All of this comes in the aftermath of months of mass protests since October 17 which turned increasingly violent prior to the corona outbreak. So far, protest groups have abided by the lockdown to ensure public safety, but the past two weeks have increasingly witnessed sporadic gatherings as living standards become unbearable. Whilst the government’s response to the pandemic has succeeded in largely containing its spread, social protection measures are heavily lacking. Consequently, the lockdown must be analyzed through a wider multifaceted lens. This article will briefly expand on the economic situation, lacking social protection, and impending popular unrest.
It has become common knowledge that the unsustainable economic, financial, and monetary policies of postwar Lebanon have run out of steam in an unfortunately catastrophic fashion. The alliance between political and financial elites, responsible for the massive accumulation of wealth and power among a fraction of the population through a neoliberal rentier economic system, is being overtly called out and targeted by protesters as well as an increasing number of commentators. This breakthrough into mainstream public discourse, however, has come at a very late stage where the repercussions of these polices will reverberate for many years to come. The extent of the crisis is so deep that an immense cost has to be paid – no matter what structural reforms are taken.
The current struggle between political and financial elites on one hand, and the protest movement on the other, will determine who will bear the blunt of the approximately $80 billion in losses, aside from a similar amount in due debt. For decades, the spoils of a rigged system exclusively flowed to the top whereas it is now expected from an increasingly impoverished population to accept the “distribution” of the costs to the bottom. In the weeks before the lockdown, protesters staged marches under the slogans “we will not pay the price” which later escalated to “you will pay the price”. It is worth noting that a simultaneous struggle is ensuing within the political and financial elites’ themselves, notably reflected in the contradictory reactions to the latest government draft of an economic plan.
Driven by an unprecedented economic crisis and accelerated by an ongoing corona lockdown, social stability is under heavy strain. The effects of the systematic dismantling of social welfare and labor unions have clearly manifested in the past months. Rather than channeling state resources to public institutions, clientelist and patronage networks took precedence to tie the loyalty of mostly lower but also middle-class families to sectarian elites. As these resources along with foreign funding dwindle, such networks are no longer capable of carrying out their purpose. Two relevant examples will be stated. First, a heavily privatized healthcare sector has failed to properly respond to the corona outbreak thus laying most of the responsibility on underfunded, understaffed, and underequipped public hospitals. Second, a bankrupt state has failed to protect the vulnerable segments of society confined to their homes in lockdown. Daily workers with no source of income, unpaid leave, and arbitrary layoffs have been normalized amid the absence of any serious push back by unions and government agencies.
This has spurred the emergence of solidarity initiatives by civil society to assist those in need. It has also partly revitalized sectarian parties reeling from public discontent by providing them a space to distribute “food baskets” to their supporters. Though, all these efforts only cover a small part of the immense needs of this period as people are forced to choose between “hunger or corona”.
On one hand, despite undertesting compared to the global average, recent data has reflected a huge decrease in new confirmed corona cases per day. On the other hand, different studies have suggested that a resurgence of cases is bound to occur until a cure or vaccine is discovered. This places the country in a precarious situation. As movement restrictions are lifted and social conditions worsen, a new wave of protests is expected to rock the country, perhaps even more violently from both the protesters and the security apparatus. The clashing interests of ruling parties, financial elites, and the protest movement will likely manifest in the streets, under the table dealings, demonization campaigns, and heavy cooption attempts.
It remains unclear which side will gain or lose the most, but it is evident that the protest movement is facing a difficult challenge. Similar to the October 17 scenario, forcing a government to resign is one thing but seizing power, or even shaping policy, at least under the current balance of power, is another. Now more than ever, the need for organized, grassroots, cross-sectarian movements capable of rallying people behind a progressive political, economic, and social program is a must, if Lebanon is to escape this dark fate it is staring into.
By Jimmy Matar, Program Manager at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung office in Lebanon
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