As Lebanon descended into its long-overdue economic and political crisis on the eve of October 17, 2019, the country’s confessional model and its rentier economy were breathing their last. Of course, this didn’t mean that Lebanon was leaping into its Third Republic yet, but it meant that the system as the Lebanese knew it had entered a long and tough transformation process. Nevertheless, the popular protest movement which spanned the country and transcended sectarian fault-lines at the time, achieved the unthinkable; it contested the legitimacy of the sectarian warlords, who ruled the country for decades. The predominant narrative became clear: the alliance of the Lebanese sectarian warlords and the bankers had driven the country into its demise. As Lebanese citizens geared up their involvement in public life, started coalescing and planning, thinking that only a miracle could save the decaying system, fate had a different plan. A miracle in the form of a virus, believed to come from a “wet market” in China’s Wuhan, came knocking at the world’s door. The irony in all of this was pretty clear: while the world struggled to deal with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Lebanon’s oligarchy found an opportunity for its resurrection.
When the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab was formed back in January, it was claimed to be a break from a post-2005 tradition that was modeled on the representation of all politico-sectarian groups under the banner of “national unity” governments. Hassan Diab’s government was mostly formed from so-called “technocrats” giving the illusion that such a recipe is deemed to work faster and with less friction than usually caused by the quota sharing system (Muhasasa Ta'ifia). Albeit supported by Hezbollah and its allies – the predominant camp in Lebanese politics at the moment – the “depoliticized” government gave the sectarian ruling elite the pretext to deflect responsibility, knowing that the coming times will be tumultuous. The rationale was clear: while public pressure and frustration were rising exponentially and the economy was faltering, the depoliticized government would take the fall due to the unpopular measures it had to implement. Meanwhile, sectarian groups would attempt to shore up popularity that had previously taken a massive hit. With dwindling state resources to rely on, the outbreak of COVID-19 offered sectarian groups a silver lining.
Lebanon registered its first official COVID-19 case on February 21 as per the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH); as of April 5 the country had declared 527 cases and 18 deaths. Albeit numbers in Lebanon seem reasonable compared to countries like Italy and Iran, it is important to note that the total number of people tested stands at about 9411 out of a population of 6.8 million – including refugees – according to UN data (no official census has taken place in Lebanon since 1932 due to the sensitive balance between the country's religious groups). However, does the comparatively lower number of COVID-19 cases and related deaths reflect positively on Diab’s government?
The answer is no. The response of Diab’s government has been relatively slow, filled with loopholes, insensitive to low-income people and hindered by political pressure. Additionally, while most governments around the world were wholly consumed by addressing the COVID-19 outbreak, Diab’s government was busy splitting its efforts in half: the first entailing a response to the pandemic and the other curtailing the popular protest movement and attempting to erase whatever legitimacy it had carved out for itself. In this case, the government was doing the bidding of the sectarian ruling elite and serving its purpose.
To start with, Diab’s standard response came in the form of suspending classes at schools and universities on February 29, shutting down bars, restaurants, markets and public places on March 11, in addition to suspending flights from 11 coronavirus-hit countries including Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, China and South Korea. The government finally declared a state of “general mobilization” on March 15, as the country’s COVID-19 victims reached 100. The state of “general mobilization”, as President Michel Aoun dubbed it – a play-off on the term “medical state of emergency” – dictated the shuttering of all educational institutions, the cancellation of public and religious events, and the closure of land and sea border crossing points as well as shutting down Rafic Hariri International Airport on March 18. Yet, a major spike in reported cases (67 in one day) on March 21 raised alarms around the country, and put further strain on Diab’s weak measures, forcing him to demand that security forces adopt stricter measures to keep people at home.
Diab’s reluctance to implement strict measures resulted in major controversy around the country, increased mistrust between citizens and the state, and exposed the prime minister’s fragility and the great sway Hezbollah and its allies had over his government. In fact, the reason Diab waffled early on until he suspended flights from highly infected countries (namely Iran and Italy) was precisely because Hezbollah opposed the decision, as the party was rushing to bring its members (clerics, students, businessmen and military personnel) back from Tehran. Additionally, unlike most countries around the world dealing with the pandemic, Diab’s government was unable to declare a state of emergency because both Hezbollah and the president’s team were opposed to granting the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), Joseph Aoun, wider powers. Such a decision would have left the American funded, equipped and trained LAF with greater authority over the state, as the emergency law dictated, something that both Hezbollah would reject, and Michel Aoun would perceive as a threat. The LAF is perceived to have played a positive role during the protests in the past few months, at many times standing between protestors and the security forces that were brutally cracking down on them. This left bad blood between the president and the commander of the LAF. The army stands as the only state institution that enjoys nation-wide support and many Christians associate themselves with it because the top commander position is filled with a Christian-Maronite, according to the sectarian quota system.
Business as Usual
As repercussions of the pandemic take their toll on economies globally, COVID-19 is set to accelerate the meltdown of the Lebanese economy resulting in possible famine and further social unrest, unprecedented in both scope and violence. In fact, during the protest movement that engulfed the country prior to COVID-19, the World Bank had estimated that poverty could rise to 50% of the population while already high unemployment rates, especially among youth, could rise sharply. Lower and middle classes were hurting already, and unlawful capital controls prevent Lebanese citizens from withdrawing their bank deposits.
While governments across the political spectrum are now planning vast sums of state spending and loans to shore up their own societies, the insensitivity of Diab’s government towards the already struggling citizens was evident when it expected a successful response to its measures regarding lockdown absent any economic vision for the lockdown or articulation of state fiscal spending measures. Two weeks after the government enacted its “general mobilization’” videos of beleaguered citizens started making rounds on social media as bread winners became more vulnerable and protestors took to the streets to denounce the omnipresent dire economic situation. The government intervened by stating that it would offer a $5 million one-time stimulus package of 400,000 Lebanese pounds – about $150 at the black-market exchange rate – to people in need, without providing any further explanation. Meanwhile, the World Bank is developing a $450 million programme to support the lower classes. While COVID-19 signaled the return of big government across the world, the Lebanese government set up bank accounts and called on expats to donate money. In the meantime, Diab’s police is fining impoverished citizens if they violate the curfew.
The government also fixed fuel prices at gas stations at higher oil prices than before the Saudi-Russian oil market war and will soon increase electricity costs in a country where all its citizens pay two electricity bills – one to Electricité du Liban (EDL) and the other to their local generator owner. Moreover, the cash-strapped government has moved forward with the implementation of the Bisri Dam project, funded by the World Bank, while ignoring the environmental catastrophe that will result from it, in addition to brushing off the resistance of the popular protest movement’s groups that initially stopped the work of the contractors there. Lebanon, one of the top three most indebted countries in the world, will rack up a further $625 million price tag in debt.
At such critical times, Diab’s government decided to make its move on the symbolic sit-in staged by Lebanese protestors since the early days of the popular protest movement. Security forces were ordered to dismantle tents in Martyr’s Square and Riad el-Solh Square in downtown Beirut, once deemed ground zero for protestors. These squares had symbolized the struggle against the Lebanese oligarchy and protestors had planned to return to them once the pandemic would be defeated. Tents were burnt and destroyed, while a handful of activists still present there were arrested. Meanwhile, security agencies interrogated activists and journalists critical of government policies and corruption as late as March 6, 2020, under the pretext of insult and defamation, considered criminal offenses in Lebanon. It is expected that with the worsening of the socio-economic situation in the coming days, the crackdown of security forces will increase twofold.
The expected fragility of Diab’s government has opened the door for the sectarian political parties to go back to their old ways and assume the role of the state, capitalizing on human fear in such times with a clear message: you have no one but us. In a theatrical scene reminiscent of the Civil War days, members of sectarian political parties are donning medical coveralls, patrolling their sectarian enclaves in branded trucks and sanitizing neighborhoods. Food parcels are distributed with logos of the parties stamped on them while some are offering free testing. So far, Kalashnikovs are the only missing element in the scene. Additionally, the sectarian parties are relying heavily on whatever cash is left in municipalities within their area of influence, which are funded by the state, but whose representatives mostly owe their allegiance to these parties. The pandemic, a perfect storm, is allowing the sectarian ruling elite to revamp its legitimacy and clientelist networks.
Due to years of neglect, lack of funding, and patronage practices in hiring, the country’s public medical system is in danger of collapse in case of an outbreak. Out of 33 public hospitals across the country, only 10 have been set up to deal with cases of COVID-19 thus far, according to the MoH, while 4 private ones have stepped up as well.
The parties have financed and prepared at least 84 quarantine centres (consisting of private property) in their areas. Lebanon’s reliable medical system is the privatized one and many Lebanese rely on political parties to provide for healthcare, pay bills, or tap into the quota-reliant social security funding provided by the MoH. Yet what really raises alarms are practices such as closing down respective areas of parties and setting up “fever testing” and “awareness checkpoints” at the entrances. “Foreigners,” as in non-residents of said areas, are at times ordered to turn away. In a country riddled with sectarianism that hasn’t shaken off the trauma of a 15-year civil war, nor has gone through a national reconciliation combined with a transitional justice process, the pandemic is feeding long-existing sectarian-protectionist instincts.
Although all parties are involved with such practices, Hezbollah appears to be leading a larger effort than all combined. The party’s resources have allowed it to mobilize a team of over 24,000 health workers and 70 ambulances. It also stated that it allocated 3.5 billion Lebanese pounds ($1.75 million at the black-market exchange rate). The party that had perfected the propaganda game invited dozens of local and international journalists into its stronghold in the southern suburb of Beirut, to give them a tour of tents it had erected for purposes of diagnosis and isolation. Yet, Hezbollah has the biggest responsibility of all, as it has the largest following and has hailed itself as the party that takes care of all, relying on monthly cash handouts from Tehran. However, the party’s legitimacy took a hit, like all other parties, during the popular protest movement as internal dissidents have increased within its ranks.
The pandemic will indeed serve as a short-term fix for the sectarian ruling elite especially since it requires them to provide only the bare minimum as the country struggles to survive: a food parcel to stay safely at home, while previously the transactional relation between them and their followers was more expensive. With dwindling resources, both Diab’s government and the sectarian parties will not be able to meet people’s increasing needs over the medium and long term. Already, a different type of protestor than those observed before, are taking to the streets with cries of hunger.
Left to choose between famine and the pandemic, Lebanon is a ticking time bomb.