Lebanese face risks of social unrest, economic collapse in 2021

The warning comes as Lebanon is wrestling with an economic meltdown, caused by decades of corruption and mismanagement, and a crashing currency that has lost more than 80% of its value

  
A general view shows Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut, Lebanon August 20, 2020. Picture taken August 20, 2020.

A general view shows Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut, Lebanon August 20, 2020. Picture taken August 20, 2020.

REUTERS/Aziz Taher

BEIRUT: After a year marked by disasters, tragedies, the worst economic and financial crisis in the country’s history, and mounting health hazards posed by an alarming surge in coronavirus infections, the Lebanese must brace themselves for “challenging tsunamis” at various levels in 2021, including the threat of social unrest and security disturbances, political analysts and officials have warned.

They said that unless a new government was formed quickly to implement a slew of structural reforms to salvage the crumbling economy -- an essential prerequisite for the release of promised international aid to the crises-ridden country -- the Lebanese would face the risk of a much-feared total economic collapse with all the dire consequences this entails for Lebanon’s social security and internal stability.

The warning comes as Lebanon is wrestling with an economic meltdown, caused by decades of corruption and mismanagement, and a crashing currency that has lost more than 80 percent of its value since last year, putting half of the 6 million Lebanese population below poverty line and sending prices of foodstuffs and everything else skyrocketing. The economic crisis has been aggravated by the grave consequences of the massive Aug. 4 explosion that pulverized Beirut’s port, destroyed half of the capital, killed nearly 200 people, injured thousands, left 300,000 people homeless and caused billions of dollars in material damage.

This is in addition to the negative impact of a frightening and unchecked spike in coronavirus infections on the already struggling economy that has led to massive layoffs, shutdown of thousands of companies and businesses, and subsequently to a rising unemployment rate estimated at over 40 percent.

“Lebanon is facing big challenges as the current year draws to an end and with the beginning of the new year under the difficult economic, social, living and health conditions. This stems largely from the financial and economic crisis, the [US] economic sanctions, the repercussions of the port explosion, the spread of coronavirus and the political crisis amid security concerns in the country,” political analyst Kassem Kassir told The Daily Star.

“If a government is not formed before the end of the year, the crisis will persist and we will be facing serious fears, especially if state subsidies [on wheat, medicine and fuels] are lifted, or in the event of a lack of monetary liquidity, or if Lebanon does not receive foreign aid,” he said.

Kassir warned that implementation of reforms, which include tough and unpopular measures, such as imposing new taxes, raising electricity tariffs, the Value Added Tax, and the price of 20 liters of gasoline, and reducing the bloated public sector, as demanded by international donors, would further deepen the economic crisis and might trigger a social and security flare-up.

“Enacting economic and financial reforms will exacerbate the crisis and [the country] might descend into social and security unrest, in addition to fears of a new Israeli attack on Lebanon,” Kassir said.

Dr. Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, concurred.

“In 2021 Lebanon will be facing many challenging tsunamis at the political economic, financial, and security levels,” Salamey told The Daily Star. “We will probably have domestic security breaches and increase in crimes. However, it is highly unlikely that these will develop into major political violent encounters as the major armed groups in the country are overwhelmingly on the side of Hezbollah and hold the upper hands in any major armed confrontation.”

SOCIAL UPHEAVAL

Caretaker Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmi has also warned of the risk of a social security deterioration fueled by the crippling economic crisis.

In an interview with Al-Joumhouria newspaper on Dec. 23, Fahmi said security reports have registered a rise in incidents of thefts and burglaries at an alarming rate. “If the severe economic crisis persists, it is possible to see murder crimes committed for stealing a small amount of money,” he said. He added that he did not rule out the possibility of a poor man resorting to stealing or killing to bring food for his family members.

Simon Haddad, a former political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said if a new government was not formed quickly to carry out urgent reforms then all options are open for the country.

“The formation of a new government is urgently needed to enact reforms in order to encourage the international community to provide Lebanon with financial aid to rescue its economy,” Haddad told The Daily Star. “If this doesn’t happen soon, all options are open, including an economic collapse,” he added.

Yet, Haddad said foreign powers, including France which has emerged as the main power broker in Lebanon since the port disaster, would not allow the country to collapse economically.

“Lebanon is facing an economic challenge which is to stand fast until an internal political settlement is reached to solve the crisis,” he said. “Lebanon is already below the poverty line and is now begging for money from the international community for survival.”

Haddad said he expected external economic and security pressures, exerted mainly by America, to continue on Lebanon until an internal political settlement is reached. Because the Lebanese Army remained united and unaffected by political leaders’ differences during years of crises, Haddad dispelled fears of destabilization of the country as a result of the worsening economic woes.

Ironically, the series of multiple crises hitting Lebanon come as the country has been left without a fully functioning government for more than four months after then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Cabinet resigned in the aftermath of the port blast, although it stayed in a caretaker capacity.

The formation of a new government to deliver reforms is urgently demanded by the international community, which has linked unlocking billions of dollars in promised aid to the cash-strapped country for the implementation of long-overdue reforms, mainly fighting endemic corruption and conducting a forensic audit of the accounts of the Central Bank and all ministries and public institutions.

However, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri’s attempts to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to carry out reforms have foundered on rival factions’ jockeying for key ministerial seats, as well as lingering rifts with President Michel Aoun over the naming of Christian ministers and over who controls three sovereign ministries that deal with security: The Defense, Interior and Justice.

Salamey, the LAU professor, said one of the tough challenges facing Lebanon in 2021 lies in a deepening political stalemate driven by precarious relations developing between Hezbollah on the one hand, and the Lebanese state on the other.

“Over the past two decades, the party's [Hezbollah’s] deep state has overwhelmed formal institutions and reached its climax in the uneasy inauguration of President Michael Aoun. Hezbollah has proved itself not only as a mighty military force but also as a political architect in winning, along with its allies, the 2018 elections that formulated the 2019 and 2020 governments,” Salamey said.

“But Hezbollah's victories have culminated in a structural challenge confronting confessional diversity and posed a fundamental dilemma for a country tied to Arab and Western economies and financial institutions. Among the immediate outcomes of Hezbollah-Aoun alliance has been the marginalization of the Sunnis and the tilting of the country’s confessional balance of power in favor of the Shiites. At the same time, it has spoiled foreign relations with Lebanon's traditional allies. Hence, Lebanon has come to reap the current political crisis, which would most likely persist for the year 2021 and beyond,” he added.

Asked whether Lebanon would be able to meet these challenges with the same ruling political elite staying in power, Salamey said: “Evidently Lebanon cannot have a simple response to contemporary political and economic impasses. It sits in the midst of regional rivals where neither side is capable of achieving a decisive victory. Thus, regardless of whether the existing confessional leadership prevails or an alternative emerges, the challenges confronting the state in relations to its domestic armed groups and its positioning toward regional and international powers will continue to bombard its political fabric.”

Kassir blamed the “corrupt political class” for the crisis and called for the emergence of a new class as the only solution for the country’s multifaceted problems.

“One of the most important reasons for this crisis is the corrupt political class. Therefore, what is required is to find a way for the emergence of a new class, or to put this class on trial and hold it accountable. This can be achieved either through a military coup, or by drafting a new electoral law, or by referring the political leaders to court to be tried before an independent judiciary, or by the outbreak of a total popular revolution,” Kassir said, adding: “But all of these are not expected to happen. This class might stay in power, which will deepen the crisis.”

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has warned that Lebanon risked disappearing due to its political elite’s failure to quickly form a new government to implement crucial reforms. "The international community will not sign a blank check if they [Lebanese authorities] don't put in place the reforms. They must do it quickly ... because the risk today is the disappearance of Lebanon," Le Drian told RTL radio recently.

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