Half a year ago, a broad-based anti-government protest movement swept across Lebanon, igniting the most sustained political unrest in recent memory. Incited by a proposed tax on internet messaging services in the midst of a fiscal crisis, and building on the agitation of periodic protests in past years, over one million citizens took to the streets to express dissatisfaction with wide-spread economic immiseration, and crumbling infrastructure. Most crucially, however, they railed for reform of a government dead-locked by the in-fighting, corruption, and nominal sectarianism endemic to its confessional system.
Just months after the clamor of protest reverberated from Beirut to Delhi, Hong Kong to Santiago de Chile, Caracas to Baghdad, the streets lie in morbid silence. Formerly charged with containing a contagion of anti-government wrath, police and military forces instead clamp down on petty violations of stay-at-home orders. Arrested by the greatest health crisis of a generation, demonstrators have been forced to reinvent their movements, substituting rallies and chants with WhatsApp calls and retweets.
This week, as convoys of Lebanese protesters ebb back into Martyrs’ Square, reigniting the animus towards their dysfunctional regime, we are reminded that the masses have only been biding their time in the flanks of this public health crisis, intent on continuing their cause. In a time of such acute crisis, their demands for responsible governance and an end to the Republic’s corruption are more salient than ever. For the Lebanese government, that may mean a double-bind: either fall to the sword of a public health catastrophe or face the music of a seething constituency.
In response to the mounting global pandemic, the Lebanese government acted with unusual speed and decisiveness, implementing a country-wide lockdown on March 15 as life in most countries continued without restriction. For comparison, despite recording many more cases, it was not until March 24 that Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a similar lockdown in the United Kingdom. Indeed, while Johnson was downplaying the extent of the crisis, Lebanese politicians were quick to communicate a clear and present danger. Soon after its first reported cases, Lebanese schools, restaurants, and public spaces were shuttered, and the national borders closed. Today, the normally bustling streets of Beirut are virtually empty, and proactive social-distancing measures have kept the COVID-19 crisis at bay in Lebanon.
As of April 22, Lebanon has counted 682 cases and 22 deaths, representing only 3 deaths per million residents — a remarkably low figure, comparable to the likes of Russia and Australia. For a government criticized by international commentators and citizens alike for its dysfunctional – unable to ensure essential services like garbage collection – Lebanon’s success in curbing a pandemic which has overwhelmed many developed nations stands out as particularly noteworthy. Indeed, Lebanon has been tentatively lauded as a success story when it comes to the coronavirus — a much-needed success in light of widespread criticism of a government beleaguered by tribalism, corruption, and institutional incompetence.
Despite these early superficial indications, the Lebanese state remains in a deeply precarious position. If and when the virus penetrates Lebanese society, the country’s health care system will be woefully unprepared, and its infrastructure lacking. Now, with a confirmed case of COVID-19 in one of its refugee camps, Lebanon may be facing the beginning of a destabilizing public health crisis. And, even if public officials are able to curb the spread of the virus, Lebanon certainly faces another emergency in the form of a crippling economic recession.
A Disaster Waiting to Happen
Even though Lebanese officials acted responsibly in enacting closures and social distancing measures, no number of emergency policies can erase deep institutional deficiencies. In a daily report released by the National Operations Room as recently as April 8, only nine public hospitals were considered prepared to receive coronavirus patients. Even before the crisis, a Human Rights Watch report presaged the harms of the Lebanese government’s dollar shortage on medical supply chains, while also highlighting the “Lebanese government’s failure to pay its bills to medical facilities” under the National Social Security Fund.
Alongside being underfunded, the health care system is subject to complex patronage networks which make a coordinated healthcare response almost impossible. Access to health care in Lebanon has long been complicated by political parties which control various medical resources. This fracturing of the health care infrastructure makes Lebanon particularly vulnerable to a deadly and widespread disease.
Anticipating the government’s inability to address the pandemic, Hezbollah, a Lebanese paramilitary group, has piloted its own independent COVID-19 relief program in a move to position itself as a governing authority. Hezbollah maintains significant political influence in Lebanon, holding numerous seats in parliament, but is considered a terrorist organization by both the US Department of State and the EU. At the end of March, Hezbollah held a media tour showcasing its resources which include testing sites, dozens of ambulances, isolation rooms, and hospital beds. Given what the Lebanese anticipate will be a lackluster and uncoordinated government response to a potential spike in coronavirus cases, political factions like Hezbollah are positioned to capitalize on the chaos.
An Economy out of Breath
Irrespective of the direct toll that coronavirus ends up taking on Lebanese lives, for the state’s chronically ailing economy there will be no cure. Early March marked the first time in Lebanon’s history that it has defaulted on an international debt (a 1.2 billion dollar Eurobond) in a move likely to scare off already trailing foreign investment. Compelled by fears of bank runs, local banks have imposed crippling capital controls, restricting US dollar withdrawals to a mere $400 a month in February. Unabating currency inflation has stripped the Lebanese pound’s black market value by half. Meanwhile, soaring unemployment rates, bloated public debt levels, and plummeting informal exchange rates have only been compounded by the coronavirus. Not only has the epidemic frozen any remnants of the country’s productive labor force, but it has proven capital intensive as authorities scramble to bolster a fragmented, decentralized healthcare system.
Moreover, perceptions that the recently appointed cabinet is in the pocket of Hezbollah have done nothing to aid the government’s pleas for foreign aid. An IMF bailout of last resort, with its accompanying stipulations, would not only incur the ire of austerity-wary protesters but also of the Hezbollah faction (and broader political elite) unwilling to accept the IMF’s prohibitive interventionism in their financial affairs.
Alarmingly, many of the more than 100,000 Lebanese families currently eligible for social security assistance have been thwarted by clientelistic ploys to disburse aid along political lines rather than needs-based logic. Lebanon’s National Poverty Targeting Program — the state’s direct cash transfer program funded unilaterally by the World Bank — constitutes scarcely more than lip service to a country reeling in debt and deflation at best. At worst, it is a jarring reminder to protesters of a political cabal whose policies prefer self-advancement to the disenfranchised, even with the country on its knees.
Protests on the Horizon
With prohibitions on mass gatherings, protest movements like those seen in Beirut during the fall of 2019 have been outlawed as a matter of public health policy in Lebanon, and around the world. For the protest movement, the implementation of such measures appeared to be the proverbial nail in the coffin: even before the pandemic, the protestors suffered a major loss when they failed to block the confirmation of Lebanon’s new government after weeks of demonstrations. With the activists forced to disband the movement largely disappeared from international headlines, while March 27th saw riot police expunge any remaining protest encampments in Beirut in anticipation of a nationwide curfew.
However, in light of unexpectedly sparse COVID-19 cases, and in response to Lebanon’s conspicuous economic plight, protestors have once again taken to the streets. On April 21, protestors rode in and atop cars (in order to maintain social distance) wearing face masks emblazoned with the Lebanese cedar and shouting thawra — “revolution” — on their drive from Martyrs’ Square to the theater house where the Lebanese Parliament convened for the first time in over a month. Similar demonstrations took place in Tripoli, Antelias, Chouf, Bekaa, Nabatieh, and Tyre. These activists hope to reinvigorate the protest movement, voicing their exacerbated dissatisfaction with the slow roll-out of government aid amidst widespread joblessness and hunger.
Where the protests have been oft-criticized by the Aoun administration for their uncoordinated demands, the coronavirus crisis is poised to tip the protest movement one of two ways. On the one hand, the decision to publicly protest in the midst of state lockdown may splinter the movement, and allow it to be scapegoated by anti-protest forces as inimical to the public interest. On the other, this public health crisis provides a vital opportunity for protesters to sharpen and unify their demands, as institutional provisions for the coronavirus are put under the microscope in a compressed time-frame. As the protestors regroup, they are likely to capitalize on this newfound urgency.
Lebanon on Life Support
Coronavirus or not, Lebanon’s economic prospects are bleak, and leave no obvious path forward for poverty-stricken public and deadlocked government alike. After decades of rampant patronage and cronyism veiled under the auspices of sectarianism, the Lebanese citizenry finds themselves with little substantial public infrastructure in sight. And there is no more pungent a reminder of their state’s decay than the ever-growing scores of rotten rubbish bags left lining their streets. The remaining question, then, is not whether protesters will return to the streets with renewed appeals for change, but what form these protests will take during and beyond this new volatile landscape.
Image Credit: Wikimedia/Nadim Kobeissi