounted for through its rampant corruption. Lebanon is currently one of the 45 most corrupt countries in the world, and this rampant corruption has weakened the Lebanese state significantly. Political actors have been able to maintain their status in the ruling elite through vast patronage networks. For many Lebanese people, rampant corruption is undoubtedly a strong reason for partaking in the protest. 

Much of this work through patronage networks happens across religious lines. In 1989, the Lebanese civil war ended with the National Pact. Part of this pact created a government in which power-sharing was a key dynamic (BBC, 2019). Given the context of Lebanon’s unique religious diversity, it made sense for there to be sharing of power between the Sunni, Shia, and Christian populations in government. Unfortunately, the dynamic of powersharing has only worsened the efficiency of the Lebanon government. For example, it took the Lebanese Parliament 46 attempts over a two and a half year span to elect their current president. Part of this occurs due to the fact that the president needs to be elected from parliament with a two-thirds majority, and each religious group wanted to have one of their own in the office (Cambanis, 2016). 

However, BBC argues that these protests are different than past protests, due to the fact that they have not been separated across these religious lines. All are united in their “shared grievances”. Protests are nothing new to Lebanon, but this unity across religious lines is. Last month Sunni protesters could be heard chanting their support for Shia protesters(BBC, Protests, 2019). Because of this, these protests have been largely successful compared to past attempts, and I believe that it could be the beginning of a period of drastic political change. Should new-found unity grow further, it could help lead to a government in which power is respectively shared organically, rather than through quotas.

Given this long list of problems, it is no wonder that protesters gathered in crowds in the hundreds of thousands. So far they have forced the resignation of Prime Minister, Saad Hariri. Saad Hariri claimed that he had “hit a ‘dead-end’ in solving the political crisis.”(Reuters, 2019) Mr. Hariri is currently serving as caretaker prime minister for the time being and says that he will only return to his post if he can fill his government with specialists rather than legislators (Reuters, 2019). I have many reservations regarding this strategy of technocratic appeal, but it is also true that the current system of government is simply not working. However, it is yet to be seen if specialization could really solve all the rampant problems in the government. 

This power-sharing model of the Lebanese government has created massive systemic problems in the Lebanese government. The Lebanese state has been rendered extremely weak, and due to this, it is losing it’s internal sovereignty and legitimacy at an alarming rate. This political crisis needs to be solved at the same time as their economic crisis, and I am uncertain that Lebanon will be able to tackle both of these massive tasks at the same time. For now, the immediate future of Lebanon looks bleak, and while I certainly hope that someone can step in with a solution to the problems plaguing the Lebanese people, there is no one right now who looks set to do so. 

The current government is desperate, and the proposed tax plan clearly showed just how desperate they are. Lebanon must begin to pay off its deficit or else they could risk their external sovereignty should they prove unable to pay off their debts. But, would there be this large of a funding problem without the rampant corruption problems? I believe the answer is no. Many of the problems in Lebanon are structural, from the top to bottom of the government. The current powersharing model, a massive deficit, rampant corruption, and concerning economic trends all need to be dealt with at once. Lebanon is undoubtedly in a very precarious situation. 

 This begs the question: What can the future government of Lebanon do to combat their economic and political stagnation at once?

Works Cited:

Cambanis, Thanassis. “Michel Aoun Rises to Lebanese Presidency, Ending Power Vacuum.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 Oct. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/11/01/world/middleeast/michel-aoun-lebanon-president.html.

Reuters. “In Lebanon, Ex-Premier Hariri Re-Emerges as Top Pick for Post.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Dec. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/12/08/world/middleeast/lebanon-hariri-prime-minister.html.

Main Citation:

“Lebanon Protests: How WhatsApp Tax Anger Revealed a Much Deeper Crisis.” BBC News, BBC, 7 Nov. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50293636?intlink_from_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.com%2Fnews%2Ftopics%2Fc8nq32jwjydt%2Flebanon&link_location=live-reporting-story.

1 thought on “What is behind the protests in Lebanon?<span class="wtr-time-wrap after-title"><span class="wtr-time-number">6</span> min read</span>”

  1. Great job, Alex! You do a great job of detailing the grievances that caused the protests and explaining the inefficiency of the government. Considering how many protests have occurred worldwide this semester, I have not really looked into the situation in Lebanon much so I thought your paper was really effective at bringing me up to speed. While I had heard about the anger over the Whatsapp tax, I had not heard about the government’s ability to put out the wildfires in October. Since I also wrote my paper on weakness of state, my main question coming away from reading your article is what can the Lebanese government do to improve the state strength. Most of its issues are due to a lack of funds; however, due to the state’s struggling economy, it cannot increase taxes on the people without further worsening their standard of living. Since their debt is already 150% of their GDP, are there any other means of improving government funds without taxation? While cracking down on the corruption of government officials surely might help the issue, I’m not sure that it solve it.

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