Desperate economic situation leads to renewed protests across Lebanon

2019 Lebanese protests, Beirut (Photo: Creative Commons)

After a pause for a little over a month with the covid-19 lockdown, new protests have erupted in Lebanon, as the situation for workers has become desperate. Unemployment has reached 30%, while hyperinflation is worsening, with 70% increases in the price of sugar, and doubling the price of vegetables. The official exchange rate to the dollar for the Lebanese Lira is 1:1,500, but that is now a complete fiction. In January, black market rates were 1:2,500, and are now reportedly over 1:4,000!

Splits in the ruling class

In his masterful, History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky makes the point that revolutions start at the top. Significant splits in Lebanon have opened up between the Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, and the Governor of the Central Bank, Riad Salame. This spat is over who is to blame for the perilous financial position Lebanon is now in, and how to reduce the county’s debt, or more precisely, how to make the Lebanese working class pay for it.

This includes the recently announced forensic auditing of the central bank. This was undoubtedly designed to produce scapegoats in that institution for the financial Ponzi scheme of borrowing an increasing amount of dollars on the promise of high returns that kept the currency pegging to the dollar stable. Indeed some banks, as the Economist (9/5/20) reports “…are still pursuing outlandish schemes to raise capital. One recently offered to double the amount of any fresh dollar deposits.”

But perhaps the key disagreement is over exactly how some of the debts can be reduced, with the government’s emphasis being on a ‘bail-in’ or ‘haircut’ for investors. The Lebanese banking association has opposed this, particularly on the grounds of “violating private property”.

The IMF aid that the government has now formally applied for, has strings attached in terms of long-held back ‘reforms’’, such as phasing out electricity subsidies and cuts to wages and state jobs. Diab, undoubtedly, fears that a plan to clear the debts solely consisting of implementing such attacks will provoke even deeper resistance. The announcement of a WhatsApp tax, last October, led to a huge protest movement that swept his predecessor away.

Nevertheless, the austerity measures included in his plans could still lead to the same result. The government’s own forecasts are of a 53% jump in consumer prices, this year. The IMF predicts GDP will drop by 12%, while the World Bank predicts the numbers of Lebanese living in poverty will reach 50%.

The devastation on the lives of working class people in Lebanon will provoke more and bigger revolts. The drastic fall in living standards and government cutbacks, no matter how they are couched in terms of “all being in this together”, will fuel protests even further.

New protest wave

Lebanon, so far, has had few officially recorded deaths (26) from covid-19, and just over 800 cases officially confirmed. But lockdown measures require social support and workers having the material means to abide by them. The situation has already become so desperate that from the end of April sections of the population had begun to take to the streets.

Banks have been the focus of protests, with a number being destroyed by Molotov cocktails and other incendiaries, as well as roads being blockaded and car convoy protests. In the words of the Financial Times: “The Lebanese army said it had responded to threats to private property in the city after a number of bank branches were set on fire.” [Our emphasis]

In Tripoli, in the North of Lebanon, one protestor, Fawaz Al-Hamman, was shot dead by the armed forces. The thousands of mourners who turned up for the funeral called him a “Martyr of the Hunger Revolution.” A video on the Guardian website shows a rally outside Al-Hamman’s mother’s home, with crowds chanting revolutionary slogans. There are reports of protestors being allegedly tortured while under arrest by the army in Sidon, a port in the south of the country.

The newest round of protests is revealing to those participating in the role of the army, as part of the capitalist state, in protecting big business and private property. A woman quoted by Al Jazeera commented, “The army are not our brothers. They are shooting us to protect the politicians.”

This new protest wave seems to involve even poorer and desperate layers of society, who are forced onto the streets. They risk catching Covid-19 in preference to doing nothing in the face of starvation. The government talks of re-opening the economy, but has failed to provide any of its promised aid to workers. Videos of a protest appeared on the internet showing protesters and the police argue about who is hungrier.

As one protester quoted in the Washington Post said, “We stopped the revolution because of corona…” But now, he continued, “…bankruptcy is coming. Hunger is coming. Of course, we’re going to rise to change the whole of the political class.””

Independent working-class voice needed

Last year’s movement was significant in a society deeply divided along sectarian lines. In the course of the movement, the protests cut across all the sectarian parties and politicians. As commented previously, “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.” (13 February 2020)

Indeed, unless such independent workers’ organisations are built, the political vacuum that exists could be again filled by sectarian forces. As the Economist comments, “…the country’s crises are giving its factions a new lease on life, as the state struggles to provide help. Hezbollah, the Shia militia and political party, has its own fleet of ambulances and more than a dozen covid-19 clinics. Every party is vaunting its efforts to treat patients and distribute food and cash. Some even hand out surgical masks emblazoned with their logos.”

Independent workers’ organisations need to be armed with a programme to deal with the impending catastrophe facing the masses in Lebanon. A starting point should be the repudiation of the foreign debts, and nationalization of the big banks and financial sector. A fifty percent levy on the assets of the wealthy and big business could provide funding for emergency measures. For example, this could fund provision, under the democratic control of elected committees of workers, for food parcels, emergency benefits, and other measures, to aid workers and middle-class layers made destitute over the past few months.

With the crashing of the oil prices during the crisis, other countries in the region could experience financial crises of their own. The Economist reports that in Iraq crude oil revenues are down in April, from $7bn last year to just $1.4bn, this year.

Capitalism has served up nothing but war and devastation to the Middle East, and the Covid-19 crisis will only deepen this, impoverishing workers and the middle classes, even further. The new waves of struggles that will emerge against this backdrop need to sweep away not only the sectarian division fostered by capitalism but the whole rotten system. In its place, socialist measures are needed. A democratic plan of production can meet the needs of the masses, based on bringing the key sectors of the economy and the wealth they produce, into public ownership, under the democratic control and management of workers, as part of a socialist federation of the region.

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May 2020