Lebanon’s New Government Exacerbates Systemic Problems in its Democracy

On January 21, 2020, Lebanon formed a new government after months of political deadlock among a worsening debt crisis and widespread anti-corruption protests throughout the country.

While this formation may appear as a step in the right direction at first glance, the new ministers are unlikely to quell any unrest and will continue to exacerbate the systemic problems within Lebanon’s fragile democracy. 

Following a planned tax hike on the use of WhatsApp last October, widespread protests broke out in various Lebanese cities that quickly transformed into general anti-corruption and anti-sectarian demonstrations.

As a result, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, as well as his cabinet, resigned a few weeks later. Hariri’s replacement, Hassan Diab, was left to form a new government. 

Diab, nominally independent but widely seen as close to the pro-Hezbollah March 8 Alliance of political parties, selected 20 ministers “based on merit rather than political affiliation” almost three months later.

This newly-branded “technocratic” government has been hailed by the March 8 Alliance as being an institution that will “strive to meet their [the protestors] demands for an independent judiciary, for the recovery of embezzled funds, for the fight against illegal gains.”

These promises are unlikely to be upheld, which will only further deteriorate Lebanon’s fragile democracy. Firstly, while most of the new ministers are relative unknowns in Lebanese politics, all were approved by the March 8 Alliance – namely the pro-Syrian parties of the Shia-dominated Hezbollah and the Amal Movement as well as the Christian-dominated Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

All three of these parties have been consistent targets for the ongoing protests. Besides Hezbollah’s designation as a terrorist group by many governments in both the Middle East and beyond, all three parties are also seen by the protestors “as part of the corrupt and morally bankrupt political establishment.”

As a result, these ministerial appointments do nothing to help mitigate current tensions in the country. 

Secondly, while the new government promises to tackle corruption and “recover” embezzled funds, it is unlikely to target those parties within the March 8 alliance accused of these crimes.

For instance, it is unlikely to go after the FPM’s or its leader, Gebran Bassil’s, systematic corruption. Nor is it likely to go after Hezbollah’s various criminal enterprises, corruption, and its laundering of money to fund its terrorist activities and military support of Syria’s Bashar al Assad.

Instead, if it actually does go after corruption, it will likely go after its rivals in the largely Sunni Future Movement and the Christian-dominated Kataeb, the largest constituents in the March 14 Alliance, Lebanon’s other major political bloc.

This only further serves to exacerbate sectarian tensions as the March 14 Alliance contains many Sunni and other Christian parties.

This would undoubtedly have grave implications for Lebanon’s fragile confessional-based democracy – the nature of which being a large driver for the protests.

Much of the current demonstrations have been centered around getting away from the confessional system, which divvies up Lebanon’s government between the country’s various religious and ethnic groups.

However, the newly formed government continues the legacy of Lebanon’s sectarian political elites. The current establishment that the protestors want removed is still firmly in place with this government.

By the continuation of governance along sectarian lines rather than become a real inclusive government with actual structural changes, this does not bode well for Lebanon’s future.

And by only going after political rivals rather than actually tackling corruption writ large, the new Lebanese government stands to make the same mistakes as prior administrations and fan the flames of the protests even further.

Without addressing the complaints of the protestors, Lebanon could erode into even greater chaos and potential further violence throughout the country than what has already taken place.

(Photo: Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images)

Caleb Weiss

MALD candidate ('21) focused on international security and the Middle East. Follow on Twitter @Weissenberg7.

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