On the 18th of October 2019, Saad El Hariri gave a speech that would arguably define his 3rd term as Prime Minister: Surrounded by heavy and ongoing protests in Riad El Solh and martyrs square, he gave himself 72 hours to find a solution to the crisis. But how did we exactly get here?
An unproductive July ends – 72 Days to the 17th of October
On the first of August, President Aoun warned the Lebanese about a looming economic crisis, describing it as the biggest danger ahead, meeting the IMF director the following day, and then calling the Lebanese in the same 24 hour margin to temporarily give up some economic and financial perks. For a country that was about to start figuring out the 2020 budget, his statement was not the most politically smart thing to say from a ruling President. Nevertheless, the priorities of Lebanese politicians had officially started changing from sectarian bickering to figuring out financial measures: Probably for the first time in decades, the way things were being handled shifted the public opinion from petty politics to financial panic. And yet even in the middle of the financial panic and talks of austerity, the monetary mismanagement continued: The Telecom minister Mohamad Choucair announced he had bought a building to house a state owned telecoms company… for 75 million dollars.
That same week, and while Joumblatt and Arslan were still bickering about the Basatin clashes in the Chouf, a trash collection crisis, this time in the northern districts of the country was unraveling, and it seemed that the country was heading towards events similar to 2015.
Meanwhile, the new balance of powers in parliament and in cabinet as well as the shifting discourse among Lebanese politicians had led to clashes in the Chouf between Joumblatt’s supporters and Arslan’s. In the correct sectarian universe of Lebanese politics, the political crisis between both parties over the Basatin incident would have led to the collapse of the government. Instead, Lebanese politicians somehow saw through the crisis, and the cabinet, after more than 1 month of deadlock, finally met on the 10th of August, in one of the quickest turns of events possible: First Jumblatt said he wasn’t going to meet Arslan in Baabda, then Aoun said he wasn’t going to accept that a meeting happens in Baabda, then Arslan refused to meet Jumblatt in Baabda…then this happened:
While Lebanon avoided full-blown military clashes, the political class had yet again chosen to put aside its differences and work together in the Hariri cabinet. That meant they had lost a month and a half of reform – the cabinet hadn’t met since the 30th of June – without actually properly making use of a political event that could have helped them mobilize against each other and distract the population from the more important crisis that was about to unravel.
August 12: Is the Lira stable? – 66 Days till the 17th of October
After Aoun warned the country that they were going to have to “sacrifice” for the sake of the economy in early August, rumors about an imminent devaluation of the Lira – which were already there – started flying around, with the President confirming on the 12th of August that he was endeavoring to maintain the value of the Lebanese pound, explaining that he has not resorted to a law which condemns rumors shaking the status of the LBP in a bid to “preserve freedoms.” Meanwhile in the North, politicians tried to divert the true core of the trash crisis (mismanagement) into something else, sowing sectarian discontent regarding the location of a new landfill (Christian vs. Muslim town), in a desperate quest to keep things from spiraling into what happened in 2015 in Beirut, trying to convert a trash collection crisis into a sectarian one.
August 23: The great downgrade – 55 Days till the 17th of October
Despite calls from the President and his party that reform was on the way and reassurances from the speaker about the great financial stability in the most serene republic of Lebanon, the great shock (not that shocking though) came with the Fitch agency’s downgrade of Lebanon’s rating from B- to CCC, with S&P saying that the outlook remains negative. Yet elsewhere in the republic of denial, business had been booming: From the President’s summer residence in the mountains of Beiteddine, the cabinet met on the 22nd of August, with 46 items on its agenda, and appointed members of the constitutional council. The political crisis that almost sent the country into a Civil War a month earlier was nowhere to be seen: Joumblatt and Aoun met with happiness and joy in the Chouf on the 24th of August, and an agreement was made to address the economy as a priority – That makes you wonder how bad the economy was doing for them to meet and agree.
August 25: Who needs the economy when you can have a war – 53 days till the 17th of October
The country hadn’t yet managed to process the new Fitch downgrade when, on the 25th of August 2019, Israeli drones – probably for reasons related to the upcoming Israeli elections – attacked Beirut’s southern suburbs, severely damaging Hezbollah’s media offices. Soon after, reports emerged of Israeli airstrikes on Syria that killed 2 Hezbollah fighters. Then, less than 24 hours later, Israel struck again a PFLP base in the Bekaa. Reports then emerged that Hezbollah was planning a retaliation, with Nasrallah promising a retaliation from within Lebanese territories, and then on the 1st of September, Hezbollah retaliated by launching missiles into Israel, with the (pro-government/pro-Aoun/pro-Hezbollah) higher defense council giving Hezbollah the green light earlier that week. The tit-for-tat didn’t last much longer, with the attention of everyone shifting again to the economy and new U.S. sanctions – this time on Jammal Trust Bank leading to the liquidation of the Bank. Almost 24 hours after the Lebanese south almost went to war with Israel, Lebanon’s Zuamas found themselves yet again declaring a state of economic emergency – Again, that makes you wonder how bad the economy was doing for Hezbollah and the FM to change the discourse when they could have used the momentum much more than they did.
September 4: War and reconciliation – 43 days till the 17th of October
On the 4th of September, the troubles struck again in the mountain when PSP and LDP members clashed yet again in the Chouf. This time though, the endless cycle of confrontation and reconciliation was a quick one: Gebran Bassil and Taymour met with happiness and joy only 48 hours later, a reconciliation that was afterwards blessed by Berri and Hezbollah.
Lebanese politicians – while emphasizing how serious the economic crisis was – were at the same time using every possible opportunity to banalize their sectarian feuds. If they can take the country to war and then kiss each other so easily, are they really rivals, or sadistic manipulators?
Through the sudden acceleration of the cycle of war and reconciliation, the Lebanese establishment – born out of the violence of the Civil War – had fallen into its own trap. The ruling parties were so blinded by their quest for power that they forgot that it were their sectarian rivalries that kept their electorates behind them, and decided instead to share power and send a message of dysfunctional unity at the worst possible time ever: When the country was on the verge of a financial and economic crisis.
September 9: Austerity and clientelism- 38 days till the 17th of October
It is thus with a collective image of united sadistic manipulators that the Lebanese cabinet decided to start discussing the 2020 budget, an austerity budget destined to unlock the long awaited Cedre funds. Guess what? While the government was drafting up the budget, it also took the opportunity to try to collectively pass new appointments – which basically translated into your regular-day-clientelism.
September 18: Luxury and collaboration – 31 days till the 17th of October
Because it wasn’t enough for Lebanese politicians to send weekly reminders that they were united sadistic clientelist manipulators intent on passing an austerity budget in the middle of an economic crisis, the President, in an act of extreme audacity, travels to the New York General Assembly with an extremely large delegation (so much for austerity), while in Beirut, there is unprecedented public outrage when media outlets point out around the 18th of September that the return of one of the most infamous Israeli collaborators to Lebanon has been facilitated by the powers ruling the republic. Can it get worse?
September 27: It can indeed get worse – 22 days till the 17th of October
Rumors about an imminent crash and devaluation of the Lira are everywhere. The demand for Dollars in the market is unprecedented, a dollar shortage exacerbates and a black market among Serrafs develops, with the Dollar getting a much higher exchange rate than the classic 1507 LBP peg. Lebanese millers say wheat reserves fall due to the ongoing ‘dollar problem’. The country, in panic, has to listen to the President, on his way from his non-austerity trip to New York, saying that he ignores what was happening back home, throwing the responsibilities on the governor of the BDL and the Amal-backed finance minister. In the middle of the financial panic, rumors – probably sponsored by members of the establishment in order to keep the criticism in check – blame the dollar shortage…on Syrian refugees. Even for the Lebanese establishment, that was extremely low.
September 30: Love you my Saad – 17 days till the 17th of October.
But racism and sectarianism are no longer enough for Lebanese politicians to contain the crisis. On September 30, the New York Times leaked a story that involves a 16 million dollar transaction between the Prime Minister and a South African model in 2013. An email from the model read “Love you my Saad”, but for a Lebanese population suffering a currency crisis, now exchanging the Dollar at 1600 LBP in the black market, you can say there wasn’t as much love for the Prime Minister from the people anymore as you would imagine – especially that Hariri had suspended the works at his TV outlet, Future TV, exactly 10 days earlier, due to financial difficulties.
October 11: The dollar and the strikes – 6 days till the 17th of October
On the 11th October, a third strike in less than three weeks by the owners of the Gas Stations paralyzed the country, with the Syndicate of Gas Station Owners protesting that suppliers were only selling them fuel in dollar. 3 days later, on Monday 14th, bakery owners started their own strike due to the lack of dollars in the market. Hariri managed to suspend the strikes with the help of BDL and some financial engineering, but that turned out to be the least of his worries for that week.
October 15: The wildest wildfires the country has ever seen – 2 days till the 17th of October
Lebanon woke up on the morning of the 15th of October to the news of Wildfires ravaging the country from North to South, with Firefighters battling massive fires in several areas in the country, before moderate rains in the evening brought them under control in most affected areas. The forest fires, the worst to have hit the country in decades, were facilitated by the fact that the officials hadn’t kept up with the maintenance of some firefighting jets and equipment. With more than 100 blazes erupting from north to south over the past two days, Raymond Khattar, the director-general of Lebanon’s Civil Defence, described the forest fires as the worst to have hit the country in decades. At least one man died from suffocation after battling a fire in the city of Aley for several hours. Lebanese media also reported that a woman had lost her life after being run over by a fire truck in the southern coastal city of Sidon.
To make things worse, the environmental disaster came days after the environment minister asked citizens who have been criticizing the horrible mismanagement related to the trash crisis “to shut up”, and weeks after the contractors started destroying one of Lebanon’s most beautiful valleys, the Bisri valley, in order to build a billion dollar Dam on a seismic fault line (The things politicians do for money…)
THE MORNING OF OCTOBER 17
You are a regular Lebanese citizen. You wake up on the morning of the 17th of October. Instead of just worrying as usual about the horrible traffic you have to endure due to the lack of an efficient transportation plan, today you’re also worrying about a possible gas station strike. Should you fill up, just in case they do a surprise strike? You decide to move on. It’s not a good idea to be anxious about everything, they say. On your way to work, you stop next to the bakery to get some bread – you never know if the bakery owners will go on strike this week. But you should also pay your car loan. You head to the bank. The bank refuses to take your hard-earned Lira because the market is unstable. You have to go to the friendly neighborhood serraf, who charges at least 100L.L. more than the official peg due to the shortage of dollars in the market. As you head back to the bank, you bask in the view: The entire mountain in front of you has burned during the past two days. It’s okay, you tell yourself, mountains burn. It’s how things are. At least you have your Whatsapp that you can use to call your wife and tell her that you have successfully secured the bread supplies for the day. It’s a sunny day. You turn on the radio. The government wants to impose more taxes in the 2020 budget. They even plan on…taxing Whatsapp. You change the radio channel, and listen to a talk-show discussing how the politician you voted for in order to “protect your sect’s interests” had given 16 Million dollars to a South African model. So you start thinking, why couldn’t have you been that model. Why does the model get 16 million dollars, while the bank wouldn’t take your hard-earned lira? Why are the people rightfully criticizing the financial crisis being sued? Why are you stuck in this country, and how did it get to this, and more importantly, why should it be you who should pay the extra taxes and take the fall for the austerity measures?
There’s never a crisis for those who share the spoils
On the 18th of October 2019, Saad El Hariri gave a speech that would arguably define his 3rd term as Prime Minister: Surrounded by heavy and ongoing protests in Riad El Solh and martyrs square, he gave himself 72 hours to find a solution to the crisis.
But crisis is a small word to describe what the country has been going through for the past decades, and while the very bad mismanagement in the recent era did not help the cause of the ruling parties, they finally found themselves surrounded by angry protesters in unprecedented numbers in every corner of the country. For the past two decades, the ruling Lebanese parties have taken their power for granted, bickering among themselves and splitting the cake differently every time a political development happens in the country, turning the tables on each other for some time and then sitting on the same table other times. Sectarianism is a powerful tool, but for any Lebanese politician, it is only as powerful as the time rival politicians spend on the other sides of the barricade. Once they join hands and abandon their sectarian diatribes in (so called) unity governments, the shallow sectarian logic becomes vulnerable as a tool of dissent and gives way to the public opinion to criticize the collective failures. Thus, the Zaim loses his sectarian identity as protector of the sect, and the political leaderships blob together into one big cesspool of collective responsibility for the failure of the state.
All of the ruling Lebanese establishment – aside from some few exceptions, in their bid to share whatever spoils the country has to offer, have refused to be part of an opposition since the resignation of the Mikati government in March 2013. In order to avoid missing out on the spoils, the ruling political parties – all of them at some point – have decided to take part in three consecutive unity governments, while changing alliances between one another at a frightening pace: The FM allying the Marada, then the LF allying the FPM, then the FPM allying the FM, then Amal breaking their alliance with the FPM and siding with the PSP, all in less than a year, for the sole purpose of controlling the presidency and the perks that come with it. In the middle of the presidential crisis of 2014-2016, the Lebanese establishment, through the unity government of Tammam Salam, tasted the first fruit of leaving the opposition seats empty in the country: A trash collection crisis led to weeks of protests that almost brought down a government already weakened by a constitutional crisis. Lebanese politicians, blinded by power and their cartel-like policy of splitting everything – including the very cabinet that rules the country, had to hear protesters sing the famous chant of “كلن يعني كلن” (literal translation: Everyone means everyone, a chant criticizing the political class as a whole) for the first time, disregarding it time and time again until the trash demonstrations died out and the political parties figured out together a new political settlement in 2016.
The return of the blob
The raison d’être of the classical Lebanese politician has always been the sectarian rivalry that they ignited among them, with their halo as protectors of sectarian interests being their main tool to gather support. If the first warning that this halo was fading away was the 2015 protests, the second warning – and the more serious one – came in the 2016 municipal elections: For the first time in the recent history of the country, a unity list representing all of the ruling parties lost almost a third of Beirut’s votes to a list spearheaded by the people who had mobilized a year earlier during the trash crisis. That served as a warning for Lebanese politicians, who came back to their common sense of sectarianism and ran against each other in the 2018 elections – instead of creating unity lists like the one in Beirut in 2016. It wasn’t quite the March 8/March 14 divide that had bitterly divided the country a decade earlier, but it was the closest possible thing to it: The LF ran against the FPM, Hezbollah ran against the FM, and almost everyone else ran with everyone and against everyone, depending on the district. Some alliances didn’t really make any sense, but the ruling parties managed to keep the parliament under their same control, with the help of a new electoral law designed to invest in sectarianism, by bringing back the old civil war and sectarian feuds between the ruling parties.
It worked. While a lot of faces changed in the parliament, and the balance of power among the members of the establishment had dramatically shifted, the end product was a success: The same parties were still in control. After 5 years of parliamentary extensions, their presence in Nejmeh square was finally ‘legitimate’ once again.
Taking power for granted
But they disregarded the warnings of August 2015 and April 2016. The ruling parties took their power for granted, and – in the spirit of greed and distrust of one another – decided to share power once again, knowing that unity governments have never worked, not in 2008, not in 2009, not in 2014, and not in 2016, and that – out of experience – the government formation would take lots of time. And it did. To cover up the 8 months lost to form the cabinet (Theoretically, almost 20% of the new parliament’s term), the ruling parties actually started working together on reform plans to unlock the Cedre funds, drafting up an ambitious electricity plan as well as the 2019 budget (a budget that was supposed to be an austerity one, instead turning into something else entirely).
After 12 years of disregarding the economy and finances of the country through bitter policy blocking for the sake of petty politics (No state budget was voted between 2005 and 2016 as the March 8 and March 14 powers were struggling for power), the ruling parties had decided out of greed – in an act of complete and utter political stupidity – to share power, and leave the opposition seat empty, when the country finally reached the tipping point of the Financial and Economic crisis.
Only Gebran Bassil – as uncharismatic as he is – saw the danger of Lebanese politicians coming together and abandoning their apparent rivalries in times of economic crises: Forced to keep his sectarian tone under control due to the FPM’s alliances with the Sunni-backed FM and the Shia-backed Hezbollah, Bassil found his new raison d’etre, progressively developing it over the first months of 2019, by mobilizing against Syrian refugees and using racism as a tool to divide and conquer instead of sectarianism.
For too long, Lebanese politicians have taken everything for granted – and that includes their wealth, power, and popular support. When the protests erupted on the 17th of October over the suggested Whatsapp tax, they probably thought that the few skirmishes and demonstrations would end in less than hours. Yet here we are, days into the biggest and most decentralized demonstrations Lebanon has seen in ages. It turns out in the end that there is something called going too far for the Lebanese establishment.
First as a tragedy, then as a farce
The sin that brought down the current political class in the eyes of the Lebanese was however more about arrogance than it was about greed. The greediness among the politicians has been happening for at least 3 decades now, but it is their arrogance that made them weaker. Lebanese politicians, blinded by power, have been slowly abandoning parts of their sectarian-protecting halo – their only true shield – in favor of unity governments, keeping the opposition seat empty and ripe for the taking for 5 years now – since 2014.
With no serious organized sectarian opposition in place and all of the ruling parties sharing power, the establishment finally exposed itself as a corrupt blob splitting the cake, turning its very own electorate against it. With the collective endorsement of the new taxes in the cabinet, the last piece holding the domino of their authority, which was clientelism and political benefits, collapsed.
At the end of the day, if your Zaim will sell the sect for some properties and won’t get you the job you want, while also taxing you for everything you do, what is exactly the purpose of the Zaim?
Lebanese cabinets survive assassination attempts, they survive foreign invasions, they survive civil wars. One thing they cannot and will not survive are economic crisis. Omar Karami and Saad Hariri might have been bitter rivals, but both share the same story. In May 1992, Omar Karami resigned under heavy pressure in a country plagued by an economic and financial crisis.
These 27 year old excerpts from an article by the New York Times only show you how Hariri is doomed to suffer the same fate as the man who was Prime Minister when his father was assassinated.
“The Lebanese Government resigned today after two days of nationwide riots over the worst economic crisis the country has experienced in years.
The Prime Minister announced his resignation here after angry demonstrators tried to storm his residence and the neighboring villa of the President. Soldiers and policemen guarding the officials fired over the heads of the protesters to disperse them.
Big clouds of black smoke hung over Beirut after thousands of demonstrators burned rubber tires, and set up roadblocks to stop traffic. All roads leading in and out of the capital were closed and large-scale disruptions were reported in all parts of Lebanon from Tyre in the south to Tripoli in the north. Protests were also held in most Christian districts after a four-day general strike was called by labor unions as of Tuesday. Shops, banks, schools and offices were shut. Marches quickly turned into riots as demonstrators broke up in bands who went around smashing bank signs. Most of the glass doors and windows in a building housing the Chamber of Commerce in mainly Muslim West Beirut were broken.
In the Christian part of town, a crowd of several hundred people tried to attack the residence of the Justice Minister but were turned back by the police. In Tyre, demonstrators on Tuesday attacked and set ablaze the residence of the Finance Minister. […]
The Government’s resignation leaves the country, with its civil war wounds still unhealed, in a power vacuum. Officials said the Prime Minister had not intended to step down until agreement had been reached on a new Cabinet, but that today’s riots, which involved his own home, speeded the resignation.
Popular fury had erupted over the near collapse of the national currency and soaring prices of essential commodities. The value of the Lebanese pound in relation to foreign exchange has been on the decline for the last three months, but in the last two days it slumped to an all-time low, selling at over 2,000 pounds to one American dollar compared to one third that rate at the beginning of the year.
Shops and gasoline stations refused to deal in Lebanese pounds and insisted on being paid in dollars.
An empty treasury after years of civil war plus lack of foreign assistance and reluctance by investors to pour money into the Lebanese market have contributed to what amounts to a real depression. The Government’s inflationary policies, such as increasing the salaries of civil servants by 120 percent at the beginning of the year, have been cited by economists and politicians alike as the real cause for the crisis.”
Protest Lebanon, Protest. I am getting tired of writing about the same politicians and their maneuvers for the past decade. We need this change. For our sake, and the sake of all those who had to leave the country to find the better quality of life we had been denied for so long. Thawra!