Briefing: Lebanese Economic Protests

Middle East and North Africa Desk

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Since Thursday, October 17, protests have been raging across Lebanon. Here’s what you need to know:

What is happening?

On October 17, the Lebanese government announced plans to implement a tax reform plan that would place a tax on calls made through messaging apps, such as Whatsapp, which are widely used across the country. In a country with a 40% unemployment rate, disintegrating public infrastructure, a public debt over 150% of the country’s GDP, and few public services, the proposal proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.[1] Since the announcement, the Lebanese people have taken to the streets to protest widespread corruption, economic mismanagement, and other public to voice their other grievances. 

As of the Sunday before last, the protests were the largest the country had seen since 2005.[2]

Why are people protesting?

The past few months have seen a spiral of dire economic circumstances in Lebanon. The country is plagued by high unemployment, negative GDP growth, the third-highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world, and debt surpassing the country’s GDP.[3] The public blames these economic grievances on government corruption, and with the impetus of the now-defunct tax reforms, is protesting against large-scale political corruption.

Lebanon follows a sectarian system of government made up of 18 political sects, including Maronite Christians, Sunni, Shi’a, Druze, Greek Orthodox, among others. This power-sharing agreement dates back to French colonial rule but was most recently renegotiated in the Taif Agreement, which ended the 1990 war that itself exacerbated by sectarian strife. Government positions are distributed among these sects—the president, for example, is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister always a Sunni, the speaker of parliament always a Shia, and so forth.[4] Parliamentary seats are also distributed along sectarian lines, but their allocation is far from representative of Lebanon’s present-day population, given that their allocation is based on a census conducted in 1932. Shi’a Muslims are estimated to make up the plurality of the Lebanese populations, but Maronite Christians overall enjoy disproportionately large political representation.[5] The rigid system lends itself to political gridlock and strong foreign influence, often at the expense of the Lebanese people.

The public is not just seeking reforms to cure the economic crisis, but an overhaul of the entire system—that is, the resignation of the government, with provisional rule by apolitical judges until elections can be held.[6] The movement is not politicized, for the protestors, who span all ages and sects, demand thoura, or revolution. One protestor putting it succinctly: “In the past, we used to protest for certain parties and groups. This time, we’re here because we’re Lebanese.”[7]

How has the government responded?

Prime Minister Saad Hariri gave his coalition a 72-hour ultimatum on Friday to agree to a reform package.  On Monday, he announced the approval of economic reforms and a 2020 budget. The package includes significant salary cuts for the country’s three heads of state—the prime minister, president, and speaker of parliament—in half, a proposed law to restore stolen money from the state (another grievance protesters are holding politicians accountable for), and, perhaps most importantly, no new personal taxes.[8]

“Those expressing their anger and demanding their dignity and their rights on the street: these decisions we took today may not fulfill your demands,” Hariri said in his announcement last Monday. “I’m not asking you to stop protesting your anger. That is a decision that you take.”[9]

Things have changed since then— Saad Hariri announced his resignation on Tuesday, October 29, but protestors are demanding more. 


References

[1] “Lebanon’s Leaders Move to Quell Huge Protests,” BBC News, October 21, 2019, sec. Middle East, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50118300.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sarah Dadouch and Asser Khattab, “Lebanon’s Government Proposes Reforms as Huge Protests Hit Their Fifth Day,” Washington Post, accessed October 31, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/lebanons-politicians-rush-to-come-up-with-reforms-as-huge-protests-hit-their-fifth-day/2019/10/21/9171b656-f3f2-11e9-8cf0-4cc99f74d127_story.html.

[4] “Why Lebanon Struggles to Form Governments,” The Economist, December 21, 2018, https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2018/12/21/why-lebanon-struggles-to-form-governments.

[5] “Census and Sensibility,” The Economist, November 5, 2016, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2016/11/05/census-and-sensibility.

[6] “Lebanon Protests: All the Latest Updates,” accessed October 31, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/lebanon-protests-latest-updates-191021080734203.html.

[7] Vivian Yee, “Lebanon Roiled by Second Day of Protests as Frustration Over Chronic Corruption Boils Over,” The New York Times, October 18, 2019, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/18/world/middleeast/lebanon-protests.html.

[8] “Lebanon Protests.”

[9] Dadouch and Khattab, “Lebanon’s Government Proposes Reforms as Huge Protests Hit Their Fifth Day.”

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