Lebanon’s Government Collapses

On October 29, Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon resigned in the face of weeks of protests.
Q1: What is the significance of the collapse of Lebanese government?
A1: The Lebanese government’s collapse is another example of public disgust in the Middle East with governments that have failed to perform. There is a rising consensus that politicians are not meeting public needs. Protests broke out in Jordan over the summer and in Egypt in September, and they are ongoing in Iraq and Algeria. In many ways, it is the same sentiment that we have seen rising in the “Yellow Vest” movement in France, among Brexiteers in the United Kingdom, and among many of President Donald Trump’s supporters in the United States. The chaos that followed many uprisings in the Middle East during the so-called Arab Spring has created a certain circumspection, however. In places such as Yemen, Syria, and Libya, the 2011 protests precipitated civil wars that are still flaring. In places such as Egypt, the Mubarak government was eventually replaced by another military government that makes some Egyptians miss Mubarak. Today’s protesters seem more cautious and less optimistic than the protesters eight years ago but no less convinced of the necessity of fundamental change. Protesters also seem more persistent. Even after governments have fallen, protesters continue to take to the street, insisting that conditions require systematic changes rather than merely cosmetic changes in leadership.
Q2: How is the Lebanese situation different from other regional protests?
A2: Last March, public uprisings overthrew aging leaders in Algeria and the Sudan. In Lebanon, many of the leaders are younger, but it is the system that seems aging and out of touch. Although large protests have been witnessed elsewhere in the region, the scale of the protests in Lebanon is unprecedented. A third of the total Lebanese population is estimated to have taken to the streets in over 60 different locations across the country, including small towns and villages. In Iraq, which also has growing public protests, the protesters seem mostly Shi’a, and there is an anti-Iranian element at play. The Lebanese protests up to now are all about the nature of Lebanon and the grievances that all Lebanese share, transcending sectarian divisions. Protesters have also crossed former red lines. They have taken aim at the entire political class, including figures such as Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, who usually rises above the fray.
Q3: What brought this on?
A3: The proximate cause was a new tax on WhatsApp calls, but Lebanon has faced mounting economic pressures for years. Lebanon has one of the highest debt ratios in the world (at more than 150 percent of the country’s gross domestic product), high levels of unemployment, and crumbling infrastructure. The Syrian civil war next door has compounded these challenges, bringing more than one million Syrians into a country with only four million residents. But the crisis was also brought on by a political structure that growing numbers of Lebanese see as parasitic. Political power in Lebanon is apportioned among sectarian groups according to formulas derived from the 1932 census. There’s a rising consensus among Lebanese that the arrangement creates a corrupt system that serves communal leaders without serving the communities they supposedly represent. Protesters also rail against the incompetence of Lebanese politicians and their lack of accountability. This incompetence was brought into sharp relief in early October when wildfires swept across Lebanon’s mountains. The government was unable to deploy some of its firefighting helicopters, as they were in disrepair, forcing them to rely on aircraft from other countries.
Q4: What are the economic effects of the government’s collapse?
A4: In the near term, Lebanon’s financial problems will grow more dire. Ongoing civil unrest will continue to stifle economic activity, as protesters maintain their roadblocks until their ambitious demands are met. When banks open on Friday for the first time in two weeks, there is the risk of a run on the dollar. It has been hard to get dollars in Lebanon for more than a month, raising the possibility of a devaluation of the Lebanese pound and price hikes. Meanwhile, government bonds have fallen to junk status. Hariri’s initial approach was to lean on bankers to meet tax shortfalls, but it is unlikely to be enough to represent a systemic fix.
Q5: Who will replace Prime Minister Saad Hariri?
A5: It is possible no one will replace Hariri for some time. Lebanon has previously gone without a government for months on end, and there is no obvious alternative to the current political arrangements. President Aoun has asked Saad Hariri to lead a caretaker government, but the country could be without a formal government for a year or more. Protesters demand a technocratic government, but President Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, Hezbollah, and the other political parties have no interest in allowing a new system to emerge that undermines their power, meaning a deadlock is likely to endure. The uncertain state of affairs can work in part because there’s so much decentralization in Lebanon, and different communities and sectarian groups can run most of their own affairs. But in the longer term, the scale of Lebanon’s challenges and the small size of each community will require a national government to emerge.
Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program