Last year, a mass, non-sectarian protest movement in Lebanon arose over the burdens of crippling taxes, a lack of services, high unemployment, and government corruption. The daily protests and street blockades forced the resignation of the prime minister, Saad Hariri.
The movement cut across the sectarianism – written into the DNA of the state when it was founded under the supervision of French imperialism in the first half of the 20th century. The constitution requires a Christian president, a Sunni prime minister and a Shia speaker of the parliament.
For years this helped to act as a block to the development of a cross-community working-class alternative. As the Economist magazine pointed out: “If Lebanon stopped forcing candidates to compete for seats that are allocated by religion, more might run on secular platforms, not sectarian ones” (7 December 2019).
These sectarian tensions have periodically erupted, including a brutal civil war between 1975 and 1990. They have also been inflamed by neighbouring conflicts in Israel, and in Syria, where around one million of the eight million population have become refugees.
‘Ponzi Scheme in reverse’
The roots of the crisis lie in Lebanon’s high debt levels, now the third-highest ‘debt-to-GDP’ (total output) ratio in the world.
A guest article on the Financial Times website described the funding of this debt as a “Ponzi scheme in reverse”, with the central bank offering high interest rates to banks to deposit dollar reserves with it, and financing these interest rates by attracting more and more deposits.
In particular, interest rates soared after Harari ‘temporarily’ resigned while visiting Saudi Arabia in 2017, only to rescind it a few weeks later. These events seem to have spooked investors, leading to an economic slowdown and a squeeze on the availability of dollars.
Like all capitalist governments, their way out from this crisis was to make workers’ pay. Cross-party talks drew up an austerity budget, which included attacks on the retirement age of civil servants, drawing protests and strikes.
But it is the combination of this austerity, with years of corrupt use of the patronage given by the balancing act of the division of positions in government, which drew out the most popular slogans of the protest – “All means all” and “Everyone means everyone”.
In October 2019 when the worst wildfires in a decade broke out across Lebanon, the country’s lack of investment in firefighting equipment was starkly demonstrated, with the country’s three firefighting helicopters having been out of commission for years.
This, combined with the announcement of a monthly tax on using voice-over internet protocol apps like WhatsApp and Facetime via the state-owned mobile operators, provoked mass demonstrations.
As Fahad, a Beirut protester interviewed by the Ecologist journal said: “This isn’t about WhatsApp, this is about how this government is simply incapable of doing its job. They [politicians] would let the whole country burn if it meant they can make money.”
Significantly, these protests didn’t take place along sectarian lines, as previous movements in Lebanon in 2005 and 2015 had. One protester, Manachi a Christian, told the BBC: “People are realising that a Christian living in extreme poverty is no different from a Sunni or Shia living in extreme poverty.”
After Hariri’s resignation, further mass mobilisations blocked two proposed businessmen replacements. But the protests have also revealed the limits of such spontaneous movements.
Class alternative needed
Without a clear, independent working-class political alternative a vacuum has been created which will be filled in some way. Recent weeks have seen rioting on the streets of Beirut, clashes with the police, and the trashing of the presidential palace – venting the young protesters rage against the system.
A new government was formed on 22 January that at first glance could be said to comply with the demand ‘All means all!’
A government, a third smaller (20 ministers as opposed to 30), with an increased number of women, and mostly comprised of university professors, has been established. But around half of them are former government advisors (the finance minister was a previous finance minister in 2005) and have been nominated by the same political parties the protesters wish to see the backs of.
For ‘All means all’ to come to fruition, the sectarian constitution which is the cornerstone of this horse-trading has to go. The movement must fight for the convocation of a genuinely representative constituent assembly, but this in itself is not sufficient.
Unless a non-sectarian workers’ party is built, then these same parties, representing the interests of big business, will continue to dominate.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis has continued to deepen, with companies shutting down and others paying only half wages.
The Lebanese pound, while officially pegged to exchange at 1,500 to one US dollar, was exchanged for over 2,000 to a dollar in December 2019, and slumped to 2,500 this January.
While capital controls (to limit the flow of capital out of the country) haven’t formally been imposed, a Reuters reporter found that eight out of ten currency exchanges were refusing to sell dollars in Beirut. Various banks are limiting withdrawals of dollar currency.
Foreign debt repayments are falling due. A $1.2 billion Eurobond repayment is due in March.
Undoubtedly, this crisis is being seen as a way for the imperialist powers to influence the situation, particularly given Iran-backed Hezbollah’s (an armed Shia movement that has attempted to cut across the protest movement) growing influence in the government over the past period.
As the US Brookings Institute think-tank commented: “Lebanon’s acute financial and economic crisis gives us leverage.”
Capitalism in Lebanon and globally has nothing to offer ordinary people in Lebanon. The protest movement needs to challenge, not just the politicians and sectarian division, but the capitalist system as a whole.
Its demands must include nationalising the banks and decisive sectors of the economy, as part of a democratically planned economy. Only such socialist measures can lead to a way out of the morass.