By Dr. Edy CohenNovember 18, 2019
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,348, November 18, 2019
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Israel’s neighbor to the north is gripped by a popular uprising that many fear could lead to civil war.
Faced with the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of citizens protesting in the streets of Lebanon, PM Saad Hariri has submitted a letter of resignation to Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
For the past weeks the streets of Lebanon have been aflame. The country has been paralyzed despite the prognostications of all the experts who thought the demonstrations would wither away swiftly.
What they failed to grasp is that what is at hand is a popular revolt against the corrupt and inept political system that has driven Lebanon into a severe economic depression.
Lebanon operates like a mafia. Its 128 members of parliament, as well as its cabinet ministers, plunder the public coffers via an intricate web of businesses, hotels, shops, and real estate holdings they run on the side. There is no real separation between the political systems and the tycoons. In Lebanese politics, if you can attain a public/government position you’re going to be rich.
The Lebanese people have finally had enough and unleashed mass protests against the rampaging corruption while putting forth specific demands. These include the resignation of the entire political leadership, including the PM, president, chairman of the parliament, and all ministers and members of parliament – in other words, a complete overhaul. Until elections can be held, they are demanding that the politicians be replaced by independent technocrats who have had nothing to do with Lebanese politics going all the way back to the Civil War of 1991.
A small number of families have controlled Lebanon for a long time, and they have become indescribably wealthy and thoroughly corrupt. Take, for example, the family of President Michel Aoun. His two daughters are employed as presidential advisors. One of their husbands is his foreign minister. The other, who is divorced from the daughter, continues to serve as a consultant.
No judge, jury, or media outlet bothers to question this nepotism. That is because Lebanon is made up of 18 different communities (the smallest of which, the Jewish, numbers only a few dozen). Almost every community has its own institutions and media outlets, and they are concerned solely with promoting their own members. Government employees are recruited from within each group on the basis of family and personal connections rather than professional qualifications. The entire system is corrupt, including the media and the judicial system, which routinely panders to politicians and their dictates.
The demonstrators are also demanding new elections and the establishment of an oversight body that will include untainted judges who will expose politicians’ secret bank accounts, prosecute corrupt politicians, and return misappropriated funds to the state. Lebanon’s politicians have a long tradition of enriching themselves at the expense of the citizens, many of whom can’t pay their monthly bills.
Lebanon is a small country encompassing just over 10,000 square kilometers (3,800 square miles), yet it carries a $100 billion debt. Lebanese banks are unable to meet this debt and are not even able to return interest on their loans. Adding to this problem, the banks have shut down since the beginning of the protests. Complicating the situation even further are the sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump on Lebanese banks for working with Hezbollah and Iran.
The entire system is on the verge of collapse.
The strength of the protests lies in its being not only a grassroots movement without permanent leadership but also in its representing a stand against all power players, including Hezbollah. One of the most popular slogans of the protest is “Nasrallah is one of them” (i.e., a corrupt politician). This sentiment was expressed after the Hezbollah leader gave two speeches in which he threatened the demonstrators and falsely accused them of taking funds from foreign agencies. Hezbollah operatives have tried to intimidate the demonstrators, but the Lebanese police intervened to defend them. Nasrallah has not yet succeeded in shaking the resolve of the demonstrators.
Some demonstrators tried to burn the Israeli flag but were stopped by other protesters. “We are demonstrating against corrupt politicians. We must not lose focus,” they said as they put an end to the flag-burning.
The protests are having an impact. The attempts to smear Israel as being behind the movement have failed. The PM resigned in a show of support for the demonstrators, leaving the other politicians in serious trouble.
No one has a solution, and the people in the streets of Lebanon are boiling mad. The future is unclear, and another civil war may well be on the horizon. One thing seems clear – the Lebanese are not giving up anytime soon, and they appear willing to go all the way to bring about radical change in their country.
This is an edited version of an article that appeared in Israel Today on November 4, 2019.
Dr. Edy Cohen is a researcher at the BESA Center and author of the book The Holocaust in the Eyes of Mahmoud Abbas (Hebrew).