Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has resigned after weeks of anti-corruption protests, plunging the country into a new phase of political uncertainty.
Even under more favorable conditions, consensus is elusive in Lebanese politics. It took about nine months for the prime minister to form the national unity government that just collapsed, but even this process was speedy compared to the two-and-a-half years it took to elect President Michel Aoun, speak nothing of a recent national budget that was 12 years in the making. Suffice to say that the outbreak of new, economically and generationally-focused sources of conflict can be expected to further compound the country’s political stalemate.
And this time, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Lebanon has long since become a byword for diversity, for better (exemplary social harmony) and worse (a 15-year civil war). In terms of the country’s politics, there are internal sources of diversity – various religious, cultural, and historical traditions – all having to cooperate in the political arena, and all in the shadow of a violent past that’s still not too far removed. There are also external influences that further accentuate the country’s internal mosaic; or, put simply, foreign powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran operating through their preferred domestic proxies. These antagonistic internal and external interests have given rise to major governance challenges in the post-civil war era, and in the absence of sound policy, the economy has been left to stagnate and decline. Here’s where the young, Internet-savvy mass mobilization that toppled Hariri comes into the picture.
The protests are novel in that they seem to cut across normal sectarian lines to focus on matters of governance and middle class quality-of-life. Much like the case of Chile, the Lebanon unrest is an example of a sudden explosion that comes after a prolonged period of building tensions. Though the issue that triggered the protests – a tax on WhatsApp calls – appears minor in the grand scheme of things, it was just the last straw. And once the movement broke out and gained national momentum, any concession from the Hariri camp, whether his offer to revoke the WhatsApp tax or levy new taxes on the banking sector, was too little too late. Protestors demanded the prime minister’s resignation, and for him to be replaced with someone who could cut across the sectarian fault lines of Lebanese politics and affect real social and economic renewal.
Accomplishing these goals will be a tall order.
The Lebanese economy is reeling after years of borrowing and mismanagement. National debt stands at a towering 150 percent of GDP, and the current government is running a deficit of at least 10 percent – most of which is going directly toward debt servicing. Signs of a reckoning are multiplying in tandem with the cost of insuring Lebanese debt, which grew some 60 percent over the past six months. Adding to the stakes is a $1.5 billion Eurobond that’s maturing on November 28 and worries that demand for a new $2.5 billion bond will be insufficient. Absent a substantial influx of outside funding, government finances could collapse, which is exactly what Central Bank governor Riad Salame suggested in a recent interview with CNN.
Investors are likely to hold back amid a deteriorating economic outlook (evident before the protests) and the difficulties inherent to finding a successor to the outgoing prime minister.
These difficulties are on open display in President Michel Aoun’s request that Saad Hariri stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet can be sworn in (a process that could take weeks, months, even years if past precedent is any guide). The request is almost guaranteed to throw more fuel on the fires of protest, but Aoun’s options are limited: the position of prime minister always goes to a Sunni Muslim (the president is a Christian, and the parliamentary speaker a Shiite Muslim), and there are now obvious replacements waiting in the wings. Hariri’s personal brand was considerably weakened by the 2018 elections, which saw his Future Movement lose 13 seats. On the other side of the political divide, Hezbollah expanded its parliamentary footprint, taking the highest percentage of the general vote and benefiting from a strong performance by Amal, its Shiite ally. Amal and Hezbollah represent 16 and 13 seats in parliament respectively (Hariri’s Future Movement accounts for 20). A total of 65 seats is needed to form a majority.
Under normal political calculus, these protests would represent an opportunity for Hezbollah and its allies, as one of the largest blocs in parliament, to put forward an allied Sunni politician and attempt to form a new government. However, Lebanon is not a normal country. Rather, the protests are an existential threat to the militant movement; they could topple the business-as-usual of Lebanese politics, which since the Taif accords of 1989 have helped to facilitate a consolidation of Hezbollah’s military and political power as a ‘state within a state.’ This is why, counter to expectations, the movement sent its paramilitaries into protest camps in Beirut to disperse demonstrators with violence and intimidation, even though they were calling for the head of an ostensible political nemesis in Prime Minister al-Hariri. The protesters are calling for a new brand of politics, one that transcends sectarian divisions and regional machinations. Their success would spell doom for Hezbollah’s (and Iran’s) wider geopolitical agenda.
Hariri is widely despised; the economy is teetering on the brink of collapse; there’s no replacements waiting in the wings; and the protest movement is large, leaderless, and motivated enough to survive early attempts at intimidation and dispersal. Here we have all the ingredients of a protracted political crisis. And as is the case with anything occurring in Lebanon: events will resonate in power interplay in the Middle East. Keep in mind that Hezbollah itself controls a paramilitary corps numbering anywhere from 20-30k, which makes it potentially more than a match for the national armed forces. If the situation on the ground continues to devolve, Hezbollah will have the means to control ongoing events, and any show of force would surely precipitate a race to rearm among Lebanon’s opposing factions – and in this, outside powers would be all too happy to oblige by providing the weapons.
Events over the next few weeks will be critical; but the stakes couldn’t be higher.