Lebanon’s ‘Week of Anger’

January 24, 2020
Protesting in Beirut last year against government corruption.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced a new government on January 21. The cabinet, made up of technocratic ministers backed by the main parties, is promising to tackle the country's deep economic crisis.

Protests are continuing, however, as the announcement falls short of the movement’s key demands for a government independent of the ruling parties and new elections.

Karim Traboulsi reports on the protest movement, which shows no sign of letting up.

* * *

The thick smoke of burning tyres blanketed parts of Lebanon once again, as a second wave of mass anti-corruption protests erupted across the beleaguered country, exactly 90 days after the October 17 uprising began.

From the north to the south, via the capital Beirut, fed-up Lebanese declared a Week of Anger on January 14 against their ruling class, which shows no interest in solving the political, economic and financial crises they are accused of inflicting during their three-decade administration, following the end of the civil war in 1990.

Renewed activist momentum

Hundreds of protesters reportedly blocked main roads and staged pickets outside government departments, banks and money changers in Tripoli, Beirut and Saida.

Activists on uprising-aligned social media pages called it a second wave and celebrated the renewed momentum of their protests, promising a Week of Anger against politicians that would include civil disobedience, targeted sit-ins, street protests and road closures.

While protests in Lebanon have not stopped over the past several weeks, over the holidays, numbers dropped sharply from the tens of thousands at the peak in October and November.

The initial wave of protests succeeded in toppling the government of Saad al-Hariri, throwing the country into yet another political vacuum all too familiar to Lebanon. Hariri quickly took leave, “on holiday” to France, refusing to discharge his constitutional duties as caretaker prime minister.

Ruling class remobilises

Since Hariri’s departure from power, however, the protest movement has failed to force the other levers of power, led by Hezbollah-allied President Michel Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri, to either step down or facilitate the formation of a specialist transitional government that would oversee urgent reforms and early elections, all key demands of the protest movement.

On December 19, Aoun and Berri brought in Hassan Diab, a relatively unknown academic, as prime minister designate, but his independent credentials were immediately rejected by the protest movement as a mere front for the same ruling class.

Critics say the failure of the protest movement to produce a coherent leadership has allowed the ruling class to regroup and ignore the popular mood, returning to its old squabbles over the division of lucrative government posts, and allowing geopolitical events such as the United States-Iran tensions to shape the country’s domestic politics.

In the absence of an adequate response from the authorities, the financial crisis that had triggered the uprising only worsened over the subsequent weeks, accelerating a liquidity crisis in the US dollar — to which the country’s currency is pegged and on which it relies for imports of basic foods, medicines and fuel.

Enough is enough

The Lebanese pound has lost nearly two-thirds of its value against the US dollar in the black market, despite still being officially pegged at 1500 to the dollar, since 1997.

Huge queues outside banks are reported daily, as most lenders restricted access to dollar banknotes and imposed informal capital controls to contain the slow-motion bank run.

Meanwhile, dozens of small to medium businesses have cut salaries, laid off employees or shut down altogether, amid reports of shortages of certain basic goods and large hikes in the prices of others.

The preoccupation with the fallout from this livelihood crisis brought about a lull in the protests, but now it seems the ruling class were mistaken in thinking the uprising against them was over.

On the night of January 13, a group of left-wing protesters briefly stormed the headquarters of the Central Bank, before being pushed back by security forces.

Banking offices across Lebanon have been targeted repeatedly by the protesters since October 17.

Central bank governor Riad Salameh stands accused of overseeing decades of corruption through a Ponzi-like scheme of financial engineering, which activists and experts say have enabled politically-linked private bankers to accrue billions in profits from Lebanon’s sovereign debt and currency peg while gambling with ordinary people’s deposits and the country’s foreign reserves.

Salameh and other senior banking officials made media appearances promising bank deposits were safe, but said foreign help was now needed to rescue the country, hinting at debt restructuring, once a taboo proposition.

These assurances were met with instant disbelief by activists, who seem to have lost all faith in the entire ruling class of politicians and bureaucrats for mismanaging the country’s affairs, and demand they are replaced entirely by new, competent specialists untarnished by corruption or sectarianism.

“All of them, means all of them,” remains the leading slogan of the Lebanese protest movement, in reference to this class.

[Abridged from Europe Solidarires Sans Frontieres. This article originally appeared in New Arab.]

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