On Jan. 21, Lebanese leaders agreed to form a new government.
It had been a long time coming: The previous government, led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the country’s top Sunni politician, resigned in October. That was two weeks after protests erupted across the country, seeking to topple the corrupt, sectarian elite that has ruled since the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1990. The protesters demanded a new cabinet, led by specialists.
After dragging its feet, the Lebanese political establishment has at last offered one. Though a coalition of Western-leaning groups, including Mr. Hariri’s Future Movement, decided not to participate, the new government is hardly a break from the old: Some of its technocratic members are connected to parties allied with Hezbollah. Predictably, the announcement has not ended the mass protests.
The new cabinet faces multiple crises that could lead to economic and political collapse: The public debt stands at $86 billion, or more than 150 percent of gross domestic product; the government is failing to provide basic services, like electricity, water and garbage collection; foreign currency has dried up; and the Lebanese pound, which has been pegged to the dollar since 1997, has lost more than 60 percent of its value on the black market in recent weeks.
In one of the cabinet’s first steps, the newly appointed finance minister said he would try to secure $4 to $5 billion in loans from international donors to help pay for imports of fuel, wheat and medicine. So far, Lebanon’s traditional backers — Europe and Arab states in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar — have shied away from providing new loans before the government undertakes significant reforms, such as reducing the public payroll and combating corruption and tax evasion.
It is unlikely that the new government, led by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, an engineering professor and former education minister, will be able to solve Lebanon’s gargantuan problems. Power still rests with a handful of sectarian leaders, whom the protesters have been trying to force out. The new Lebanon is much like the old one, led by a deeply entrenched political class that is adept at survival.
Lebanon needs structural economic and political reform. And that requires the acquiescence of the political class that chose this latest government. In other words, the ruling elite needs to reform itself out of power.
The protesters have adopted the mantra “All of them means all of them” — they want to be rid of the entire political class that seized power after the civil war. But those leaders have shown no sign of relinquishing authority. Instead, they appeal to sectarian identity and claim to be champions of reform, who are being stymied by a larger, corrupt system.
These politicians include two Hezbollah allies: President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian leader, and Nabih Berri, a Shiite politician and the longtime speaker of Parliament. Both men played a significant role in the civil war: Mr. Aoun was the commander of the Lebanese army, while Mr. Berri led a major Shiite militia. Mr. Aoun was forced into exile in France at the end of the war, and returned in 2005. He finally achieved his dream of becoming president in 2016, largely thanks to Hezbollah’s support.
These are not men who are willing to give up power. Before becoming president, Mr. Aoun turned over leadership of his Free Patriotic Movement, which controls the largest bloc in Parliament, to his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil. Together, these three politicians — along with the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah — will exert the most influence over the new government.
After waning in late December, the protests intensified on Jan. 14 while the political factions squabbled over the composition of the new cabinet and the economy deteriorated. Protesters blocked roads throughout the country, promising a “week of rage.”
Hundreds of people tried to storm the central bank in Beirut and clashed with security forces throughout the night. That marked the beginning of a new phase in the uprising, with demonstrators targeting Lebanese banks, which have become symbols of corruption and greed.
Over the weekend of Jan. 18-19, Lebanese security forces fired water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring several hundred protesters in downtown Beirut. The protests are now in danger of settling into a stalemate, with security forces cracking down brutally and demonstrators responding with violence.
Can the protesters break through and create a new political system in Lebanon?
The Lebanese Parliament is supposed to serve until 2022, but activists are demanding early elections so that a new leadership can emerge, a demand most of the established parties oppose. It is unclear whether elections would produce a dramatically different legislature.
Lebanese leaders have been adept at using election laws for their benefit, as they did with the last election in 2018, adopting proportional representation in place of a winner-take-all system. Politicians claimed it would allow independent and civil society groups to compete against sect-based parties. But it did not work that way: Voter turnout was under 50 percent, and Hezbollah and its political allies won a slight majority of seats in the 128-member legislature.
The protests have been largely leaderless, and the budding cross-sect movements are far from having the kind of organizational structure and get-out-the-vote apparatuses of Hezbollah and other established parties. It is not enough simply to create a nonsectarian political party.
The sectarian groups have an inherent advantage because the Lebanese political system is built on sharing spoils and creating clientelist networks.
The system is rooted in Lebanon’s unwritten National Pact — adopted when the country gained independence from France in 1943 — which dictates that the president must be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of Parliament a Shiite. Seats in parliament are divided equally among Muslims and Christians, then further partitioned among 18 officially recognized sects.
After the civil war, each of the major players in the conflict seized a piece of the government and extended their sectarian patronage networks to all rungs of the Civil Service. Even the lowliest jobs were allocated by sect, in a process referred to in Arabic as “muhasasa,” or dividing up of spoils.
To enact lasting change, Lebanon’s protesters must uproot the sectarian system entirely. That requires change across multiple levels of society — to be won through municipal elections, new labor unions and professional associations, an independent judiciary, and a strong central government that can provide the most basic services to its people.
Without this deep change, Lebanon faces chaos — and devastating economic and social collapse.