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Will protests bring true reform to Lebanon?

Tom Allinson
August 12, 2020

The August 4 explosion in Beirut has intensified calls to overhaul a negligent sectarian system. But, with entrenched political interests at play, gradual change may be more realistic than complete structural reform.

Riot police in Beirut
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto

Already verging on economic collapse, Lebanon now faces an uncertain political future after the August 4 explosion in Beirut led to demonstrations of grief and fury over the official negligence that caused the blast. Prime Minister Hassan Diab's 7-month-old government resigned on Mondayand will be diminished to a caretaker role until a new Cabinet can be selected. 

For days, effigies of politicians have hung from symbolic gallows, put up by protesters who see the confessional system of government, in which power is divided among Lebanon's Muslim and Christian sects, as the source of official corruption. Important appointments and control over key sectors are used to promote each sect's interests in a system of patronage.

A recent report by the Beirut-based analysis group Synaps found that the power-sharing arrangements that have governed Lebanon since 2008 likely accelerated the country's bankruptcy.

The Lebanese political scientist Amal Saad argued on Twitter that the only hope for dismantling the sectarian system would be a new law guaranteeing proportional representation that would encourage voting across faiths — and "remove the stranglehold of the ruling elite." 

But such a proposal would be extremely unlikely to gain support from minority groups who see the current system "as a guarantee for their survival," Heiko Wimmen, the director of the International Crisis Group's Iraq, Syria and Lebanon project, told DW. With some of the warlords still in power, the legacy of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war still haunts the political landscape.

Some minority communities may fear that proportional representation would leave them vulnerable to domination by other groups and that sectarianism would continue to play out, leaving them with little influence and even less physical protection. .

Read more: Lebanese people in Germany want justice after Beirut blast

'Ruling over ruins'

Proposals for an overhaul to build stable institutions that find Hezbollah, the major Shiite force in Lebanon, to be the main obstacle to reform also ignore the reality of the organization's broad popular support. "That scenario doesn't exist in reality because you would need some kind of benevolent dictator working for 10 years without interference to build that system," Wimmen said.

Such realities prompted civil society groups such as the left-wing LiHaqqi (For My Rights) to temper their demands to overturn the sectarian system years ago.

The alliance between Hezbollah and the Christian president, Michel Aoun, is seen as a major pillar of the political status quo. After the blast, LiHaqqi took to Facebook to reject new elections that would be overseen by the people already in power, dismiss the idea of a national unity government and call for Aoun and the Shiite house speaker, Nabih Berri, to step down.  

Read more: Lebanon's worst enemy is its own government, a DW editor writes

Independent political parties that, like LiHaqqi, focus on socioeconomic programs to combat poverty while promoting universal rights — such as the revived National Bloc and Citizens in a Statem, which tacks on a gender-equality plank — could play a role in achieving gradual change by fielding candidates who would promote transparency and nonsectarianism, Wimmen said.

Even a small bloc of independents who win seats in new elections may have a chance of turning the political conversation toward transparency, Wimmen said, by, for example, leveraging the information they glean through access to internal parliamentary documents. "The message must be: 'You cannot play that game anymore — if you're not ready to change this kind of behavior, then you'll be ruling over ruins,'" Wimmen said. 

Global leaders have pressed their counterparts in Lebanon to guarantee more transparency and institute reforms. US officials, for example, have increasingly publicly blamed Hezbollah for Lebanon's woes. After the explosion in Beirut, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for a "strong reboot" and far-reaching economic reforms to rebuild trust with citizens. 

Amassing the aid

French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut days after the explosion, promising to facilitate change by helping to build a new "unity government." Regional media and local observers reported that such an arrangement might involve reinstating the Sunni former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in return for concessions from Hezbollah. Seen as more friendly to the West, Hariri has also given Hezbollah political cover in international circles.  

Initial aid agreed to on Sunday at a conference of international donors organized in the aftermath of the explosion would bypass Lebanon's government, with longer-term assistance conditioned on officials' responsiveness to people's needs, according to a communiqué from a bloc of 15 donor countries. However, Lebanese officials have resisted international calls for transparency about the causes of the blast. 

Macron's call for an international investigation was soon rejected by his Lebanese counterpart as "distorting the truth." Since the explosion, it has been revealed that both President Aoun and House Speaker Berri were warned weeks ago of the danger posed by the chemicals that caused the blast. 

Lebanese media have also noted that the military court judge Fadi Akiki, who is married to Berri's niece, is overseeing the preliminary investigation into the explosion. Unconfirmed reports suggest that he is being considered to oversee the Judicial Council's investigation. That would be the government's official conclusion. 

But the Lebanese doctor Fred Bteich, who has been treating demonstrators shot by security forces, warned not to underestimate the power of protest. "They're playing with us, but we're not idiots," Bteich said. "Since the government resigned, we have been saying this is not enough." 

"I hope we can change something," Bteich said.