Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 346, 11 March 2021

Lebanon: The revival of protests amid worsening economic conditions
Apoorva Sudhakar

In the news
On 9 March, National News Agency, a state-run organisation, reported that demonstrators protesting against the country’s deteriorating economic conditions had blocked main highways including that leading to the capital city, Beirut. The developments came despite the President’s calls to clear the roadblocks.

On 8 March, President Michel Aoun called on the army and security forces “to clear roadblocks after a week of protests over a collapsing economy and paralysed government.” However, the Army Chief, General Joseph Aoun, said, “The officer also is suffering and is hungry, to the officials I say, where are you going? What are you waiting for? What are you planning to do?” Therefore, he pushed the political leadership to find a long-lasting solution to the economic and political crisis.

On 6 March, the caretaker Prime Minister, Hasan Diab threatened to abstain from his duties thereby attempting to pressurise the political leaders to form a new government.
 
Issues at large
First, the crash of the Lebanese pound. On 2 March, the Lebanese pound hit a record low against the US dollar on the black market thereby being valued at 10,000 Lebanese pounds against the dollar. Further, the official exchange rate stood at 1,520 Lebanese pounds to the dollar. This acted as a trigger to the latest protests.

Second, the return of protests. The current unrest is the third occurrence of mass protests since 2019. The first mass protests of recent times started in October 2019 when the government proposed a tax on WhatsApp calls, threatening the people’s options to communicate freely without incurring heavy expenses on telephone calls. This triggered anti-government protests which later translated into a demand to overhaul the sectarian-based political system. Next, people took to the streets in August 2020 after the Beirut Port blast which left at least 200 people dead and thousands injured. However, in all cases, the protests remained leaderless.  

Third, worsening economic conditions. Amid economic deterioration and rising prices, the Lebanese have been struggling to secure essential commodities. The UN says, at least 50 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. In March 2020, Lebanon defaulted on a loan of USD 1.2 billion. In December 2020, Diab said subsidies on flour, fuel and medication, would have to be lifted in early 2021 as foreign reserves are falling short.

Fourth, the political deadlock. The current Prime Minister-designate, Saad Hariri had resigned as PM in 2019 following the protests; Diab was appointed in January 2020. However, following the Beirut blast, Diab resigned and his successor Mustapha Adib resigned within a month. Following this, in October 2020, Hariri was re-elected as PM but has been unable to form a government due to differences with President Aoun.

In perspective
First, since protests in Lebanon have remained largely leaderless, it has been difficult to sustain them as support for the protests wane away with time, thereby pushing Lebanon into a status quo, be it political or economic. Therefore, the current protests too may take a backseat after some months. However, the Army Chief’s words come as a surprise being the first of its kind from a person of authority.  

Second, unless the political deadlock ends, it will be difficult to arrive at a solution to the country’s economic woes. The economic situation is bound to worsen in the coming months and its effects could last for years.

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