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Violence Threatens Fraying Rule of Law in Lebanon
Violence Threatens Fraying Rule of Law in Lebanon
Protesters congregating at Riyadh Solh Square in Downtown Beirut on 20 October 2019, asking for the resignation of the government and to bring down the ruling political elite. CRISISGROUP/Heiko Wimmen

Lebanon’s Revolt

Austerity measures have triggered countrywide unrest in Lebanon. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Heiko Wimmen says the prime minister’s emergency measures may be too little, too late. Most protesters appear bent on the government’s resignation if not the political system‘s complete overhaul.

What are the drivers of Lebanon’s mass unrest?

Lebanese have suffered for years from failing public services and state negligence, most visibly dismal electricity supply, massive pollution and the breakdown of garbage disposal, all apparently connected to deeply engrained clientelism and graft. Political polarisation has compounded the problem by repeatedly paralysing government institutions. The cost of living has ballooned, salaries have stagnated and unemployment rates have risen, prompting a significant proportion of the country’s well-educated youth to emigrate. A planned tax on free phone calls over popular social media applications, announced on 17 October along with other austerity measures, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Immediately before it announced the new taxes, the state put the failure of its institutions on display when firefighters were unable to control raging bush and forest fires. Their equipment had not been maintained and was unusable. On the evening of 17 October, groups of youths – apparently coordinating among each other over spontaneously formed networks on social media – took to the streets and closed major intersections in and around Beirut with burning tires. On 18 October, the phenomenon spread to other areas, bringing most of the country to a standstill. 

The current protests are so far free of sectarian undertones and have been marked by expressions of solidarity between localities and communities

What is new about these protests? How do they relate to other recent protests in the region, for instance in Iraq?

Lebanon has seen recurrent waves of mostly youth-led mass protest since 2005, when the so-called Beirut spring forced the departure of Syrian troops that had occupied the country for nearly 30 years. In the past, the country’s traditional leaders have typically co-opted the movements to draw the youth into their respective political camps. Sometimes these leaders have even initiated the movements. The leaders present themselves as the defenders of the numerous sectarian communities around which the Lebanese political system has been built since 1923. 

The current protests, however, are so far free of sectarian undertones. In fact, protests have been marked by expressions of solidarity between localities and communities supposedly on opposite sides of the country’s political/sectarian divides. Protesters have voiced rejection of the ruling political elites of all sects, often, explicitly, their own. This rejection of incumbent leaders viewed as inept and corrupt is something the Lebanese protests share with the wave of demonstrations that engulfed Iraq earlier this month. Both countries have experienced rending sectarian conflict, and while in Iraq the scars are still fresh, protests there, as in other parts of the region, now also focus on the increasing alienation of people – underemployed youth, in particular – from political leaders and systems that seem unable to promise them a better future.

How serious is the economic and fiscal crisis?

Lebanese governments have for years relied on deficit spending and borrowing, with the budget deficit peaking at 11.5 per cent of GDP in 2018, running what some have called a state-sponsored “pyramid scheme”. Much of Lebanon’s public debt is held by the country’s private commercial banks; many of those banks are, in turn, owned by the country’s politicians and their relatives. Public debt now exceeds 150 per cent of GDP and debt service consumes around 50 per cent of state revenues. Major rating agencies have graded Lebanese sovereign bonds as “junk”, ie, coming with a serious risk of default, driving the interest rates the state must pay to attract fresh money up to 15 per cent. These high interest rates suck liquidity out of the economy and stifle incentive to invest in businesses that could create economic growth (which turned negative this year) or gainful employment. Shortly before the protests, an acute shortage of U.S. dollars threatened to disrupt supplies of imported gasoline, medicine and food, and suggested that devaluation of the local currency could be imminent – and with it, a significant loss of income for lower social strata in particular.

How have political parties reacted to the protests? And the security forces?

Even as protesters curse the country’s political parties, those same parties claim to support the protests. But protesters are not fooled: attempts by parties and leaders to assume an active role by calling on their supporters to join or even lead the movement in areas they dominate have largely fallen flat. In some areas of the south, armed thugs allegedly affiliated with the Shiite Amal Movement led by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri attacked protesters and attempted to clear blocked roads by force on 19 and 20 October. These gunmen were apparently subsequently withdrawn, and the movement distanced itself from “undisciplined elements”. 

On the evening of 18 October, an escalation appeared possible. Protesters vandalised businesses in downtown Beirut and security forces used tear gas and water cannons to clear Riyadh Solh Square, a centre of protest in the immediate vicinity of parliament and the government palace. According to a General Security statement, 52 members of the security forces sustained mostly light injuries that evening and the authorities arrested 70 protesters. But the escalation seems to have been averted for now: on 19 October, increasingly massive throngs congregated in downtown Beirut, including a growing number of families; security forces adopted a conciliatory posture; and crowds quickly surrounded and dissuaded protesters who displayed aggressive attitudes. On 20 October, the demonstrations took on the air of a national celebration, with no violence recorded. 

At least four casualties have been reported since the start of the protests; two were related to confrontations and accidents around roadblocks, while two Syrian workers died in a building accidentally set on fire the first night.

These mostly technical solutions appear inadequate to the challenge of the protests, which now demand broader, systemic change

Where do we go from here? Will the government resign?

So far, only the Christian Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea have withdrawn their four ministers from the national unity government, citing a “lack of will to reform”. (The cabinet has 30 ministers in total.) The Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) headed by Foreign Minister Jibran Bassil and the Shiite movement Hizbollah led by Hassan Nasrallah want to carry on. They argue that immediate emergency measures are required to stave off a financial meltdown. Forming a new government or holding early elections is unlikely to bring significant change, they say, and will instead waste time Lebanon does not have. In his 18 October address, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, leader of the Sunni Future Movement, gave himself a 72-hour grace period to sound out his partners in government and work toward consensus on an emergency action plan – asking the Lebanese people, implicitly, to wait at least that long. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who initially pushed for the government’s resignation, backpedalled in the meantime and expressed support for such an emergency plan. 

While genuine concern for the country’s stability may motivate these politicians, larger strategic, as well as narrow political, interests are also at stake. Both Geagea and Jumblatt have long opposed the dominant Hizbollah-FPM-Future alliance, as they reject Lebanon’s implicit alignment with Iran that flows from Hizbollah’s dominant role. Both nonetheless accepted to serve in the national unity government to preserve some political influence, but Geagea loathes the FPM’s competition in the Christian community, and Jumblatt has seen his position undermined by Druze rivals allegedly propped up by Hizbollah. The FPM, at this point, has achieved the largest representation in government ever and stands to lose from any change; party leader Bassil is capitalising on this position of strength to position himself to inherit the presidency from his father-in-law, party founder Michel Aoun, whose term expires in 2022. Hizbollah is in the comfortable position of wielding large influence in a government that represents nearly all the country’s political currents, thus partly shielding Lebanon from international pressures and, potentially, U.S. sanctions that could target a government it would form with loyal allies alone. Finally, Prime Minister Hariri found his position among Sunnis eroded in the last elections; retaining government positions that protect his constituents’ interests and taking charge of economic recovery is his best bet for holding on to his claim to leadership.

So is there a solution to the crisis?

Some six weeks ago, on 2 September, all the relevant political parties agreed on an economic action plan known as the Baabda paper. The economic plan seems to tick all the right boxes, initiating the reform measures demanded by international donors and institutions to unlock $11 billion in soft loans and grants pledged at the CEDRE donor conference in Paris in April 2018. Yet it remains vague on implementation. Differences about how and at whose expense budget cuts would be executed and additional revenue raised have stalled budget negotiations and may have led the government to see the new taxes and cuts to salaries and pensions as the easiest way out, prompting the current uproar. 

After announcing his 72-hour grace period, Prime Minister Hariri undertook intense deliberations with relevant political forces, leading up to a cabinet session on 21 October. In the afternoon of the same day, the prime minister announced that the 2020 budget would bring down the deficit to 0.6 per cent of GDP, provide $160 million for subsidised housing loans and $16 million in assistance to underprivileged families, and forge ahead with new power plants, all without raising taxes on average Lebanese. To finance these steps, two special government funds (for the south and the civil war displaced) widely seen as vehicles for clientelism would see their budgets slashed by 70 per cent, the salaries of ministers and members of parliament would be cut in half, and unnecessary spending would be ended. 

Most significantly, Lebanese banks are supposed to contribute $3.4 billion to resolving the crisis. This contribution may take the form of taxes on bank profits and interest payments, or a restructuring of public debt, which is mostly held by local Lebanese banks. In other words, the Lebanese banking sector, which has realised solid profits by financing deficit spending for nearly three decades, will be asked to contribute to a bailout to avoid the much larger losses it would incur if the state were to default on its obligations.

Will this be enough to mollify the people in the streets?

These mostly technical solutions may put the country on a sounder fiscal footing, but they appear inadequate to the challenge of the protests, which now demand broader, systemic change. Hariri’s statement on Monday afternoon met largely with rejection in the streets; the overwhelming sentiment appears to be to throw out the political elite as a whole. Numerous manifestoes of demands are circulating, which appear to converge on the government’s immediate resignation in favour of a new one that would be independent of the political parties. That new government would then address the economic crisis and perhaps prepare for new elections. 

If this mood prevails and protests continue at the current pace and scale, the country may be in for a prolonged period of unrest. No alternative political leadership or real opposition to the ruling parties exists. Earlier rounds of spontaneous movements, such as the 2015 protests against the collapse of garbage collection under the label “You Stink”, have spawned attempts to form anti-establishment platforms that achieved minor successes in recent municipal and national elections. Yet it is unclear if these groups are ready to participate meaningfully in political change, let alone shape a radical reform of political institutions. If sizeable numbers of protesters stay in the streets and continue to block circulation, businesses and public institutions that have been on lockdown since 18 October will remain paralysed. Attempts to restore order, for instance by deploying the army, may lead to another flare-up of violence.

Correction on 22 October: an earlier version of this Q&A referred to Prime Minister Hariri's televised speech taking place on 19 October. It was on 18 October.

Smoke billows as Lebanese Army soldiers take a position in the area of Tayouneh, in the southern suburb of the capital Beirut on 14 October 2021, after clashes following a demonstration by supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal movements. JOSEPH EID / AFP

Violence Threatens Fraying Rule of Law in Lebanon

Clashes on 14 October over a judicial investigation into the 2020 Beirut port blast evoked the sectarian divisions of Lebanon’s civil war and threatened what's left of the rule of law. Hizbollah must allow the investigation to proceed or risk further weakening of the state.

A new round of violence in Lebanon has claimed seven lives and called into question the viability of an independent judicial investigation into the causes of the devastating August 2020 Beirut port blast. Shooting broke out in Beirut on 14 October when supporters of the Shiite parties Hizbollah and Amal marched to the Palace of Justice, located in a Christian neighbourhood, to demand that a judge investigating the port explosion be replaced. Resort to arms by those parties, as well some of their opponents, and the increasingly sectarian nature of violence in Lebanon evokes the divisions of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war. Hizbollah, which has the capability to lower the flames, should do so, and allow judicial institutions to do their work. External actors should use their leverage over Lebanon’s political leaders to persuade them to respect the rule of law and let the investigation proceed if the country is to emerge from its compound crises.

Crucial facts about the 14 October incident – who fired first and who shot to kill the seven victims who lost their lives that day, all Shiites and most of them supporters of the two Shiite parties – remain furiously disputed. Clear answers to these questions are likely to remain elusive. What is clear, however, is that the conflict over the port investigation is pushing Lebanon further down the road to state collapse.

Hizbollah and its allies have made clear that they want the judge, Tareq Bitar, removed at any cost. Three of the four former ministers he has called in for questioning are prominent members of their political camp. Hizbollah claims that the investigation is biased and reportedly expects to be incriminated, in its eyes unjustly. Already, several ministers aligned with the pro-Hizbollah camp have threatened to suspend their participation in the new government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, which took office barely a month ago after a thirteen-month stalemate over government formation that saw the Lebanese economy and people’s living conditions plummet precipitously.

The unrest puts the Mikati government in an impossible position.

The unrest puts the Mikati government in an impossible position. Yielding to Hizbollah’s pressure will enhance the perception, already held by many, that Mikati is little more than a front for the Shiite party’s unfettered domination. It would cast great doubt on any hopes that Lebanon could return to a place in which officials are bound by law and held to account when they violate it. The idea that international financial institutions and governments would entrust authorities and a political elite that cannot uphold the basic rule of law with the massive assistance that Lebanon so desperately needs is plainly unrealistic.

Yet the prospects for what may happen if Judge Bitar persists in his investigation and events continue on their current course are chilling too. Attempts to execute the subpoenas and arrest warrants he has issued may set branches of the security sector that lean toward different political camps against one another and against Hizbollah. The party may call for more protests against the investigations and would likely stage these with a heavy security presence, citing the earlier violence.

With tension running high in a continued stand-off, Hizbollah may also decide to move against the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party it accuses of orchestrating and directing the killing of its supporters on 14 October. Hizbollah adherents quote “incontrovertible” evidence of the Lebanese Forces’ involvement and claim that the party is training cadres in order to rebuild some of the military capacity it had during the Lebanese civil war, when it ran one of the most powerful militias in the country, accusations that the Lebanese Forces reject.

Given the low trust Hizbollah evinces in the Lebanese legal system, it is not implausible that it may decide to hunt down the alleged perpetrators and organisers of the 14 October shootings, and teach its opponents a lesson at the same time. Worked up by an incendiary media campaign against the Lebanese Forces in pro-Hizbollah media, heavily armed followers of Hizbollah and Amal may decide to act even without orders, taking aim at a real or imagined Lebanese Forces presence in areas close to their own neighbourhoods. Judge Bitar, who is now routinely smeared as a U.S. agent in pro-Hizbollah circles, may himself be in danger, along with relatives of the port explosion’s victims, who have persistently held rallies to press for the investigation to continue but may now have reason to fear attacks on such gatherings.

The prospect of such developments may be enough to convince a growing number of Lebanese, in particular in areas adjacent to a strong Amal and Hizbollah presence, of the necessity to arm themselves or accept the presence of armed groups in their midst that promise protection. This puts Lebanon on a path to recurrent, violent security incidents, and worsening divisions reflecting those of the 1975-1990 civil war, that would indefinitely delay an escape from the crippling economic crisis.

More than any other actor, Hizbollah, given its outsized political and military clout, is driving the country down this path by throwing its weight behind the resistance of Amal and others to the investigations. Right now, the party appears determined to double down on the demand to depose Judge Bitar and feels aggrieved over the killing of its supporters in what it claims was a peaceful protest. Yet while the grief of the victims’ relatives is real, the party’s position is disingenuous. With its own displays of force, occasional outbursts of violence and disregard for the authority of the Lebanese state, it has nourished the belief among some of its opponents that taking up arms is appropriate, and indeed the only way to push back against perceived injustice. Its overmatched opponents are unlikely to put up a meaningful challenge, but the cycle of violence this may initiate has the potential to become enormously destructive, with the country disintegrating into areas controlled by rival security actors riveted by recurrent bouts of violence.

With the country at increasing risk of collapse, the decision Hizbollah needs to take is whether it wants Lebanon to have a functioning state.

With the country at increasing risk of collapse, the decision Hizbollah needs to take is whether it wants Lebanon to have a functioning state – a state in which it would still be the dominant force. This requires a minimum of respect for others, and for the workings of its institutions. The key criterion for the soundness of the ongoing port blast investigation can only be the quality of the evidence and the impartiality of the proceedings, not whether these are politically beneficial or damaging. Helping allies to obstruct the pursuit of justice arguably harms Hizbollah before anybody else. Not only does it put the party itself in the circle of suspicion, but it could push Lebanon further down a destructive path that will erase the party’s past political successes and preclude it from realising some of the future ambitions it may have.

Hizbollah must dial back its campaign against Judge Bitar and, at the same time, the judicial system conduct a thorough investigation into the violence on 14 October. The families of the seven killed that day deserve truth and justice just like the relatives of the more than 200 killed in the port blast, but any attempt to obtain justice outside the framework of Lebanon’s legal institutions can only lead to more violence, destabilisation and chaos.

External actors seeking to support Lebanon should make it clear to the Mikati government and all parties involved that basic respect for the rule of law and the port blast investigation will be a key condition for any substantial assistance to Lebanon. At the same time, they should use whatever forms of pressure they have, potentially including the threat of targeted sanctions, to deter politicians from obstructing justice. Hizbollah will likely remain impervious to such pressure, but many among its allies seek to be seen as respectable political players rather than being publicly relegated to the ranks of rogue actors. They, along with anybody else who is in or may come into the spotlight of the investigation, need to be reminded that they, too, face an important choice.