Exactly one year ago today, massive protests swept across Lebanon in an unprecedented movement against government failure, poor living standards, rampant corruption, lack of basic services, overwhelming sectarian rule, and the imploding economy.
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While the movement marked a turning point in Lebanon’s history, as angry citizens denounced ruling parties and expressed shared concerns of socioeconomic troubles, very little has improved.
In August, Beirut was decimated by a blast at its main port for which no one has yet been held accountable; the Lebanese pound has lost nearly 80 percent of its value; poverty levels have increased to 55 percent, according to a study by the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA); and inflation has soared by 120 percent, as per recent figures by the Central Administration of Statistics.
Lebanon is currently struggling under the weight of the worst economic crisis in its history, and while some believe it was provoked by the October 17 movement, researcher of finance at University College Dublin Mohamad Faour disagrees.
Are the protests to blame?
“The economic collapse in Lebanon had nothing to do with the protests,” Faour told Al Arabiya English. “To blame the protests is very unfair.”
By early September 2019, Lebanese depositors were denied access to their dollars through ATMs and banks had started imposing arbitrary rules and withdrawal limits. Suppliers of fuel, gas, and medicine had sounded the alarm as they needed dollar bank notes to import these commodities, and citizens lined up for bread and fuel for fear of possible shortages. And while the dollar was and still is officially pegged at 1,507.5 at the Central Bank, it had already been selling for more in the black market.
“The downfall of the economy was inevitable,” emphasized Faour. “The question was when it was going to happen.”
In simple terms, Faour explained that the economic and financial crisis in Lebanon was spearheaded by taking up too much debt. For years, Lebanon has borrowed and consumed way more than its means, with almost 85 percent of its resources being imported. These imports have long been covered by the Central Bank using depositors’ money in private banks. When the deposits decreased over time eventually reaching a complete halt, Lebanon had no more money coming in, but plenty of money being sent out to finance imports and maintain the value of the Lebanese pound to the dollar.
But despite the predestined crash that had been looming ahead for the Lebanese economy, Faour explained it could have been mitigated with simple solutions and blamed government inaction for the current situation.
“The problem is not lack of reforms, it’s the lack of will to implement these reforms,” he clarified.
Policy paralysis despite early warning signs of the inevitable predicament has driven the country into complete disarray.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” explained Faour.
Lebanon’s gross domestic product (GDP) went from 57 million dollars to 30 million dollars, the unemployment rate jumped from 11-12 percent to 35-36 percent, the minimum wage of 675,000 Lebanese lira (previously $450) now equates to $80 - $100 based on the market exchange rate, and the poverty rate (now at 55 percent) is expected to reach 75 percent once subsidies are lifted.
Despite the worsening situation, Lebanon’s streets have yet to witness protests as dynamic as those of October 17.
So why aren't people on the streets again?
According to Dr. Imad Salamey, author of “Communitocracy” and associate professor of Middle East Political Affairs at the Lebanese American University (LAU), Lebanese people have recognized by now that the protest movement can only succeed with “radical eradication and uprooting of the political elite in power, even if violence is involved.”
After peaceful attempts to convince the ruling parties that their time is up did not yield expected results, it became apparent that the political establishment is reluctant in its response to the public’s demands and peaceful calls for change may not be the way forward. But “people are hesitant to take on that battle in the meantime for fear of civil war, knowing the stakes involved,” explained Dr. Salamey.
The Lebanese Civil War lasted for 15 years and ended in 1990 but its social, political, and economic repercussions still live on to this day. Fighting militias during the war later reformed into political parties and have been ruling the country ever since, reinforcing their power via sectarian tensions that never subsided.
One exception to the unfaltering political class, according to Dr. Salamey, was leader of the Future Movement party and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri who stepped down and resigned on October 29, more than ten days after ongoing protests. This came after he granted his ‘government partners’ 72 hours to show they are serious about reforms, to no avail.
His resignation prompted celebration among protestors, and law student Lyne Mneimneh who had been on the streets non-stop since October 17 described how crowds started to diminish in size after Hariri’s resignation, but she was one to stay.
“I didn’t leave the streets because Hariri wasn’t the only target,” she told Al Arabiya English. “His resignation was just a show, and I personally want to see all warlords held accountable as well.”
Now exactly one year after his resignation in compliance with the people’s demands, it seems Hariri is preparing to resume the role of prime minister once again, and protestors are not happy.
“Hariri’s return is a sign of this political class's insensitivity to people's demands, and is a sign of how far away from political reality they are,” said social and political activist Widad Taleb, who had also been on the streets since day one.
While October 17 presented a beacon of hope and possible change for both Mneimneh and Taleb, Hariri’s return may be a reality check that Lebanon is not there, not yet.