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Lebanon in a ‘catch-22’ situation

Jan 22,2020 - Last updated at Jan 22,2020

Lebanon's largely peaceful uprising was fated to descend into violence if the demands of Lebanese in the streets were ignored by politicians determined to remain in power at any price. The price has been high and could rise higher if the politicians fail to agree on a new government acceptable to the people and capable of carrying out key reforms. Prospects are poor so far.

Last weekend, frustrated protesters attacked security forces protecting parliament. Hundreds of civilians, police and soldiers were wounded but the politicians continued to wrangle over the number of posts in the Cabinet to be named by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, an academic and former minister tapped by Hizbollah and Amal. Earlier in the week, angry youths besieged the headquarters of the Central Bank and broke windows and ATMs at banks in West Beirut's Hamra Street. The politicians responded with empty talk.

The country's economy is on the brink of collapse. Banks are short of dollars and limiting withdrawals despite the fact that dollars have for years circulated as the alternative to the national currency. As there is a shortage of dollars, imports have been restricted. Prices of essentials are soaring, even of home produce. Shops, cafes, restaurants and businesses have closed and dismissed or laid off employees. Foreign workers are going home. Unemployment, which was high before demonstrations erupted on October 17, has risen sharply and is swelling mass gatherings with angry men who cannot feed their families. Soup kitchens feed thousands of needy folks on a daily basis.

The political elite has been told by international donors that there will be no rescue funds until there is a new government and a plan to deal with the economic crisis. Nevertheless, the politicians and parties haggle over ministries although Lebanese demand a Cabinet comprised of independent technocrats.

Most of the wrangling has been within the Maronite Christian-Shia bloc, while the Maronite-Sunni bloc has complained of delays in forming a government and the Druze party has sniped from the sidelines. A Lebanese source says the political situation has reverted to the bitter division into two camps created by the assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri in 2005. The politicians do not seem to listen to what constituents are saying.

United Nations envoy to Lebanon Jan Kubis castigated the politicians and condemned the harsh police crackdown on demonstrators. He warned that poverty could rise from 30 to 50 per cent if the country's economic decline is not reversed. Stubborn stalemate persists between rival political factions and between the political elite and the street.

Lebanon is in a "catch-22" situation. It is trapped by contradictory practices and limitations which led to two civil wars (1958 and 1975-90) and years of de-development and corruption due to the sectarian power-sharing system imposed on the country by France, the former colonial power. According to this system, the president must always be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni, the speaker of parliament a Shia, and other offices must be allocated to the main sects. This has led to feudalism, clientism, nepotism, graft and mismanagement in all spheres of governance, business, banking, communications and commerce. The situation worsened during and after the 15-year civil war from which Lebanon has not recovered. Warfare in Iraq and Syria has finished off Lebanon's lucrative transit trade with the Arab hinterland and US money laundering policies have reduced foreign deposits in Lebanon's banks, once a rich source of income.

Unfortunately, the political elite continues to believe it can save the situation by saving itself. It seeks to cobble together a new Cabinet with technocrats appointed by and aligned to parties determined to retain power without naming veterans unacceptable to the protesters.

They will not be fooled by this ploy and vow to respond with continuing mass action. They have not named leaders who can provide an alternative to the politicians' diktat or propose an interim regime to guide the transition from the sectarian system to a secular, democratic model. This has produced a second "catch-22" situation.

Iraq is afflicted by the very same problem. Protesters have been in the streets of Baghdad and major southern cities since October 1; as many as 500 have been killed and thousands injured by riot police and militiamen determined to maintain the status quo. Protesters, mainly Shias, rail against the same issues as demonstrators in Lebanon and demand the replacement of the Shia-dominated, Iran-friendly sectarian regime installed by the US occupation regime in 2003 while politicians hold fast to the status quo, risking fresh violence.

Iraq, however, possesses a major advantage over Lebanon, a country with few natural resources. Iraq sits on the world's fifth largest reserves of oil and currently earns $60-70 billion a year in export revenues. However, instead of investing earnings in reconstruction after decades of warfare, hundreds of billions of dollars were lost in corruption, leaving Iraqis, like Lebanese, without electricity, water, decent schools and hospitals, and jobs. Young Iraqis want their country restored at least to the level of development attained before the devastating 1991 and 2003 wars.

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