Photo: Reuters

Protests rock Beirut

A second-consecutive night of violence in Beirut left dozens wounded, when hundreds of people returned to demonstrate despite a fierce crackdown by security forces the night before.  Protesters shot fireworks and hurled rocks at riot police, who responded by firing cannisters of tear gas and chasing crowds near the parliament on Sunday, in what has been the most violent unrest in an historic wave of protests against bad governance and state corruption that has swept the country since October 17.

Local sources who spoke with TV7 described the clashes as “fierce,” and further exacerbated the volatile situation while exposing the increasingly dangerous rift within the country’s sectarian society.

Lebanon has been politically paralyzed since Saad al-Hariri, who is aligned with Western and Gulf Arab states, resigned as Prime Minister on October 29 in response to the demonstrations.

31-year-old Nadine Farhat told the Reuters news agency that the street protests will continue until there has been significant government reform. “This is how we should continue and this is how it started, we will not leave until they submit to our demands, they are the ones who stole the country, they are the ones who brought us to this point, not us, we are citizens who want our rights, what we are asking for is not something that they (the political elite) own, it is actually our own rights that they took away from us.”

The protests erupted from anger at a political elite that has overseen decades of corruption and steered the country toward its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. The Lebanese presidency said it had delayed consultations to designate a new prime minister initially slated to be held today until Thursday, in response to a request from caretaker leader Hariri, who had been expected to be named premier again. According to a presidential statement, Hariri had requested the postponement during a telephone conversation with President Michel Aoun so there would be additional time for “more consultation on the subject of the government formation.”

Omar Abyad, an unemployed nurse said she came from Tripoli to join the demonstrations, saying,  “Let us agree on something: Beirut is the capital, and the pressure should be on the capital, tomorrow there are consultations for naming a prime minister and we are here to demand they do not name Saad al-Hariri, because all the indications are that they are moving to name him again, we are against this.” Abyad insisted “Hariri is part of the corrupt system and we are against him, we do not care who they name, but it should be someone who is capable of extracting us from this situation,”  while underscoring that the public wants “someone who can lead a transitional government of technocrats and take us to a new phase that will save Lebanon, we do not want anyone from the corrupt class, not from the (Pro-Hezbollah)  March 8 faction nor the (Pro-Western) March 14 camp – none of them.”

The country’s fractious sectarian leaders have struggled to agree on a new premier since the resignation of Hariri, who has consistently maintained that he will only return as prime minister of a cabinet of ‘specialist ministers’ he believes would be capable of mollifying protesters and allow the government to address the financial and political crises while also attracting higher levels of foreign aid. His political adversaries – including Aoun and the powerful, Iran-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah group – insist the next cabinet should include politicians alongside technocrats.

In an effort to deter sectarian conflict and provide proportional representation of Lebanon’s the 18 recognized religious groups, its parliamentary democratic system is based on “confessionalism,” which mandates the appointment to high political office in accordance with pre-assigned religious representatives.  The Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament must be Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Speaker of the Parliament a Shi’ite Muslim. Lebanon’s prime minister, who must be a Sunni Muslim, is appointed in binding consultations convened by the head of state with lawmakers. The President, a Maronite Christian, must designate the candidate with the greatest support among the 128 lawmakers. Hariri has been seen as the only candidate for the position since the failure of efforts to form a consensus on several other Sunni figures, and he enjoys the backing of the Sunni religious establishment.

France hosted international conference on December 11 geared toward restoring economic and political stability to Lebanon. Attendees included the five permanent U.N. Security Council members, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. A final communique issued after the Paris meeting urged Beirut to immediately form a credible government equipped to can enact swift reforms if it wants to receive international support and avoid a chaotic unwinding of its economy.

“In order to halt the sharp deterioration in the economy… there is an urgent need for the adoption of a substantial, credible and comprehensive policy package of economic reforms to restore fiscal balance and financial stability,” said the statement.

The international donors also agreed that “Lebanon faces a deep economic and social crisis which has placed the country at risk of a chaotic unwinding of its economy and increased instability,” and  called on Lebanese authorities to immediately adopt a “reliable” 2020 budget after the formation of a new government as the “first step in a multi-year fiscal program” and to fight more rigorously against corruption.

Lebanon, which is heavily in debt, won pledges of over $11 billion at the same conference last year, conditional on reforms that it failed to implement.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was “fundamental” that Lebanese leaders commit to an agreed roadmap, adding “this path will enable all the participants around this table, and beyond, to mobilize to provide Lebanon with the support it needs and that we are ready to mobilize for this country.”

A diplomatic source told Reuters that the support group intends to hold back all assistance until the establishment of a viable government was in place, adding there would be “no blank check or bailout.”

Lebanon’s caretaker finance minister revealed there has been a sharp drop in revenues in recent months, leading to a far larger deficit in the state’s 2019 budget deficit than had been anticipated. Lebanon’s commercial banks have imposed tight controls to hold back capital flight, curbed hard currency withdrawals and all but blocked transfers abroad. Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the baseline credit assessments of Lebanon’s three largest banks — Bank Audi, Blom Bank, and Byblos Bank — after a central bank directive to make half of interest payments on foreign currency deposits in Lebanese pounds. Moody’s said the measure “constitutes a deposit default based on the rating agency’s own definitions.

As the nation’s financial woes steadily worsen, protesters’ commitment to remain in the streets has only heightened. Speaking in Beirut, protester Abyad stressed “We have to agree on something, I am here and I’ve got nothing to lose – I am ready to sacrifice my life for the revolution so that Lebanon can be a real homeland, for the first time in my life I feel that I can dream of a new homeland, a real one.”