After being without a government for almost a year, the new Lebanese government of billionaire Nijab Mikati is already beset with crises, just a few months in.
There has been no respite from the ongoing collapse of the Lebanese economy, with the black market exchange rate now at 27,000 Lebanese pounds to the US dollar. This is as opposed to the 1500 to dollar official exchange rate, which is largely fictitious. Withdrawals from dollar accounts are officially made as of the beginning of December at 8000 Lebanese pounds to the US dollar. Shortages of food, fuel and medicines persist, with over 80% of the population now below the poverty level. Although a ration card scheme is now being launched, the first payments will not start until March 2022.
Throughout the crisis, the government has sought international aid to help them get through (including funding the new ration cards). This, of course, comes with strings attached, at the behest of the donors, and new potential clashes. A key condition for money raised, via the IMF, to be released to the government, has been the formation of a government prepared to carry out ‘reforms’. This was demanded by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during a brief mid-December visit. Meanwhile, a key member of the Lebanese negotiating team with the IMF, central bank governor, Riad Salameh, is being investigated in France, Switzerland and other European countries on suspicion of money laundering and illicit enrichment.
Despite the formation of the new government, even holding a meeting of ministers is currently beyond it. The cabinet has not met in almost two months, as a result of a boycott by Muslim Hezbollah and Christian Amal movement supporters over the course of the judicial investigation into the Beirut port explosion.
The minister of information, George Kordahi, nominated by the Maronite Christian Marada movement, was forced to resign after a video emerged of him criticising Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen, with the Saudi government threatening to end contributing to financial aid. Similarly, the interior minister recently decided to expel members of the banned Bahrani Shia opposition party, al-Wefaq, after they held a press conference exposing human rights violations in Bahrain. Both countries, along with the UAE and Kuwait, had expelled Lebanese ambassadors from the country after the Kordahi video was restored. This is just a taste of how other regimes around the region will use the weakened position of the Lebanese capitalist class to their advantage.
New struggles sparked in opposition to the Mikati government
As we have commented, the ‘reforms’ demanded in return for financial aid will mean further attacks on the conditions of workers and young people in Lebanon.
New battles have emerged on university campuses over student elections. These follow campaigns at universities over the last year against ‘dollarisation’, leading to massive hikes in tuition fees. During student elections taking place in the autumn semester, students who paid tuition fees via a notary, in order to avoid the hikes, were threatened with exclusion from the elections.
Last year, there had been victories in a number of student councils and professional syndicates of blocs opposed to the established sectarian religious-based parties. This year, the results have been more mixed, with coalitions of the sectarian parties winning the Beirut Bar Association and the Lebanese American University, for example. In one syndicate, where results seemed to be opposing the sectarian parties, the election was invalidated!
Telecoms workers at the two currently state-owned mobile phone operators, Alfa and Touch, part of the Mobile Operators Syndicate, are currently on an all-out strike against attacks on their healthcare provision. These attacks are in preparation for the re-privatisation of the companies scheduled for February 2022, which is part of the government’s programme for paying back its $41bn public sector debt. Linked to this are proposals to increase tariffs on the network, which strikers have also spoken out against. Trade unions in the civil service and transport sector are also coming into conflict with the government.
Anger grows against a sectarian system
But the main anger has developed around the obstruction of the judicial investigation into the 2020 Beirut port explosion. The first judge leading the investigation was removed from the case after wanting to charge the prime minister at the time of the blast, Hassan Diab, and three ministers for negligence. The second judge, Tarek Bitar, has had his investigations suspended four times. Eighteen separate lawsuits have been filed against him by political figures he is investigating.
There is substantial popular anger at the hold up in investigating this tragic event, with families of those who were killed wanting answers. Occupations of government buildings have taken place in opposition to the delays and political interference in the investigation.
However, given the sectarian domination of the state at all levels, there are many who will view with suspicion Bitar’s arrest warrants only targeted representatives of the March 14 bloc (involving Hezbollah and Amal – which are currently boycotting cabinet meetings), and mostly Shia Muslims, within that.
This is why in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, the CWI called for “an investigation by representatives from workers’ organisations – including trade unions – [which] could get to the bottom of what has taken place, through conducting a democratically-run inquiry that would have to be independent of all capitalist and establishment interests.”
March 2022 elections
Elections are due to be held in Lebanon in March. Even with Lebanon’s rigged sectarian-based constitution, this could be another occasion on which the accumulated anger against the sectarian parties could be expressed.
A number of new political parties have developed in recent years on a non-sectarian basis. These include some openly pro-capitalist parties, but also those that seek to base themselves on mass struggle, and particularly out of the mass movement in October 2019.
Given the domination of Lebanon by the sectarian parties over decades, debates have opened up as to how they can be defeated. All of the parties based on struggle put forward the need for alliances against the government, but there is debate over the character of such alliances. Unfortunately, one of the new parties developing out of the October 2019 mass struggles, Taqqadom, has entered into a bloc with a number of other parties, the most prominent being the Kataeb Party (or Phalanges), justified on the false basis of working with any opposition to the current government. The Christian Phalanges militias were responsible for the horrific massacre at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps during the civil war.,
In reality, for such an alliance to be genuinely fighting for the interests of all working people and the poor, it needs to be on the basis of continuing the struggle of the October 2019 mass movement, against austerity, privatisation, and the rest of the neo-liberal attacks and ultimately the capitalist system which seeks to impose it. Only unity around a fighting programme, on that basis, can help take the struggles of Lebanese workers and the poor forward.
One important development has been the support of a number of these new parties for opposition blocs on student councils in the universities and within the professional organisations. One of these parties, Mada, is a political network created by the Secular Clubs that have developed at a number of universities.
However, this is mainly on the basis of seeing these organisations as battlegrounds with the sectarian parties, rather than as an orientation towards the working class as the key force that can change society. While social media posts of some of these parties support the opposition blocs within various elections in the professional organisations, none comment on the ongoing strike of the telecoms workers.
While it is widely seen that the “old Lebanon” is dead there is confusion over what the alternative is to the present system. Many of the groups interviewed by sawtivoice.org, while correctly seeing no possibility of reform coming from within the present government, or parties represented in the Lebanese parliament, seem to pose an alternative ‘transitional government’ as somehow coming from without. They do not explain how such a government could emerge. Neither is there any clarity on how society should be reorganised in the interests of workers and the poor, apart from the rooting out of the corruption endemic under the sectarian parties’ rule.
But for any such ‘transitional government’ to serve the needs of workers and the poor that have driven successive pro-capitalist governments of the sectarian parties from power, it must be based on their own class organisations, including the trade unions and committees that have organised relief over the past two years. Such organisations can convene a revolutionary constituent assembly that could not simply deal with reconstructing Lebanon on a non-sectarian basis but be the basis for a government of representatives of workers and the poor. This government would deal with the key pressing economic and social issues facing the mass of the Lebanese population. This would include repudiating the debts run up by the sectarian parties and bringing the commanding heights of the economy into public ownership under workers’ control and management, to begin to democratically plan the country’s reconstruction.