Lebanese society has suffered all sorts of ups and downs in 2020 with the formation of three different governments, which have been hit by an unprecedented economic and health crisis

Lebanon, year 1

PHOTO/AFP - Lebanese society has suffered all sorts of ups and downs in 2020 with the formation of three different governments, which have been hit by an unprecedented economic and health crisis

October 17 was the anniversary of the beginning of the October Revolution. 

Also called the 'WhatsApp Revolution' in Lebanon. It has been a year of fighting, fires, changes of government, pandemics and more fires. With finally an explosion that predicted that, after the hardest year in the country's memory since the civil war, everything would change.  

How did we get here? 

The social explosion that brought more than a million Lebanese onto the streets a year ago against the system of government that emerged from the Taif Accords has been a turning point in the history of the land of the cedars.  

The protests led by the working classes in the first few months revolted a cross-party movement, with no apparent leadership or defined organisation, structured around the working class in the face of the 200 families and their clientele networks.  

For over 30 years these elites have been the backbone of the Lebanese political system and account for 10% of the population, which controls 84% of the country's wealth. Of these, the richest 1% in Lebanon accumulate 58% of the wealth. Street protests have shown their discontent with the power gap and have demanded first and foremost the political leadership of President Michel Aoun.  


Recuerdos de una vida como corresponsal

The revolution of October 17 gave rise to a movement that empowered the people in the first months, occupying the public space reserved for the wealthy classes.

Demonstrators regained the old demands: political and economic regeneration and reprobation of the whole government. And they urged the leaders to take up other new policies focusing on women's rights and migrants' rights.  

They mainly demanded the real abolition of kafalah, the system of sponsorship of foreign domestic workers, a kind of institutionalised slavery that strips the worker of all rights and gives absolute power to the employer.  

As a result of pressure on the streets, the Lebanese succeeded in reversing the rise in telecommunications taxes (the origin of the new social explosion), provoking the resignation of Saad Hariri at the end of October 2019 and paralysing the Assembly in Beirut. In the practice of the country's entire political system, they managed to ensure that any act of force by the government against citizens in the streets to ensure the normal functioning of the Assembly delegitimized any of the decisions taken at the seat of popular sovereignty, from where the elite has usurped sovereignty from the Lebanese.  

The resignation of Mohammad Safadi's government on November 16, 2019 was a direct consequence of popular pressure. An amnesty law for all politicians involved in corruption cases was also prevented during that session. The government used all means available to stop the protests - police violence as well as violence by the Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal - against the demonstrators.

Michel Aoun allowed himself to take another turn at the country's complex situation when, as the first candidate elected in November, Mohammad Safadi, failed to form a government, he unilaterally decided to form a one-coloured government between the Free Patriotic Movement (MPL), Amal and Hezbollah, dispensing with the other parties, the quota system and ratification by the Beirut Assembly.  

Aoun's autocratic turn, breaking the Lebanese political consensus, made it clear to Lebanese society that he was not going to give in, but merely resist and wait. The new government, therefore, was born weighed down by the mistrust of citizens who were certain that it would in no way bring about the change demanded and delegitimized by the parties that had remained outside the executive.  

Furthermore, the fear of a new setback in civil rights became apparent, since without control of the Assembly and the other parties, Aoun and his allies could act with total freedom when it came, for example, to purging their political enemies. 

The fact is that, were it not for the extreme gravity of the situation in Lebanon and the record of governments that led the country to such a situation, the new government headed by Hassan Diab, a man very close to Hezbollah, would not look bad on paper.  

It was a homogeneous block with a hint of independence and a technocratic point against the criteria of Hezbollah and Amal. It granted women a large quota of political representation with the inclusion of five women in key ministries, such as the Ministry of Defence. With a woman minister who also held the position of vice-president of the country.  

Following the announcement of the new government, "Week of Anger" began, the most serious clashes since the protests began. The Lebanese security forces (ISF) were employed with unprecedented harshness, although later, with the approval of the economic plan, the cut in ISF salaries was made official.  

It soon became clear that the government's intentions were not going to take into account the demands of Lebanese society, nor would its policies be a reflection of their claims. The first measures taken by the new government in January included a very abstract and unspecified plan to tackle the problem of corruption in a selective manner. This was confirmation for some: the heads of President Aoun's enemies were going to roll.  

Lebanon's economic woes in times of pandemic 

The economic measures presented by Hassan Diab's executive were the same as those presented in October by Saad Hariri's government except for the intention to carry out an audit of the banking system and exempt Hezbollah from taxes. 

As the coronavirus was beginning to be the main concern of governments around the world, Diab's executive managed to overcome a motion of confidence in the Assembly, which was answered in the streets by thousands of demonstrators opposing the ISF. 

Stephanie Williams, enviada especial para la misión de la ONU en Libia

Diab's next step was to declare bankruptcy, thus making the collapse of the national economy official, and, after being unable to deal with the country's debt, to request funding from international organisations. This measure met with a response in the streets. 

During October and November, bank employees had gone on strike, forcing banks to close down, restricting cash withdrawals and leading, in practice, to a financial corralito. This made them one of the main targets of the demonstrators. The public's rejection of banking reached its peak in April and May, when branches were blocked, and savings retained by the banks were demanded, even leading to the burning of a large number of bank branches throughout the country.  

The Central Bank issued a circular to guarantee the US currency with the aim of importing basic products, mainly fuel and wheat. However, the inability to access funds paralysed imports. At the end of April the average salary of a Lebanese man was two litres of milk.  

The pandemic also led President Aoun to request urgent funds from the international community to combat the health emergency. The government acted quickly, closing down all non-essential services for the state in February.  

To this end, it was assisted by Hezbollah, which organised disinfection brigades and extended its health coverage to millions of Lebanese without medical assistance, making the primary health care network, the emergency transport system and the hospitals available to the government. Hezbollah's health network, which is more powerful than the state network, made it possible to increase medical and food assistance to the population.  

Shortage in basic medical equipment, tests, masks, EPIs, and hygiene products led to fears of a critical increase in the rate of infection. At the same time, the lack of hospital resources predicted a total collapse in mid-April, when they reached a 50% hospital occupation.  

In the end, the Lebanese version of the '1812 Overture' ended with two explosions in the port of Beirut that destroyed everything in their path within a radius of 10 kilometres. 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate ended up collapsing Beirut's battered hospitals. 

Demonstrations after the explosion even exceeded those in January and April, the foreign, environment and economy ministries were set on fire and the government was overwhelmed and unable to handle the situation.  

That night Hassan Diab appeared on television to announce an imminent call for elections in an attempt to redress the situation. Two days later the Diab-led government resigned in full, forming a provisional government with practically no powers and charged with calling elections.  

Recuerdos de una vida como corresponsal

Diab's government broke up definitively on 3 August with the resignation of the foreign minister. The explosion brought an end to a government that had been condemned from the outset and devoured by circumstances.  

It was then that the name of Saad Hariri began to resonate as head of the new government.  

Where is Lebanon headed? 

One year on, political and social regeneration in Lebanon is still pending. Virtually none of the demands that motivated the Lebanese to take to the streets and rebel against the system have been met. Energy deficits and water and electricity cuts, one of the main demands that led to last year's mobilisations, have not been solved.  

Responsibility is not only directed at the deficit in critical energy and water supply infrastructures, but also at the private companies financed by the government and in charge of generating and distributing energy supplies in Lebanon.  

These companies continuously use the regular supply of water and electricity throughout the country as a pressure tool. This is why the Lebanese government is only able to guarantee four or five hours of electricity per day at best, and this depends on the municipality.  

Beyond that, there are only two options: you can either negotiate with the electricity companies that own the entire supply network (from the energy infrastructure to the cabling) or use diesel generators.  

According to independent Lebanese daily The Public Observer, these generators are being denounced to the authorities for not complying with environmental regulations and for having stored fuel without minimum guarantees of safety.  

This fact, which may seem insignificant, once again highlights Lebanon's precariousness and the collapse of the state. In early October a series of fires broke out similar to those which also helped trigger the October 2019 revolution. 

Recuerdos de una vida como corresponsal

One of the main factors affecting this new wave of uncontrolled fires was the abundance of poorly stored fuel with which thousands of Lebanese supply their home electricity generators. And again the government, overwhelmed by the situation, has reacted by blaming the fires on "inter-communal violence".  

The education system is another victim of the situation in Lebanon, a mixed French-type system where private education, supported by the government, has been affected in Beirut by the consequences of the explosion.  

The public schools damaged in the blast are unable to afford repairs due to lack of funds. Meanwhile, the unbearable rise in textbook prices and the state's economic collapse have forced many families to send their children to public schools. And these, in turn, are even worse off because the only source of income comes from donations collected by the Ministry of Education, which are now being channelled into private schools.  

The World Bank has estimated that by the end of December, 45% of the Lebanese population will have brought their income below the poverty line. To add to the pressure on the economic situation, the UNHCR has estimated that 75% of the nearly two million refugees in Lebanon are already in this situation.  

The events in August made things much easier for the Lebanese government, as there was a significant increase in the number of refugees taking advantage of voluntary return to Syria. Others, mainly Palestinian (nearly 500,000), still have nowhere to return. 

At the same time, the increase in poverty and civil rights has also been reduced in an attempt to reverse the social explosion. Nor has the reform of a judicial system that guarantees the independence of judges, among other aspects, been addressed yet.

The poor waste collection system is jeopardizing the Lebanese health system 

The problem of waste management throughout the country, pending since 2015, remains one of the main concerns of the Lebanese.  

The endemic lack of funds is compounded by a shortage of properly trained technicians and a lack of adequate storage infrastructure, as well as a lack of landfill sites and waste recycling projects. The management of the three million tonnes of waste generated in Lebanon each year is, like energy, in the hands of private companies that rely on migrant workers mainly from India and Bangladesh, often hired under the kafalah system.  

The lack of treatment centres, the saturation of the few dumpsites and the systematic failure of the companies in charge of waste collection have made the invasion of tons of rubbish on the streets of Lebanese cities commonplace.  

The consequence has been the proliferation of illegal landfills run by municipalities and even small neighbourhood communities. Beirut and Mount Lebanon are the most affected areas, where approximately 40% of the country's population lives and where the costs of waste collection and storage are significantly higher than in other areas.  

Segunda ola de COVID-19 en Europa

To these structural factors we should add another circumstantial factor arising from the events of August: all the waste generated after the explosion has exceeded the capacity of the few legal landfills in the Beirut Governorate. The city and suburbs have been flooded with rubble and rubbish adding more pressure to the health system.

The health system is a further reflection on the national situation. The impact of the pandemic was felt throughout the year in Lebanon's impoverished public health system despite the assistance of Hezbollah.  

The explosion in the port of Beirut caused the public health service to collapse for good, leaving at least three hospitals out of service. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation of the University of Washington (IHME), the demand for health resources has increased since August to reach 90% occupancy in ICU beds.  

According to IHM projections, this increase will not stop until late January, when public hospital occupancy will be around 60%. This estimate would also be valid for the number of infections, which would grow in parallel with the saturation by patients with coronavirus in Lebanese hospitals.  

The number of deaths will soar without the HMI being able to predict when the number of deaths from coronaviruses will fall. By the end of October, some 800 beds were occupied by coronavirus patients out of a capacity of just over 7,000 hospital beds. Of 235 ICU beds nationwide, 228 are occupied by coronavirus patients. The daily death toll from COVID-19 alone is just over 10 persons nationwide.  The total number of cases in Lebanon is about 80,000 and the case fatality rate is 0.8%.  

The Lebanese economy has gone bankrupt 

Similarly, the loss of value of the Lebanese pound has led to a loss of purchasing power of health professionals by 20%, causing the few trained and experienced doctors and nurses to leave Lebanon for the Gulf countries, where salaries are higher and there is a demand for health professionals. 

The Lebanese economy is brain dead despite support from France. Although, beyond donor conferences and similar meetings, it does not seem to mean much at the moment. France, too, is in the midst of a health emergency and has an uncertain economic future, both for Paris and for its European Union partners. France seems more interested in defending its companies' concessions on Mediterranean hydrocarbons than in rescuing its former colony, long ago abandoned.  

Segunda ola de COVID-19 en Europa

Any other assistance offered, both by other countries and international organisations, will come hand in hand with structural and economic reforms that are perceived by Lebanese society as blackmail and a way of perpetuating the old policy. Furthermore, countries such as the United States and Saudi Arabia are making aid conditional on the disarmament of Hezbollah and the normalisation of relations with Israel.  

Thirty years of savage neo-liberalism, austerity, corruption and clientelism have led Lebanon to bankruptcy. The level of debt was 150 percent of GDP in January and now stands at around 170 percent. With an 11 percent increase in the deficit, youth unemployment is close to 40 percent, which, together with the latest currency devaluation in January, maintains a very high percentage of the underground economy and a decline in Lebanese purchasing power.  

The Lebanese pound maintained its official exchange rate against the dollar, becoming the de facto currency of choice. It is also the only currency accepted on the black market, paying 20% more per dollar due to a shortage of foreign currency.  

The estimated contraction of the economy at the end of February was 6.5% and 12% in April. The International Monetary Fund estimated the economic contraction at the end of October to be 20%, surpassed only by Libya, while the estimate for the region is 5.5%.  

The corralito was reduced to $100 per citizen per day in April, when the Central Bank of Lebanon prohibited exchanging dollars for less than 3,200 pounds/dollar. By mid-October it stood at around £9,000/dollar, losing around 80% of its value. Cash withdrawals were limited to $2,500 a month per citizen.   

Despite the urgency, none of the governments which have followed one another this year have been able to approve the creation of the commission announced by the finance and economy ministers to audit the banks and to purge liabilities for the bankruptcy situation.  

The shortage of basic commodities continues to be aggravated by the destruction of the port of Beirut, the country's main port which receives and stows around 80 percent of these basic supplies, including health and food. Together with the port, 90 percent of the country's cereal stocks were lost. In addition, according to the Lebanese government, losses from the explosion throughout Beirut amounted to more than $15 billion.

Recuerdos de una vida como corresponsal
Lebanon's policy fails to start a new government 

At the political level, there have been no substantial changes either. Lifetime salaries of members and former members of the government have not been eliminated and the system, although weak, shows no signs of giving in. Michel Aoun, his clique and the Shi'ite parties are resisting, despite street protests.  

Of the ranks of the Lebanese political class, only Walid Jumblatt has come out in favour of change, admitting that as a political leader he is responsible for the current situation in Lebanon.

As a result, Jumblatt's socialist party and the independent Paula Yacoubian left the Assembly in August owing to their inability to legislate or take decisions. Along with the Druze and Yacoubian, the Kataeb parliamentarians also left.  

Michel Aoun remains president of the government despite having formed three separate executives during the year. The last one, in a surreal turn of events, brought back Saad Hariri.  

A surreal situation because, in the eyes of an outsider, what is happening in the Land of Cedars cannot be understood. A political regression of which we should not be surprised, as Aoun already threatened with Hariri's return in December.  

If the phrase "politics is the art of making the impossible possible" has ever made sense, it is in Lebanon that it is the highest exponent of the absurd.  

Back at the forefront of Lebanese politics, if he ever left, Hariri has declared his intention to meet one of society's demands: the establishment of a technocratic government.  

Segunda ola de COVID-19 en Europa

This measure has been opposed throughout the year by both President Aoun, who advocated incorporating 50 percent technocrats into the government, and by Hezbollah, which refused to accept such a measure despite the fact that at times of greatest popular pressure this possibility, which paradoxically Saad Hariri was in favour of, was seriously considered.  

The transition of governments in the midst of the crisis and the pandemic has once again taken place without taking into account the need to call elections and renew a parliament that has been delegitimized both by Lebanese society and by the opposition, which has not regained the seats left behind in August.  

Everything is once again in the hands of President Aoun. When, a year ago, from these very pages, we pointed out that Michel Aoun was aware that a delay in forming a government was playing in his favour, we wondered how long he would manage to hold up the situation and the indefinite blockade of the country before collapsing. But we could not suspect his capacity for survival and resilience. 

After passing the parliamentary process with 65 votes in favour, on October 22 Saad Hariri was sworn in for the fourth time as prime minister of Lebanon, insisting on the formation of a technocratic government with no links to the Lebanese political class.  

This is probably a continuation of the government in which Mr Hariri's return could indicate a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia in search of funds, but this possibility would be conditioned by the presence of Hezbollah as government support.   

Michel Aoun has made it clear that the formation of the government, once a prime minister has been appointed and ratified by the Assembly, is a matter of two: Aoun himself and Hariri, with no third parties.  

The Shiite organisation will certainly continue to assume power in the shadows. It is the guarantor of the stability of the new executive headed by Saad Hariri despite representing opposing political blocs. Also in spite of the fact that other political forces allied with Hariri, such as Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces (LF), oppose Hariri's appointment, supported by the Shiite organisations, Hezbollah and Amal, which he accuses of boycotting the September talks to formalise Mustafa Adib's interim government.  

The Lebanese people, victims of the circumstances and mocked once again, did not take long to demonstrate throughout the country, though without the force of the protests of a year ago.  

Recuerdos de una vida como corresponsal

Hezbollah's insistence on maintaining stability has made the Shiite organisation Michel Aoun's guarantee. Both in the attempts to form a government and in the establishment of Hariri and Diab's executives. To this end they have not hesitated to use all the resources available, including violence against other parties and organisations by resorting to the threat of mobilising their militias.  

Hezbollah has refused to enter into dialogue with all Lebanese political forces in order to reach agreements that might bring the country's situation under control, despite the constant calls for national unity to be maintained.  

This support has resulted in the closing of the ranks around Michel Aoun, legitimising the political immobility that grips Lebanon. His social weight has also increased after having made his medical resources available to President Aoun, thus avoiding the collapse of the health system during the hardest phases of the pandemic. 

However, gaining weight within a government or social environment through dependence on resources is one thing, but it is another that this increased dependence on Hezbollah has improved the organisation's image among the Lebanese. Neither among the Lebanese, nor among the international community on which Lebanon currently depends, has the image of the Shiite organisation changed.  

Despite Hezbollah, relations between Lebanon and Israel have progressed under the auspices of the United States in recent months. This is due to Beirut and Tel Aviv's need to establish the limits of their territorial waters, which would make it possible to use their respective exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and explore the hydrocarbon reserves located there. 

The rights to explore and exploit in Lebanese waters were sold to French companies by the previous Executive headed by Saad Hariri. The Shiite parties protested at the start of the negotiations and advocated that they should be conducted exclusively by military commanders.  

But these diplomatic contacts would be inconsequential, as both governments have made it clear that the aim is to delimit the territorial waters of each country on the basis of strictly economic interests and not to begin to normalise relations.  

Time and circumstances have succeeded in sapping the strength of the great social mass which a year ago was seeing change coming, keeping the Gatopardism in Lebanese politics. The intention is " that everything should have an appearance of change but that nothing should change", thus leading Lebanon to nowhere.