Geopolitics of the virus

Lebanon, revolution in times of pandemic

AFP vía GETTY IMAGES/Ibrahim Chalhoub - Demonstrations in Lebanon

After almost 100 days of fighting in the streets, the demonstrators and Lebanese citizens heard at the end of January the first package of measures to combat what Lebanese society considers to be the country's main problem. Endemic corruption, which, like a pandemic, has for decades poisoned the institutions and successive governments that have alternated in power since the end of the war. Tired of the situation in the country, the citizens only hope that the new government will not act in a partisan manner and will guarantee the longed-for transparency that will bring about a real change of political direction in Lebanon. 

But the new government, which is probably the most homogeneous in recent Lebanese history, formed entirely by three parties, the Christian MPL (Free Patriotic Movement) and the Shiites Amal and Hezbollah, is born weighed down, both by its composition and the way it has been formed. The composition of the government breaks with the traditional policy of power quotas in Lebanon, whereby all governments have a broad representation of the political forces present in the Assembly of Representatives in order to balance power among all the religious factions that make up the broad Lebanese political spectrum. On the other hand, it is a government formed unilaterally by President Michel Aoun and the Shi'ite parties, without consensus and deliberately setting aside all other political forces. 

The trust among the citizens, obviously, is something that is not gained only with slogans and grandiloquent words along the lines of what a political leader knows that, in a country that is a victim of political boredom, in bankruptcy, and with the ruling class vilified, the people want to listen, and many, with the certainty that the new government does not mean a change in the line of what has been demanded since October in the streets, fear that this situation will lead to a witch-hunt against the rest of the political organizations excluded from the new government pact. From the first day the Lebanese took to the streets, they have been calling for the revocation of absolutely all the political class that has emerged from among the 200 families that form the socio-political elite in the country of cedars, and when they said all, they meant all, starting with Michel Aoun. The new government's intentions have in no way taken into account the demands of Lebanese society, nor are they directed in this direction, but they have announced a selective approach to the problem of corruption, which for some means putting the political opposition to President Aoun and his allies in the spotlight, Starting with former Prime Ministers Fuad Siniora and Saad Hariri, who were opposed to Hezbollah and a rapprochement with Syria, or Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the only Lebanese politician who expressed his support for the popular classes during the months of protest and the only Lebanese politician who at this time of maximum tension is sending messages of calm to the population. 

This, of course, implies that other Lebanese political leaders, with the same level of responsibility as Siniora or Hariri, or more, such as Nabih Berri, leader of the Amal Movement and president of the Assembly of Representatives or the member of the House of Representatives and former foreign minister Gebran Bassil of the MPL, will be relieved of all responsibility. Gebran Bassil was first elected to the Assembly of Representatives in 2005, is considered a man close to Damascus, former foreign and telecommunications minister in Saad Hariri's first government and energy minister in Najib Mikati's government in 2011, has been, during the protests, identified as one of the main responsibles for the situation in Lebanon, and is one of the main targets of the protesters' anger, the cynical representation that nothing has changed in the country. Gebran Bassil is the political son of Michel Aoun, whom he appointed president of the MPL in 2015, the party he founded. He is also a son-in-law in the literal sense, as he has been married since 1999 to one of Aoun's daughters. Bassil's case is paradigmatic of the situation in Lebanon and how the new government intends to tackle the problem of corruption and political renewal.

An example of the impunity with which he acts is his trip at the end of January to the World Economic Forum summit in Davos, 24 hours after the government was formed in Lebanon. In an interview with the American channel CNBC, he was unable to answer how a bankrupt country could finance the trip and stay of any minister in Switzerland, alluding to alleged private financing for which he gave no further explanation. Michel Aoun's son-in-law is simply the confirmation for many of the citizens who have taken to the streets in recent months that no government presided over by Aoun can be part of the solution to Lebanon's political problems, a man who has perpetuated in his own family the traditional style of the Lebanese oligarchy. Michel Aoun's three sons are members of the MPL and MPs in the Assembly of Representatives, his son-in-law Chamel Roukoz, a former military man also a member of the MPL and MP in the Assembly. 

After spending 14 years in exile in France, Michel Aoun, following his return to Lebanon in 2005, expressed his intention to pursue the corruption that had plagued the country, and which had been the cause of the sectarian struggles that had cost the life of Rafik Hariri, seeing himself as the savior of the country. However, the refusal after the assassination of Rafik Hariri to support Aoun by the Hariri, and other political forces such as the Druze of Walid Jumblatt, led Aoun to place the cross on those who would henceforth be his main political adversaries. 

The new explosion of anger took place in the streets on 21 January, continuing the violent demonstrations that had been shaking the country from one end to the other since Saturday 18 January, to protest once again against the political sectarianism prevailing in Lebanon. The days preceding the formation of the new executive took place some of the most intense demonstrations since October. In front of the demonstrators, the Lebanese security forces, the ISF, had to be used with maximum hardness, using bullets and rubber balls and even the famous water cannons that months ago served to extinguish the fires that consumed the country. The ISF, like the general situation in the country, have seen their salaries cut and have been on the streets since October, creating an explosive situation between them and the demonstrators. 

According to Amnesty International, nearly 400 people were injured in Beirut that week alone due to the harsh nature of the clashes with the security forces. The Lebanese Red Cross estimated on Saturday 18 alone that 300 people were injured in Beirut in clashes with the ISF. On the same 21st January, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights denounced the situation of violence in Lebanon and urged the government to modulate the response that the ISF was giving to the protests. However, the political fire seemed inextinguishable and, after the announcement of the new government, began the so-called week of anger in Lebanon. The scale of the protests left more than 500 people injured throughout the country, in addition to attacks on journalists by the ISF. 

Manifestantes en Líbano

Once again, the last days of January, with the approval of the new government's economic plan, the protests in the streets increased. The economic measures that the new government claims to be determined to take, and which were expressly approved, with the rejection of several parties on the grounds that the new executive should submit to a motion of confidence in the Assembly before approving any kind of law or economic plan, are the same ones presented in the economic plan by the last government of Saad Hariri in December. And all this in an environment radically different from that of December, with an economic and social crisis that is very difficult to solve and an unflattering horizon, where the coronavirus was planning on Lebanon. On February 11, with the street in full social effervescence against the new government, it comfortably passed the motion of confidence demanded by several opposition parties in the Assembly of Representatives. Outside, in the street, clashes between demonstrators against the government of Hassan Diab and the ISF left more than 200 people injured. As it happened in November, the demonstrators cut the accesses leading to the Assembly of Representatives to try to prevent the development of the parliamentary session, confronting the ISF which used all its resources, as denounced by the Lebanese Red Cross, which certifies the use of water cannons and tear gas against the population trying to prevent the session of the Assembly from taking place. 

Of the demands that led the Lebanese citizens to break out on 17 October last year, the most important, that of achieving an independent government, committed to the fight against corruption, is not only far from being achieved, but for many citizens the situation, and not only the economic one, has worsened considerably. In the streets, the demonstrators reject the formation of the government by a part of the parties that have perpetuated the system, based on the traditional quotas of power, and it is understood as a disregard to their demands, which passed through the formation of a government of independent technicians. The feeling is that nothing has changed. Partially, the new government has been made up of technicians, something that Hezbollah refused to do, but to which President Aoun was in favour. Finally, in this aspect, a fair quota has been achieved, integrating 50% of technicians into the new executive. Also, for the first time in the history of Lebanon, a woman has assumed the Defense Department, Zerina Akar, who will also be the vice-president of the cabinet presided over by Hassan Diab and in which, in addition to Akar herself, there are four other women. 

Ministras Gobierno de Líbano

The new prime minister, Hassan Diab, is an engineer and academic, close to Hezbollah but not affiliated to any party, so he is theoretically considered independent. With a strong technocratic profile, from 2011 to 2014 he served as Minister of Education in the government of Najib Mikati, a government that, like the one he heads at the moment, arises from the abandonment of power by Saad Hariri. Although he does not seem to represent a hope for change for Lebanon, at least in the eyes of the citizens, it can be said that he is not a victim of his past, nor is he known to be politically indebted, which is commonplace in the Lebanese political class. In his first public speech as prime minister, he declared that he was a receiver of the demands of the Lebanese society, something that, as we have seen, is not shared by the people in the streets, in view of the protests that the formation of this new government has provoked. Moreover, his proximity to Hezbollah does not make him the receiver of the sympathies of the demonstrators either, who have seen how over the months they have had to confront supporters of Amal and Hezbollah, who are against a change of political direction in the country. 

Meanwhile, Hezbollah continues to be the guardian of the new government and, to some extent, the government has conformed to its measure, placing at its head a man close to the Shiite organization, Hassan Diab. It is also one of the three political organizations that form the executive. In political terms, it can be translated as continuity, and that Hezbollah, which was in a very comfortable position with the previous executive despite being led by enemies of the Shiite organization, relied on its social, political and military weight. Hezbollah has had to integrate the new government, in search of a much needed stability at domestic level, one of the first measures taken by the new executive, is a tax exemption for the Shiite organization. The year did not start well for the Shiite organization, with an extremely unstable region after the death at the beginning of the year of Qassem Soleimani and the confrontations in Syria with the Turkish Army. Outside the region, Hezbollah suffered a major setback when its political arm was declared a terrorist organisation in Germany, with the excuse that its publications in Europe are an apology for violence, as well as being a fundamental instrument in political and religious proselytising activities in European Shiite communities. Germany has taken this step unilaterally, because although the EU has declared the armed wing of the Shiite organization to be a terrorist organization, the same does not apply to its political wing.

At the beginning of January, the official situation with regard to the national economy was one of collapse. However, with the entry of the new government, the ministers of finance Ghazi Wazni and economy, Raoul Naemeh, were willing to declare the country bankrupt and in favour of seeking foreign financing. Bankruptcy that, for the first time in its history, Lebanon has been forced to declare, with the failure to pay its debt in early April. Likewise, the new government has been forced to depreciate the Lebanese pound against the dollar, causing a loss of purchasing power for the exhausted Lebanese citizens. Part of the citizenry rejects these measures, denouncing that there would be no need for foreign funding or funding from supranational organizations if the political class were to return the public money it has stolen for 40 years. In the minds of the exhausted Lebanese, the $11 billion in private donations received by the government in 2018, which have been diluted, paraphrasing the immortal character of Philip K. Dick, like tears in raindrops. 

The new prime minister, Hassan Diab, has stated that, in line with the measures expressed by its finance and economy ministers, the government is going to carry out an audit of Lebanon's central bank. Independent media in the US predict an economic contraction in Lebanon of about 25% this year and an increase in unemployment from 25% to 50%. Before this perspective, many analysts predict that it is likely that the IMF will condition the financing of the Lebanese state on the adoption of economic measures, such as monitoring Lebanon's finances until the situation stabilizes. Lebanon maintains a deficit of about 11% of its GDP, while the country's relative indebtedness is 150% of GDP. Youth unemployment stood at 37% in October, at the time of the so-called WhatsApp revolution, joined by the nearly 250,000 Lebanese who have lost their jobs due to the health emergency. With all these data, it is not complicated to think that Lebanon will be the most affected economy in the region as a result of the health emergency, according to Al Monitor. To the data we have just seen, we should add a 12% contraction of the economy since the health alert was issued, with a monthly loss of 6%, in a country that only in 2109 suffered a 6.5% economic contraction. One of the economic areas that could provide a breath of fresh air for Lebanon at the moment is the energy sector. Part of the controversial Mediterranean hydrocarbon reserves would be located in Lebanese territorial waters. The Hariri Government has already expressed its willingness to explore for gas and oil and to determine the quantities involved. However, the same government sold the exploitation rights to French and Russian companies, with the effect, if possible, of exploiting these hydrocarbons in a very lax manner on the Lebanese economy. And if it is possible, because Israel has declared that 90% of the reserves over which Lebanon has jurisdiction are actually in Israeli territorial waters. 

Despite the fact that the IMF did not consider itself capable of making projections about the Lebanese economy in the short term, the World Bank announced a $40 million credit so that Beirut could face the COVID-19 pandemic with some guarantees. The pandemic knows no revolutions other than the one it causes in the societies in which it is present, and Lebanon is no exception. Faced with the urgency of the health crisis, President Michel Aoun launched an appeal to the international community to send urgent aid to a country facing a bankrupt and resource-deficient pandemic. 

On the empty streets of Beirut and other cities in the country, Hezbollah organized disinfection brigades, and tried to extend health care to the estimated four and a half million people who were left without medical coverage. The Shi'ite organization mobilized nearly 15,000 volunteers to join the disinfection brigades, while making available to the government not only its vast primary health care network and emergency transport system, but also its most modern facilities and test processing laboratories. As we saw in a previous article, the religious organization's healthcare network is probably more powerful than the state itself, which has allowed them during these months not only to provide medical assistance and increase the capacity to provide care to the population in the more than 10 hospitals the organization owns, but also to capitalize on the nationwide distribution of food to the neediest population. 

The government acted relatively quickly when the first case was detected on 21 February. Progressively, all non-essential services for the functioning of the state were closed, airports were closed, starting with Beirut, and a month later quarantine and mobility restrictions were decreed for the entire population. However, the health system is a true reflection of the national situation: it is currently resistant, but the lack of resources may cause it to explode at the most unexpected time. In this regard, various organizations such as Human Rights Watch point out that the risk of infection in the face of the lack of and the impossibility, due to the high price, of acquiring more individual protective equipment, masks and health resources may soon double the current rate of contagion. The management of the health crisis has again only been criticised by the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who is clearly the only Lebanese political leader openly critical of the situation in the country. 

The lack of testing in Lebanon has made it difficult to obtain an approximate number of positive cases, with an estimated 550 daily tests carried out to determine cases of COVID-19. As of 20 May, according to the UTN-FRCU Database Research Group, Lebanon had 859 confirmed cases, 599 active and 26 deceased, with a case fatality rate of 2.8 per cent, although several local analysts estimate that the cases could now number over 1,500, as the number of cases in rural areas and refugee camps is difficult to determine. According to data provided by the Ministry of Health, at the beginning of the health crisis, Lebanon had 576 beds throughout the country, of which 234 were ICU beds and 263 ventilators, with a total capacity increase of 50%. In other words, the limit of the Lebanese health system's capacity at the beginning of the crisis was 864 beds, 351 ICU beds and some 400 ventilators for a population of just over 6 million inhabitants, to which we should add nearly a million refugees, within a health system in which most hospitals and health centres are private, and as was the case in 2010 with the H1N1 health crisis, they have put all possible difficulties in collaborating with the Ministry of Health in managing the current crisis. 

According to the predictive system of The Global Health Institute of the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese health system will collapse irretrievably when the number of infected people is between 17,000 and 20,000. On April 24, Walid Ammar, spokesman for the Lebanese Ministry of Health, told Think Global Health that the government only recognized 677 cases of COVID-19 throughout the country. He also indicated that health capacities had increased considerably, without indicating figures, focusing mainly on the Hariri University Hospital in Beirut. At the same time, it acknowledged that the public health system, if it can be called that, lacked all the necessary equipment to deal with the pandemic in a guaranteed manner. The government established 5 phases to exit the quarantine, from April 27, the end of the confinement, until June 8, when it was estimated that the country would have recovered activity in all sectors of society, from commerce to the opening of places of worship. On 13 May, an upsurge in the number of cases reactivated the containment measures for the population, measures which ended on 27 May. 

But even the emergency measures to deal with the health emergency did not stop the protests. On April 26, the last day of the government's confinement, the Lebanese took to the streets again, an incident that has determined the high level of violence recorded during the last month of protests. On the night of Monday 27, the army shot at groups of protesters in Beirut and other cities in the country, killing one person in Tripoli. On the night of 28-29, the streets of Lebanon were ablaze with rage at the army's actions and the statements of the new prime minister who, after very laxly condemning the clearly excessive actions of the military, warned the population of the consequences of remaining on the streets. That night, Lebanon was lit up by the fires caused by attacks on bank branches throughout the country. 

Manifestaciones en Líbano

Since the beginning of the revolution in October, Lebanese banks have been at the forefront of citizen protests. After closing down for about a month following the start of the protests, they set up a kind of corralito to limit the amount of money they could hand out to citizens, in the face of fears of a massive withdrawal of cash impossible to cover with existing reserves. This maximum daily amount that Lebanese citizens can receive, after more than 6 months of corralito, has been reduced to 100 dollars per citizen. Also, the governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon, gave an order days before the end of the quarantine not to exchange dollars for less than 3200 pounds/dollar. Despite the fact that Hassan Diab appeared to reiterate his intention to audit the Central Bank, and to announce the dismissal of the governor, who was accused of opacity in the accounts and of organizing the corralito, the citizens' groups that organized themselves during the first months of the protests to demonstrate and blockade the branches, demanding a solution for the citizens to recover their savings, ended up exploding. Reorganized, they continued to gather daily in front of the branches to protest, but no longer with the markedly peaceful character of the first months. Despite a new government imposed quarantine in early May, protests have continued on the streets of Lebanon. The danger for the demonstrators is no longer COVID-19, but the threat is represented by the economic prospects of a country in bankruptcy in the midst of a global economic and social crisis, harder than the one experienced in the last decade and at the same level as the one experienced a little less than a century ago, where citizens no longer have the means to travel, to school their children or worse, to feed themselves. With the Lebanese pound down, the average salary in Lebanon at the end of April was enough to buy two litres of milk. 

The situation in Lebanon was one of the priority issues discussed at the Arab League summit in Egypt at the end of April. Without reaching any agreement on how to deal with the Lebanese issue from within the League, the member countries limited themselves to making an institutional declaration of support for the government and the security forces. The government, meanwhile, in early May asked the Lebanese private banks to increase the granting of credits and the extension and expansion of those already granted in an attempt to achieve a minimum flow of capital, asking for assistance from a dubious IMF, from which they have requested a credit of $10 billion, offering among other things the flexibility of the Lebanese pound's exchange rate. 

One of the unexpected consequences of the pandemic that the government has had to face is the impact on prisons throughout the country. In mid-March, in line with the state of the rest of the country, there were strong protests inside the prisons due to the overcrowding of the prison population in Lebanon and the absolute lack of measures to prevent or alleviate the incidence of COVID-19 inside the prisons. According to Carnegie, since the end of March there is no reliable information on the situation, so according to this Think Tank, the government has ignored the demands, limiting itself to using force to end the protests. 

Manifestantes en Líbano

The last of the pressing issues that the new government has had to face in recent months has been the problem of refugees within Lebanon, who are again being expelled from the country. To this end, the government has resorted to redefining the conditions under which Beirut grants refugee status and promoting voluntary return, in contravention of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) guidelines. In favour of the new government, it plays on the fact that the economic situation in Lebanon is no longer favourable and many Syrians who entered the country to escape the violence have chosen to return or find another place of refuge. According to government data, the Lebanese Government has allocated about $25 billion to attend to the, according to UNHCR, about one million temporary refugees that Lebanon is hosting on its territory, about 950,000 of whom are Syrian and about 20,000 of other nationalities, mainly Iraqi and Sudanese. The number of permanent refugees, mostly Palestinians, is estimated by UNHCR at about 500,000. The rhetoric of the Lebanese political class does not help in tackling the problem of refugees in a borderline situation such as that which Lebanon is currently experiencing. 

The words of Gebran Bassil in 2017 in this regard are defining of what a large part of the political class thinks about the situation of refugees in Lebanon. In an act by the MPL, he called with openly racist rhetoric for Syrian refugees to leave Lebanon, because there is only one place where they should be, their country. For the Ministry of Health, they are the most serious source of contagion in the whole country. The first case in a camp according to the UNHCR was recorded at the end of April, so the best strategy to tackle the control of the pandemic in the refugee camps has been to wash one's hands and hand over control of the crisis to the United Nations, which has reported the difficulties in getting basic health care to the camps.   

However, the last, or penultimate, chapter in Lebanon is being written these first days of June. On 4 June, nearly 200 Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon gathered outside the Ethiopian Embassy in Beirut. They had been expelled from the houses in which they were working. The Embassy has tried to find accommodation, but has encountered the difficulties inherent in the situation in the country, so the solution seems slow and complicated, and involves trying to find accommodation for these 200 people who remain on the streets in the midst of protests and a virulent pandemic that has not yet said its last word. 

Traditionally, Ethiopian citizens have been hired for domestic work in Lebanon under Kefala, a traditional system of employing foreign workers in the Middle East, whereby the employer hires the worker at origin and takes responsibility for his stay and legal status for the duration of the employment relationship. The employer imposes working conditions and decides when and how to terminate the employment relationship. Since the beginning of the health crisis by COVID-19 in Lebanon, nearly 7,000 domestic workers, out of the 250,000 across the country according to Amnesty International, have been expelled from their jobs and repatriated by their embassies. Most of these workers, employed in the domestic and construction sectors, were from Ethiopia, Bangladesh and the Philippines. The picture is truly bleak.