Twelve months after the catastrophic explosion of the port which left more than 200 dead, thousands injured and left around 300,000 people homeless, Lebanon’s dramatic descent into the economic and political crisis is worsening. Lebanon’s economic collapse was so severe that the World Bank ranked it among the three most severe on record since the mid-19th century.
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The data highlights a growing humanitarian catastrophe. More than 900,000 Lebanese are unable to obtain enough food and basic services, as prices have increased by 580% since October 2020. Half of the population now lives below the poverty line. Formal unemployment increased by 35%. And as if the situation weren’t bad enough, the state’s political leaders failed to form a power-sharing government.
The immediate factors causing the situation are the banking crisis of 2019, made worse by the COVID pandemic that followed. The liquidity crisis that consumed the banking sector resulted in a 90% devaluation of the Lebanese pound and a 9.2% drop in GDP in 2020. Yet to fully understand the nature of the crisis, it is important to understand the deadly mixture of Lebanon. of political sectarianism and neoliberalism.
The term political sectarianism refers to the system of power sharing in Lebanon, reinvented after the civil war of 1975-1990. The supposed purpose of power sharing is to secure seats in government for representatives of the 18 major sects in the state. Power sharing thus aims to ensure that no sect can dominate the state to the exclusion of others.
What the power-sharing achieved was a situation in which a group of Civil War-era warlords and tycoons used their positions as elected cult leaders for themselves. to seize the economic institutions of the State. These characters use the spoils of the state to enrich their personal fortunes. The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2020 ranked Lebanon among the most corrupt states in the world.
These sectarian leaders further use these resources to primarily buy political support. Basic services – healthcare, electricity and gas – are increasingly controlled by private sectarian factions. These services are given to members of their communities on the basis that they will give their vote to the cult leaders. This system makes many citizens dependent on sectarian factions for their daily survival.
This is where political sectarianism overlaps with neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is associated with the decline of the state, paving the way for privatization, low taxation, and the outsourcing of public works and services (such as garbage collection) to private companies. Post-war Lebanon has been described as an example of “really existing neoliberalism”.
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One of the most infamous examples of this neoliberalism is the reconstruction of downtown Beirut by Solidere, a private-public company created by former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The transfer of public space to private hands earned Solidere $ 8 billion (£ 5.7 billion) – a quarter of Lebanon’s GDP.
Rather than developing public services to foster inclusive citizenship and legitimacy, elites have eroded key institutions that act as the pillars of stability.
Revolution – or reform?
The pressing question is where is Lebanon going? The World Bank has warned that “Lebanon’s sharp and rapid contraction is usually associated with conflict or war.” The 15-year civil war in Lebanon left more than 150,000 dead and one million displaced. A relapse into this kind of all-out civil war is highly unlikely.
More likely is a new wave of social unrest. Popular power in the form of protest movements has become a common form of opposition against corrupt sectarian leaders in Lebanon. In 2019, as the banking crisis emerged and punitive taxes were introduced, ordinary Lebanese across the country took to the streets in what has been called the thawra (“uprising”). Protesters chanted, “All means all,” which means all sectarian leaders must be ousted.
Mostly, thawra gave voice to a range of maginized groups including women, LGBTQ + citizens and anti-racists and those who support migrant domestic workers.
The sectarian elites used all the tricks at their disposal to ensure the survival of the regime, apparently in the interest of stability. Security forces arrested activists – even for their social media posts – and unleashed their henchmen to beat up protesters.
Yet, with the salaries of the security forces gutted, it is increasingly unlikely that they can be trusted to call off the protests. Even party supporters – themselves affected by the economic crisis – can withdraw their support.
The recent appointment of Najib Mikati as Prime Minister-designate represents yet another billionaire tycoon holding the reins of power. As a reformist, Mikati is likely to simply tinker with the status quo, rather than envision the significant transformation of the sectarian system that is so desperately needed.
Lebanon has traditionally tried to maintain a policy of supporting Lebanon’s broken political system. At present, in particular, the West sees Lebanon as a key player in the international refugee regime. In addition to the 200,000 displaced Palestinians living within the country’s borders, Lebanon now hosts around 1.5 million refugees fleeing the civil war in neighboring Syria.
France, the region’s former colonial power, presented a package of economic and structural reforms designed to restore power-sharing government. The French initiative would see a power-sharing government led by technocrats eager to carry out reforms under the supervision of the International Monetary Fund.
But these efforts to maintain the survival of the regime go against the wishes of many Lebanese citizens. For them, there is no merit in going back to a failing system unable to provide basic services, jobs and human rights. Something will have to give. The status quo can no longer hold.