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Karim Traboulsi

Lebanon protesters declare 'week of anger' amid ruling-class indifference

Protesters are giving the ruling class 48 hours to form a new government [Getty]

Date of publication: 14 January, 2020

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A preoccupation with the fallout from Lebanon's financial crisis caused protests to die down, but it now seems the ruling class are mistaken in thinking the uprising is over.
The thick smoke of burning tires blanketed parts of Lebanon once again, as a second wave of mass anti-corruption protests appears to have erupted across the beleaguered country, exactly 90 days after the 17 October uprising began.

From north to the south, via the capital Beirut, fed-up Lebanese have declared a "Week of Anger" on Tuesday against their post-war ruling class, which shows no sign of interest in solving the political, economic and financial crises they are accused of inflicting during their three-decade administration of the country, following the end of the civil war in 1990.

Renewed activist momentum

Hundreds of protesters are reportedly blocking main roads and staging pickets outside government departments, banks, and money changers in Tripoli, Beirut, and Saida.

Activists on uprising-aligned social media pages are calling it a second wave and celebrating the renewed momentum of their protests, promising a "Week of Anger" against politicians that would include civil disobedience, targeted sit-ins, as well as street protests and road closures.

Local reports suggest the protesters are giving the ruling class 48-hours to form a new government, as the country plunges further into a confluence of a crises - sovereign debt, liquidity and economic - all compounded by deep political paralysis.

While protests in Lebanon have not stopped over the past several weeks, they had appeared to die down over the holidays, with numbers dropping sharply from the tens of thousands at the peak of the uprising, in October and November. 

The initial wave of protests succeeded in toppling the government of Saad Al-Hariri, throwing the country into yet another political vacuum all too familiar to Lebanon. Hariri quickly took leave, "on holiday" to France, refusing to discharge his constitutional duties as caretaker prime minister. He is set to return to Beirut on Tuesday.

Ruling class remobillises

Since Hariri's departure, however, the protest movement has failed to force the other levers of power, led by Hezbollah-allied President Michel Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri, to either step down or facilitate the formation of a specialist transitional government that would oversee urgent reforms and early elections, all key demands of the protest movement. 

On 19 December, Aoun and Berri brought in Hassan Diab, a relatively unknown academic, as prime minister designate, but his independent credentials were immediately rejected by the protest movement as a mere front for the same ruling class.

Devoid of any semblance of electoral legitimacy or sectarian cover from Lebanon's Sunni constituencies - a must under the country's continuing sectarian power sharing system - Diab has since failed to form a government.

Critics say the failure of the protest movement to produce a coherent leadership has allowed the ruling class to regroup and ignore the popular mood, returning to its old squabbles over the division of lucrative government posts, and allowing geopolitical events such as the US-Iran tensions to shape the country's domestic politics.

In the absence of an adequate response from the authorities, the financial crisis that had triggered the uprising only worsened over the subsequent weeks, accelerating a liquidity crisis in the US dollar - to which the country's currency is pegged and on which it relies for imports of basic foods, medicines, and fuel.


Enough is enough

The Lebanese pound has lost nearly two thirds of its value against the dollar in the black market, despite still being officially pegged at 1,500 to the dollar, since 1997. 

Huge queues outside banks are reported daily, as most lenders restricted access to dollar banknotes and imposed informal capital controls to contain the slow-motion bank run.

Dozens of small to medium businesses have meanwhile cut salaries, laid off employees, or shut down altogether, amid reports of shortages of certain basic goods and large hikes in the prices of others.

The preoccupation with the fallout from this livelihood crisis brought about a lull in the protests, but now it seems the ruling class were mistaken in thinking the uprising against them was over.

On Monday night, a group of left-wing protesters briefly stormed the headquarters of the Central Bank (BDL), before being pushed back by security forces.

BLS offices across Lebanon have been targeted repeatedly by the protesters since 17 October.

The central bank governor Riad Salameh stands accused of overseeing decades of corruption through a Ponzi-like scheme of financial engineering, which activists and experts say have enabled politically-linked private bankers to accrue billions in profits from Lebanon's sovereign debt and currency peg while gambling with ordinary people's deposits and the country's foreign reserves.

Over the past several days, Salameh and other senior banking officials made media appearances promising bank deposits were safe, but said foreign help was now needed to rescue the country, hinting at debt restructuring, once a taboo proposition.

These assurances were met with instant disbelief by activists, who seem to have lost all faith in the entire ruling class of politicians and bureaucrats for mismanaging the country's affairs, and demand they are replaced entirely by new, competent specialists untarnished by corruption or sectarianism. 

"All of them means all of them," remains the leading slogan of the Lebanese protest movement, in reference to this class.

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