Here is an explainer of the current developments, as Lebanon witnesses the second day of fiery protests.
Who governs Lebanon?
Lebanon has a confessional political system, with MPs elected and government positions allocated based on religious sect. The President must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shia.
The current government is headed by the Christian President Michel Aoun and the Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement political party, who took office in 2016.
Hariri is the son of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, and one of the leaders of the “March 14” movement which sprung up to oppose Syria’s domination of Lebanon. The pro-Syrian “March 8” coalition was formed in response to “March 14” and headed by Hezbollah in a tactical alliance with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) under Aoun.
The current government contains ministers from across all the major political parties, including Hezbollah, and is seen as a compromise government between the two major coalitions.
Nabih Berri, the leader of Hezbollah’s ally Amal, is the Speaker of Parliament, while Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil of the FPM is the Foreign Minister. The Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) political party, a former Hariri ally and fierce opponent of “March 8,” holds four cabinet positions.
What’s going on with the economy?
The Lebanese economy is in trouble. Lebanon has the third highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world, at around 150 percent. International credit rating agency Fitch downgraded Lebanon’s economy in August to CCC.
Lebanon’s currency is pegged to the dollar, and both Lebanese pounds and US dollars can be used interchangeably in the country.
In recent weeks, this crucial peg has come under threat due to an alleged shortage of US dollars, with widespread reports of Lebanese people unable to withdraw dollars from banks. The alleged shortage has provoked anger and caused people to exchange dollars on the black market. As a result, the unofficial exchange rate has soared above the authorized trading band of LBP 1,501-1,514 to the dollar, causing fears of bread and fuel shortages.
All of this comes on top of accusations of widespread corruption and a deeply unpopular austerity budget.
The Lebanese government passed the country’s 2019 budget in July, amidst protests by public sector employees over austerity. Bassil, a political rival of Hariri, criticized the budget for not going far enough to cut Lebanon’s budget deficit.
Why are there US sanctions on Lebanon?
The economy has also been hit by US sanctions on Lebanese entities, aimed at Hezbollah.
Under US President Donald Trump, the US has been pursuing a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Iran and its proxy organizations across the region, including Hezbollah.
In July, the US extended its sanctions program to target Hezbollah's influence in government, including an MP and a security chief whose task was to liase with the Lebanese army. Recent reports suggest that further US sanctions could be expanded to hit Hezbollah’s allies in Lebanon – the FPM and Amal – which would further restrict the Lebanese government’s economic freedom.
What is the WhatsApp fee?
Telecommunications services are already expensive in Lebanon and taxes are widely unpopular considering the government provides minimal public services.
At a Cabinet session Thursday, Lebanese ministers approved an unpopular per day fee for using internet-based phone calls over services like WhatsApp. On top of the worsening economic situation, the fee was one of the sparks of the current protests.
Why are people protesting?
The spark of the WhatsApp fee against a backdrop of a worsening economic crisis, political deadlock, widespread corruption, and regional tensions has led to Beirut’s biggest protests in years.
Have the protests been sectarian?
The Lebanese political system is deeply sectarian and loyalty-based, with non-religious parties struggling to make a breakthrough.
Despite that, current protests appear to be cutting across sectarian lines. Footage has surfaced of Shia Muslims attacking Amal and Hezbollah party offices, with Christians also protesting against the FPM.
Religious leaders have attended the protest and been pictured holding hands.
Will the current government survive?
Prime Minister Hariri cancelled a scheduled cabinet meeting on Friday and said he will make an address to the nation at 6:00 p.m. Beirut time.
Hariri is under pressure from his allies.
Ministers belonging to the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party traditionally allied with Hariri’s Future Movement, had announced that they would refuse to attend the cabinet meeting in light of the protests. On Friday morning, LF leader Samir Geagea called on Hariri to resign, stepping aside for a new Cabinet.
His former ally Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader Walid Joumblatt has called on his supporters to “peacefully” join the protests against the Lebanese government, advising PSP members to protest within the party’s areas to “avoid sensitivities.”
Many of the protestors are demanding new elections, which would lead to a new government.
Foreign Minister Bassil has been the target of many chants from protesters, with calls for his resignation some of the most concrete among a wide range of often undefined demands.
What will happen if the government falls?
Lebanon has a long history of political uncertainty and has experienced many government changes.
A resignation from Hariri would signal the end of a defining force in Lebanon’s post-war history. Saad Hariri’s father, Rafic Hariri, near single-handedly rebuilt war-torn Beirut throughout the 1990s and left his lucrative real estate company Solidere to his son after his assassination in 2005.
Hariri’s historic ally Walid Joumblatt Friday spoke to Hariri about the possibility of his own resignation, to which Hariri replied “I would prefer if we resign together,” according to local media.
Hariri's fall could lead to the fall of the compromise government and a return to factional politics. The compromise government is unpopular abroad due to its inclusion of Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist organization by several countries important to the Lebanese economy, including the US, Saudi Arabia, and France. A new government may therefore result in the easing of US sanctions.
If Prime Minister Hariri resigns, Lebanon is likely to experience a period of political dealmaking under difficult political and economic circumstances. Eventually, elections may be held, and Lebanon will then theoretically be free to choose a new government.
However, its regional position and long-standing political traditions which tend to value confessional and familial loyalty over anti-corruption and reform mean that a true revolution in the political system is unlikely.