By Omar S. Abdellatif
Thousands of Lebanese from all religious sects took to the streets and squares in a country-wide civil-popular movement on 17 October, 2019 to protest poor living conditions, lack of governmental services, corruption in the public sector, stagnant economy, unemployment and to condemn the sectarian rule. In its first push, Lebanon’s October revolution succeeded in overthrowing Saad Hariri’s government and transformed into the people’s "voice of conscience" seeking justice and accountability. However, four months after Hariri leaving office in January 2020, the Lebanese revolution did not achieve most of its objectives, but on the contrary, led to a deterioration in the country’s political and economic situation.
At the beginning of the protests, Lebanese demonstrators chanted the words "All of them means all of them" to express their desire for the entire ruling elite to stepdown, primarily president Michel Aoun, prime minister Hariri, as well as the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri. Although, the military strength of the Shi'ite Hezbollah and its inviolable control over the state's organs hindered the ability of the protesters to achieve this goal, as they feared that confronting Hezbollah could possibly spark a second civil war similar to the country’s 15 years civil war which lasted from 1975-1990. While the Lebanese protestors should not be blamed for their fears, especially that from a realistic point of view, the Lebanese army itself does not have the capability to confront Hezbollah or intercept any of its illegal activities in the country.
Lebanon’s mass protests were only able to pressure the stepdown of the Sunni prime minister Saad Hariri, one of the few anti-Hezbollah politicians who were in power. While the Hezbollah-backed president and head of state Aoun ( founder of the Free Patriotic Movement) and the speaker of parliament Nabih Berri (leader of Amal Movement), remained in office. With Hariri's stepdown, the Lebanese revolutionaries presented a gift on a plate of gold in one way or another to Hezbollah, as the party's biggest political opponents and Saudi-backed prime minister Hariri was now excluded leaving the door open for Hezbollah to control the country’s most sovereign position by supporting their ally prime minister Hassan Diab into office. Therefore, and instead of liberating Lebanon from partisanship, the October revolution enabled Hezbollah to extend its influence and enforce its control over all branches of the Lebanese state, including the executive and legislative branches.
Not to mention that the protests, which were mainly to demand improvement of the economic situation had a counterproductive impact on the Lebanese economy. The resulting disturbances in daily financial activities, lack of stability and security, the decline in tourism and the lack of confidence of foreign investors catalyzed the deterioration of the economy substantially to the extent that the Lebanese state declared bankruptcy on early March. The Country’s debt has risen to 170 per cent of the country’s GDP (US$90 billion worth of debt). Lebanon's only way out of this impasse is to receive international financial aid. Although Hariri’s step down from cabinet has limited this recourse. Since Hariri was a focal point for Gulf Arab and Western aid to Lebanon. Washington, the EU, IMF and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) viewed that Hariri’s presence in power acted as a guarantor for any financial assistance they provided to Lebanon. Primarily because Hariri was a moderate politician and most importantly anti-Hezbollah and its Iranian allies. Lebanon has lost this focal point to attract foreign aid as Hariri’s successor does not enjoy the same level of support from the international community.
To be fair the current Lebanese prime minister Hassan Diab backed by Hezbollah has made some commendable efforts, particularly in managing COVID-19 pandemic, implementing effective measures that have prevented a larger outbreak of the virus, unlike other Middle Eastern states. Diab has also launched the country's first offshore oil and gas exploration project in the Mediterranean. However, the new prime minister stands unable to solve the country's economic problems or receive foreign economic support. Which was clear through his frustrated announcement of the country's bankruptcy. The international community's confidence in any government controlled by Hezbollah is almost non-existent, especially that Hezbollah military wing is classified as a terrorist organization by the US, EU and the GCC. In consequence, countries refuse to help Lebanon with such government in office for fear of aid falling into the hands of Iran-backed Hezbollah. Therefore, the criteria for success are not met in Diab's government, which will hinder the cabinet’s ability to save Lebanon from economic collapse.
At the end of the day, the Lebanese revolutionary movement, despite the legitimacy of its demands and the nobleness of its objectives, has strengthened Hezbollah's control of the Lebanese state, exacerbated the country's economic crisis, and eliminated the political balance created by the moderate Saad Hariri; the country’s focal point for the badly-needed foreign aid. Lebanon has entered a dark tunnel from which it will be difficult to get out in the near future.
Omar S. Abdellatif? is a compliance director at the G20, G7 and BRICS research groups and a researcher at the University of Toronto in the field of Political Science and International Relations.