Is Lebanon’s crisis a missed opportunity?

Revolution_ Thawra CC By M Canzi

Lebanon’s new cabinet is unlikely to be able to provide solutions to the country’s impasse.

Lebanon has been flooded by protests for over three months, in what are the biggest demonstrations the country has faced since 2005. Citizens reclaiming politics opened a window for reformulating Lebanon’s old power dynamics and establishing more inclusive frameworks of policy making.

However, the newly announced Lebanese Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Hassan Diab has betrayed the trust of citizens once again. Protestors feel forced to escalate to make their voices heard and demonstrations have become violent.  The government does not represent their aspirations, and the idea of a full technocratic government remains wishful thinking. Is Lebanon’s crisis a missed opportunity?

Protest movements have a key role in building collaborative platforms for policy making, and the crisis can incentivize actors from different sectors to converge and seek common solutions for problems of public interest.

The public sector is pushed to act. In the shadow of the country’s deeply rooted political divisions that make instability chronic, the government of Lebanon has failed repeatedly to meet citizens’ needs and deepened the country’s economic crisis. Its attempt to adopt measures that would lessen Lebanon’s budgetary deficit - a tax of $0.20 cents on WhatsApp calls, has proven not only that politicians are more disconnected from mundane realities than ever; but also that the government can no longer design policies on its own – it must include citizens in the policy making process and look for new partners to contribute their resources and capacities to address public policy challenges.

Political elites’ power monopoly has been weakened. Lebanon’s history of ethnic conflict has been fragmenting civil society on sectarian lines and empowering political elites within sect. Lebanon has 18 officially recognized sects and a sectarian-structured governing system. To maintain within-sect power monopoly, elites either distribute state resources to their ‘clients’ or provide resources themselves when the state fails.

"Your protest is what made us take these decisions today […]; what you did has broken all barriers and shook all political parties" said former PM Hariri. The WhatsApp tax was scrapped, and PM also announced a 50% cut of MPs and Ministers salaries as contribution to solving Lebanon’s deficit. It is true there were skirmishes between the supporters of the two Shia parties - Hezbollah and Amal, and anti-government protestors, but the two organizations announced they do not endorse them. Leader of Christian Lebanese Forces resigned ministers from government. Leader of Druze Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt announced he does not endorse recent government proposals. The march organized in support of President Michele Aoun by his party looked shabby and faded in the background of the protests.

Banks have good reasons to put knowledge and money into solving the crisis. The crisis is taking a toll on Lebanon - a small country, reliant mostly on the banking and service sectors. Hariri announced banks will contribute to lessening the budgetary deficit of Lebanon. It is not clear how, but everybody agrees they should.

The Lebanese diaspora can also lend a hand, having the ability to act as dialogue facilitators and to offer financial support. In 2018 Lebanon rallied international support for an investment program to boost its economy, which exceeds $11 billion. In 2019 the Federation of Global Lebanese Investors launched a $100 million investment fund to support infrastructure projects in the country through public private partnerships.

NGOs can facilitate cross-sector partnership, and build on the civic awakening of the public. Lebanon has a relatively well developed NGO sector, with many organizations – both religious and secular, grass-roots and international, active in various policy sectors. In a country with so few public spaces, for a while the streets became large community leisure spaces, where citizens would gather and discuss the future of politics and policy.

Collaborative governance has the potential of bringing the best of these different worlds together and improve policy outcomes through inclusive methods of policy design. So why is the opportunity missed?

Although their power has been challenged by the protestors, political elites still navigate public pressure by means of old mannerisms. Politicians don’t understand they cannot go back to business as usual and they have lost the chance of gaining the trust of protestors. A cat and mouse game is featuring protestors demanding a fully technocrat government, and various parties offhandedly refusing to let the government go. For some Lebanese, the recently announced cabinet members presents old guard confidants in new clothes. Meanwhile, Hezbollah asked the Lebanese people to ‘give the new government a chance’.

The Lebanese economy is crashing and taking the banks with it. Although the Lebanese pound is pegged to the US dollar (it has a standard value calculated in reference to the US dollar), its value on the streets has been decreasing, as banks are stockpiling dollars by limiting cash withdrawals.

After a couple of relatively silent weeks over the holidays, protestors assaulted banks, and blocked roads. Fighting between protestors and security forces sprung in some areas of Beirut. After the announcement of the new cabinet clashes increased, reaching almost 500 injured.

The Lebanese diaspora seems to be doing more harm than good these days. Carlos Ghossn, former CEO of Nissan, and a fugitive who skipped bail in Japan fled to Lebanon, and commanded global attention with a press conference from Beirut, furthering pressure on Lebanese officials.

The assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani sent shock waves across the region, and Hezbollah’s Secretary General’s expressed intention to participate in revenging Soleimani’s murder. Hezbollah is not only a political party with a large constituency, it also has an arsenal that competes with the Lebanese state, and recognizes Iranian political and religious leadership in the region.  “The US Administration will pay a heavy price […]. After Soleimani, you will learn, through blood, that by killing Qassem Soleimani you are not safer” – said Hassan Nasrallah.

Although Lebanon missed the opportunity to reformulate its old power dynamics, the new Cabinet must make efforts to include the civil society and the private sector in formulating solutions for the current crisis. Lebanon is facing a critical moment, politically and economically, and could benefit from a collaborative platform – it can serve both as a minimum response to protestor demands, and as a solution for improving the problem-solving capacity of the government.

Emmanuel Macron announced France will do “everything” to help resolve Lebanon’s crisis. The international organizations present in Lebanon can also contribute to steering a collaborative policy-making framework. Upgrading Lebanon’s National Dialogues to include representatives of all sectors - the public, the private and the civil society can have positive echoes beyond the current crisis.


About the Author

Elisabeta Dinu is a PhD candidate in Public Policy at Central European University in Budapest and Vienna. Elisabeta gained her MA in Public Policy majoring in Security at CEU's School of Public Policy, where she is currently working as Research Assistant for a political violence data mining project, and as Teaching Assistant for courses in Public Management and Policy Analysis. Her research is focused on Armed Non-State Organizations in the MENA region, emerging threats and hybrid war, as well as terrorism studies, political participation and political parties.