By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem
On October 17, 2019, protests erupted in most Lebanese cities, particularly in the center of Beirut, rejecting a $ 6-a-month WhatsApp tariff plus new taxes on gasoline and a 15% VAT increase.
Soon, most of the Lebanese people from different classes, regions and sects reacted despite their political, religious, partisan and class differences.
Tens of thousands of Lebanese descended into squares, some blocking roads with obstacles and burning tires, especially the main roads in the capital and the highways connecting major provinces.
This paralyzed the country for two weeks as institutions, banks, schools and universities were closed. The Lebanese government has responded to the protesters’ demands in part by adopting an economic reform plan based on not imposing new taxes with a deficit-free budget for 2020, adopting laws to fight corruption and holding corrupt people accountable, cutting the salaries of current and former presidents, ministers, and deputies by half, and letting BDL and the private banks supporting the budget by $ 5 billion.
However, this plan did not satisfy the demonstrators, whose demands differed from one square to another and from one platform to another, where some exaggerated the demands that amounted to overthrowing a sectarian system based on sectarian quotas that fostered corruption, while some went to put demands from outside the framework of political and socio-economic reforms to demand by overthrowing the elected president, and parliament and its speaker, disarming Hezbollah and putting Lebanon under international tutelage.
Here, the current trend of the President of the Republic, Hezbollah and Amal and their allies questioned the spontaneity of this popular movement, considering that it was planned in advance from outside and internal parties, with the aim of overthrowing the Hariri government in which the March 8 coalition (the Free Patriotic Movement led by Minister Gebran Bassil, Hezbollah, Amal Movement, The Marada Movement) has a majority within it, which is a natural result of their majority gain in the May 2018 parliamentary elections. Thus, the overthrow of this government and the call for a technocratic government exclude Bassil and his current ministers (11 out of 30), Amal and Hezbollah (6 ministers). This means the establishment of a politically weak government in which Hezbollah and its allies do not have the political decision. Excluding Bassil satisfies the Lebanese Forces and the Socialist Party, which disagreed with Bassil and argued that they marginalized them in the government and tried to capture the major positions and jobs for candidates who are affiliated to his movement.
Analysts close to March 8 believe that these protests, which coincided with the bloody protests in Iraq, aim to weaken Iranian influence in both Lebanon and Iraq in favor of US influence, which began to recede after President Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from northern and eastern Syria in favor of Turkish intervention. These protests are aimed at toppling the Lebanese and Iraqi governments close to Iran’s allies, bringing a government closer to America, or spreading chaos and confusion for Iran and its allies in both countries, in line with Trump’s policy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Iran by politically isolating it, zeroing its oil exports, and imposing sanctions to destroy its economy.
The most likely scenario in Lebanon is to rename Saad Hariri as prime minister and to head a government that includes a number of politicians from party representatives – large blocs and a number of technocrats – to implement political and economic reforms.
Another scenario would be to name a prime minister other than Hariri that would be close to him as former prime minister Tammam Salam, with a mix of politicians and technocrats.
The third scenario is to assign a prime minister from the March 8 coalition and form a majority government that does not include representatives of the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces and the Socialist Party. But this option could bring US sanctions on Lebanon, freeze the Cedar project to grant Lebanon about $ 11 billion as Western-Arab loans, as well as continuing internal tensions as a result of the March 14 exit from the government. Hariri supporters are demonstrating in Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon to reassign him as prime minister.
Paradoxically, the protests began to topple Hariri’s government and raised the slogan “All means all of them.” A large part of the protesters, especially in Sunni-majority areas, turned to demanding the return of Hariri, who wants to form an expert government and exclude political parties even though he heads a party and he is not an expert. This proposal was rejected by President Aoun and his brother-in-law Gebran Bassil, Hezbollah and Amal movement, as the criteria must be unified, either a government of technocrats headed by a non-political expert, or a mixed government of politicians and technocrats headed by a politician like Hariri.
It is noteworthy that the financial and monetary situation in Lebanon on the edge of the abyss due to the arrival of public debt to more than $80 billion, and some say reached the threshold of $100 billion, as well as because of the decline in cash reserves in hard currency in the Central Bank of Lebanon, maintaining a fixed rate of one lira (one dollar equals about 1,500 lira) for 27 years.
The US sanctions on Hezbollah and the tightening of banks to monitor remittances from abroad, as well as the Gulf boycott, the Syrian war and the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, have contributed to the weak economy and the decline of remittances of Lebanese expatriates and poor revenues from tourism, trade, agriculture and industry, as well as the cost of the presence of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon and providing them of health, education and infrastructure of water, electricity and sanitation, especially as Lebanon suffers from a shortage of electricity, which costs the state annually about two billion dollars.