Longstanding economic, social and governance problems are coming to a head in Lebanon’s protests, which are cutting across traditional sectarian lines and geographical barriers. Scholars at institutes that study the Middle East are offering background and analysis. Here are summaries of some of the key commentaries, updated on Nov. 13. (See related articles “In Lebanon, Sect Vs. Sect Turns Into People Vs. Politicians” and “Professors Start a School of the Rioters” and “Lebanon’s Universities Have Emptied Out Into the Streets.“)
Fadlo R. Khuri, President, American University of Beirut
The protest movement ends the political order that has prevailed in Lebanon since the Taif Accord of 1989, a system based on sectarian division. The Lebanese Civil War finally ended on October 17, 2019, Khuri writes.
The protesters include many of our own students, faculty and staff. We must help students complete their studies while they participate in the demonstrations. At AUB, service to the community is an integral part of a liberal arts education.
The protesters must stay united, and they must not make heroic victims of themselves. This would only serve the interests of the men running the country.
We must resume classes, which have been suspended since October 18, even while we support and protect the freedom of speech and right to protest of our students and faculty members.
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Hatim El-Hibri and Clovis Bergère, Jadaliyya.com
“The Lebanese WhatsApp tax was a straw that broke a camel’s back, but what made it a straw to begin with?”
In Lebanon, the app is almost inseparable from mobile phone use, due to the country having some of the most expensive phone and data rates in the world. “The tax would have cut into the fabric of many kinds of social interaction, particularly for the unemployed and working poor,” the authors write.
It is a regressive tax, meaning the amount levied is fixed at a single rate, which makes it proportionately more expensive for the poor than for the rich. A political system that mainly serves the interests of the rich favors regressive taxes as opposed to progressive taxes, which are levied according to the taxpayer’s ability to pay.
But it is an easy tax to collect in a country like Lebanon. In Lebanon the lack of a consistent system of physical addresses means the absence of a permanent fixed relation between location and citizen. Taxation requires that a fiscal entity—something or someone—be located and counted. In Lebanon, a potential taxpayer can’t be identified by a home address, but can be compelled to pay a tax when using a freely available portable object.
The authors compare the situation in Lebanon with the protest movement now in progress in Guinea—“another country with a protest movement also entangled in the dynamics of the telecom industry.” The main difference between the two countries is that in Guinea the government resorts to shutting down the Internet completely to block protest, something that has not been done in Lebanon.
Sami Atallah, Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Beirut
Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s reform plan proposed in the wake of the protests (Hariri has since resigned), and politicians’ support for it, show their unwillingness to reform the state and the economy in a way that would serve the welfare of citizens. It does not provide for the establishment of an independent judiciary, essential to the rule of law. Hariri refused to sign the law that would establish a national council to fight corruption. And his plan does not restructure the tax system to make it fair.
Perhaps Hariri resigned to improve his bargaining position for the next government. Popular protest has changed his political calculus. For Hezbollah leader Sayyed Nasrallah, preserving the system is more important than fighting corruption.
The problem is not about passing laws. Laws that are passed are not implemented.
The problem is the lack of trust between citizens and political parties.
Political parties used the end of the Syrian occupation in 2005 as a new start, and blamed the Syrian presence for hindering reform. Almost 15 years later, things have only got worse. Lebanon is in serious need of a new system of governance.
Sami Atallah, Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Beirut
Atallah, the policy center’s executive director, sees the popular protest movement as bigger and deeper than those of previous years, such as the one in 2015 triggered by the garbage collection crisis. Politicians have acknowledged the grievances of the millions of protesters in the streets, he writes, but failed to understand how deep the discontent is. And the government’s hastily introduced remedies are “too little, too late.”
Atallah makes quick work of demolishing the measures that politicians have proposed. “It is unclear how the government will reduce the deficit from more than 7 percent to almost 0.6 percent of GDP in one year. The task to cut $5 billion is monumental, and after more than 30 years of chronic budget deficits, the fact that it found a way to do so in three days, all without major tax reforms, seems suspicious.”
As for the proposal to eliminate corruption, it is “simply ridiculous,” Atallah writes.
He is optimistic about the movement’s prospects for success, as long as it maintains its pressure on the government and the political parties in Lebanon. “The protesters have made key gains,” he writes. “Not only have they forced the government to cancel its plans to tax the working people, they have imposed their agenda and are shaping the political discourse in the country.”
Nisreen Salti, Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut
Salti, an associate professor of economics at the American University of Beirut, shows how reckless borrowing by the government since the end of the country’s civil war in 1990 primarily benefited Lebanese banks, at the expense of the needs of the economy and society.
Rather than assume the risk of financing local businesses, banks could reap larger and more reliable profits by buying their own government’s bonds. Their profits increased as Lebanese government debt grew.
By 1998, the Lebanese government could not borrow fast enough to meet its debt obligations. In an attempt to cover the shortfall, the government resorted to increasing taxes on the population. These taxes, Salti writes, were regressive; that is, they were levied at a single rate on essential goods and services, regardless of the user’s income. This meant that the poor were paying, through taxes, for the profits of Lebanese banks.
The result was widening income inequality, which was exacerbated by the fact that as the costs of debt servicing increased, the government’s ability to intervene in the Lebanese economy shrank.
“The policy choices that prevailed in the decade after the civil war,” Salti writes, “effectively represented a concerted effort to take from the poor and give to the rich.
In resisting making needed reforms, such as reducing the reliance on regressive taxes on unavoidable consumption, “the ruling class has, yet again, decided to work itself out of a financial impasse by taking regressive measures. By so doing, instead of containing widespread discontent, it has only accelerated the ticker on a time bomb.”
Bilal Y. Saab, Middle East Institute, Washington, D.C.
Saab, a senior fellow at the institute, says Lebanon’s Shia were not active participants in the Cedar Revolution of 2005, the popular movement that led to the withdrawal of Syrian armed forces from the country. Leaders of Hezbollah—an army and political party that represents Lebanese Shia—were fearful of their movement’s prospects in a new political landscape, post-Syria, and discouraged their constituency from taking part in the protests.
The current uprising is larger than the Cedar Revolution, Saab writes. It is rooted in long-held socioeconomic grievances affecting everyone. “And this time, Shiites have joined the struggle.”
Their participation has rattled Hezbollah’s leaders, who see a threat to the role of their party as an indispensable part of the country’s political equilibrium.
A crack has appeared in the Shia community’s previously solid support for Hezbollah. In the 2018 elections, “many Shiites in the Bekaa and Baalbek, areas considered Hezbollah strongholds, voiced displeasure with the group for its decreasing ability to provide them with basic goods and services,” Saab writes.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, has expressed sympathy with the protesters’ demands, but opposes the overthrow of the prevailing political order, which he helped to build. Despite Nasrallah’s threats and warnings, Lebanese Shia are taking part in the protests in increasing numbers. [On Friday, October 25, Nasrallah called on his supporters to leave the protests and said they were now being manipulated by foreign powers.]
“How Hezbollah will deal with this episode is unclear because this is uncharted territory,” writes Saab.
Christiana Parreira, Synaps Network, Beirut
Parreira, a consultant with Synaps, shows how political factions commandeered local municipalities across Lebanon and established a model of governance in which a local group holds onto power through patronage and corruption while offering little in the way of essential public services.
The process began during the country’s civil war, when municipalities found themselves cut off from central government funding and unable to provide essential services. In 1982, in the southern coastal city of Saida, local millionaire Rafic Hariri stepped in to fill the gap. “Hariri went on to bankroll the repair of roads, street lighting, and sanitation services,” Parreira writes.
In doing so, Hariri established himself as a power in his own right in Saida (beginning a political career in which he became prime minister of Lebanon in 1992).
His success in Saida encouraged political factions in other cities to build power bases through the seizure of local municipalities. “In the southern regional capital of Sour, the Amal Movement—a political party born just before the civil war and which later founded an armed branch—assumed a similar role.”
“In villages and cities across the country, ties between militias and municipalities grew denser and more widespread. By the end of the war, a new cohort of leaders had solidified by replacing the central state as the primary supplier of financial assistance,” she writes.
By keeping a firm grip on the apportionment of central government and other forms of funding, local political leaders can maintain themselves in power through patronage and corruption, while providing little in the way of basic services.