The sociopolitical situation in Lebanon deteriorates. A sign of hope is the resilience of the October 17 uprising. Public protest against the government’s corruption is unprecedented. Led by women and young adults, the uprising is authentic, effective and peaceful. The central question is how lasting is the energy of the protestors, and how sadistic is the regime.
In a panel convened by the Arab Washington Center on December 10, four Mideast speakers analyzed the ongoing crisis in Lebanon. The experts praised the efforts of the uprising, but none gave cues on how to replace a delegitimized government. One of the panelists argued that time is on the side of the demonstrators.
The crisis moves from one surprise to another. The third successive candidate, who was expected to form the next cabinet, withdrew from the race last weekend. Caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri remains the subject of intense speculation: will he be asked again by President Michel Aoun to try to put together the new cabinet.
The president and his team have for too long preferred that Hariri returns to power. This preference underlies the regime’s desire to legitimize its continuity by a swift covering of political vacuum, and by supposedly preserving “national unity”. The resignation of Hariri from leadership after 12 days of public protest is a significant concession to the uprising; albeit it is an artificial move for survival also. The resignation carries a message: perhaps it is time for the president and the speaker of the house to withdraw too. Hariri’s departure has turned him from a position of vulnerability to being a key negotiator, with extended hands to the demonstrators and to the international donors. Donors send vague and mixed messages urging the Lebanese leaders to “hurry up” and end the “unsustainable political vacuum”. But the regime is not quitting power soon and the international community is divided on how to save Lebanon.
Europe’s approach in “saving” Lebanon is primarily focused on remedial finance, World Bank style: conditional aid, lowering interest, rescheduling of the national debt, payment “haircut”, etc. On the other hand, the US strategy for “saving” Lebanon is weakening the role of Hezbollah in the Lebanese power structure. This narrow policy is in line with Washington’s broader policy of “maximal pressure” on Iran and its proxies.
The international community has never approached the breakdown of individual Arab states with sufficient attention to historical causes, which often lie beyond the borders of a failing state. It is hard to deal with the chaos which Hezbollah introduces to Lebanon’s sovereignty and stability, without dealing with Israel’s hegemony in Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian territories. It is also futile to deal with Iran without dealing with Saudi Arabia.
Aoun may have exhausted his tolerance with Hariri, who refuses to head a pre-arranged cabinet. The president is now searching for a new personality who could magically satisfy the uprising as well as the existing regime. The uprising rightly demands genuine reform and the regime is afraid to face the consequences of change.
The care-taker cabinet is paralyzed, and Lebanon cannot afford an extended period of interruption of vital services of living and security The state is in default; the central bank has borrowed money it cannot repay and the people are suffering immensely.
President Aoun has lost his own credibility as the commander-in-chief. Aoun’s negotiating circle is restricted to Hariri, (armed) Hezbollah, Amal Movement, and the Free Patriotic Movement. Incidentally, the president’s son-in-law, who happens to be the former foreign minister, is also the head of Aoun’s political party: the Free Patriotic Movement.
Hariri was repeatedly asked but has refused to return to power. He demands full “freedom” to design a “cabinet of reformers”. The problem is that Hariri is not strong enough to lead a cabinet of reform; and the existing warlords, who have run the country for decades, can no longer operate the system. The system is broken. The uprising is good on diagnosis but short on responsible statecraft.
Is Lebanon heading toward a new civil war? Not likely. Despite immense anger toward the system, the uprising has been relatively peaceful. The non-violent character of protest is explainable: lessons learned, positive inter-communal relations and a free society, albeit chaotic.
In the fifteen-year 1975-civil war the Lebanese formed sectarian militias for security, not religion. They struggled with bullets, not with ideas. The outcome was the devastation of infrastructure, massive loss of life, local displacement of populations, dark episodes or ethnic cleansing and migration of a quarter of the population. Past experience has taught the Lebanese that political problems are not solved with violence.
When political circumstances changed, the civil war ended quickly; more importantly, the people returned easily to live in mixed neighborhoods. The pace of post-war social reintegration was remarkable. Factually, the social distance between the diverse Lebanese communities depends on social class, rather than on religiosity or ethnic background. Other things equal, Christians and Muslims go to the same schools, work in the same factories and tend to live in relatively mixed neighborhoods. Despite its divisive, confessional system of power-sharing, Lebanon is relatively secular in daily life. Sectarian politics, which has plagued the country for centuries, ought not to be confused with religious fanaticism. Sectarianism is active more among politicians than at the grassroots. The current source of sectarian tension is regional, between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since the civil war, friction has shifted from Christian-Muslim to Sunni-Shia – exploited by politicians.
Through this uprising, the people united across different religious lines to challenge a sectarian political system.
This unity-in-diversity has generated a mood for celebration. Public protest is cathartic; the demonstrators have found music, art, and humor as a medium of messaging their political ideas and for self-realization.
In addition to learning from the civil war and living in socially integrated communities, the Lebanese are used to living in relative freedom. Despite the political injustice, the economic inequity, and rampant corruption, the state has never been dictatorial. This is the only Arab country where one can curse the government and criticize high authority without going to jail.
Regardless of how long it will take to liberate governance, the people have taken the first step in rebuilding their state by uniting across religious, economic, age and gender lines. The next step in state building will be much harder as it will need political maturity, new leadership, and smart planning in order to unseat and adequately replace entrenched self-serving regimes.
The government is counting on protest-fatigue to soften the demands of the uprising. But the people, having already lost the maximum, may have nothing to lose, by remaining steadfast. Thus, the protestors may be able to outlast the government.
Since the entire political class is guilty of corruption, all those in power would be accountable, should the uprising achieve its goals. Fear of the consequences of corruption puts the government in a phase of denial.
Lebanon is blessed in one way and cursed in another: no state affecting this tiny country is eager to see it collapse; yet, no neighboring state wants it to thrive either. If it collapses, Lebanon would generate millions of refugees; and thriving, Lebanon will be a threat to its neighbors- by setting an example for good governance. In the near future, Lebanon may have to accept imperfect solutions. It may be that Lebanon will have to continue to tolerate some regional and international pressures from rival sides merely to survive.
There are limits to lessons from the past. It is time to brainstorm on how the Lebanese could stay resilient and loving as pressures of living mount.