Late last week, Prime Minister Sa’ad Al Hariri gave his partners in government 72-hours to come up with solutions to the crippling economic problems that brought people to the streets throughout Lebanon. That deadline ends on Monday.
The government is expected to roll out a basket of reforms that includes cutting the salaries of current and former ministers by 50 per cent, a complete overhaul of the electricity sector, privatisation of telecommunications, and no new taxes.
Expecting a turn for the worse, four ministers have already resigned from Hariri’s 30-man cabinet, all belonging to the Lebanese Forces (LF) of Samir Geagea.
Hezbollah, however, has put its full weight behind Hariri, and so has the Free Patriotic Movement and Amal, saying they support serious reforms.
Meanwhile, and in anticipation of what they are going to hear, the protesters have come up with their own list of demands. Some are do-able, while others are practically impossible, not only for Hariri but for any other politician who might succeed him as premier, should he be forced out of office.
The ruling establishment would certainly refuse these demands, while the demonstrators will reject Hariri’s reforms, saying that they are too little, too late
First on their list is to create a “transitional council” to rule the country, made up of independent judges, mandated to supervise early parliamentary elections. Second is a demand to lift banking secrecy on all accounts belonging to Lebanese officials, and to freeze those that exceed $100 million, while creating a committee to judge whether that money was accumulated through legal or illegal means.
The demonstrators also called on the state to stop paying interest on public debt and to force all banks to allocate 75 per cent of their revenue to the state treasury, for a period of three years, in order to cover the state deficit. All salaries and pensions for current and former presidents, prime ministers, ministers, and parliamentarians ought to be suspended immediately.
The demands also include suspension of all arrest warrants for antigovernment demonstrators and accountability for riot police and soldiers who beat them on the streets. They called for the creation of a “national body” to do away with “political sectarianism,” which effectively means abolishing the National Pact of 1943, a gentlemen’s agreement that has governed Lebanese politics ever since, dividing the three top positions of state between Maronites, Sunnis, and Shiites.
In terms of services, they demanded regular electricity and water “within six months,” creation of a state fund for the unemployed, lower internet fees, and a tax of “no less than 20 per cent” on all bank accounts that exceed $1 million.
The ruling establishment would certainly refuse these demands, while the demonstrators will reject Hariri’s reforms, saying that they are too little, too late. That effectively means continuation of the street protests for the foreseeable future, raising the risks of a violent confrontation between. Some party chiefs, former warlords turned politicians, are expected to send their henchmen to the streets in order vandalise and raise havoc, giving the demonstrators a bad name and the state, and a pretext to disperse them by force.
The degree of support that Hariri will receive, both regionally and internationally, determines how long he can stay in power. He can always call for early parliamentary elections, although it was only last year that the Lebanese went to polls, voting for the very same leaders that they now want to topple.
For lack of better alternatives, his Future Movement is deeply entrenched within Sunni strongholds of Lebanon and will likely maintain the 20 seats that it currently controls in Parliament, perhaps losing one or two seats here and there. Lebanese Sunnis will continue to vote for him and his team, fearing Iranian hegemony over their country, via Hezbollah and Amal.
The two Shiite parties also have little to lose within the Shiite community, despite the fact that demonstrations were staged within their own constituencies, marking a precedent. Hezbollah currently controls 13 seats in parliament, while Amal has 16.
Combined with those of their allies in the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of President Michel Aoun (29 seats), they currently enjoy a solid bloc of 58-seats. That majority is in danger, however, since the FPM is likely to suffer a major defeat in any future elections, due to Aoun’s haunting silence over what’s happening and the audacity of his son-in-law and self-appointed successor, Gibran Bassil, Lebanon’s foreign minister.
Much of the public anger was levied against Bassil personally, who is accused of a variety of crimes, ranging from corruption and nepotism to misuse of public office and autocracy within his own party, which he inherited from his father-in-law three years ago.
Bassil will never accept early elections, because it will likely spell out the end of his short-lived career. He might not have the street behind him, but he happens to have the ear of the ageing president, and the command of 11 ministers in the present cabinet, along with 29 MPs, giving him tremendous leverage to obstruct any road map for change, no matter how cosmetic it may be.
— Sami Moubayed is a historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.