North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Lebanon’s protesters want an end to incompetence, corruption and impunity

The country’s COVID-19 response has been a disaster – but the people expected nothing else after decades of abysmal government.

Walid el Houri
3 February 2021, 12.01am
Protesters burn tyres and rubbish in front of Serail (the prime minister's headquarters) in Tripoli on 28 January
Marwan Naamani/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Protests have been raging in Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city, for over a week. Hundreds of angry protesters took to the streets on 25 January demanding jobs, support from the government and solutions to the many economic and social crises plaguing the country.

The latest wave of protests was triggered by the extension of a severe lockdown and the imposition of a round-the-clock nationwide curfew.

Protesters threw stones and fire bombs, torching the Tripoli municipality building; police and army used tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire.

Dozens have been arrested while, according to Lebanese Red Cross, more than 400 have been injured and at least one person, Omar Taybah, 30, was shot dead on 28 January.

Since 14 January, Lebanon has imposed one of the most severe lockdowns in the world, closing supermarkets and forbidding people to leave their homes. Those who depend on day wages have been given no help to survive.

Save the Children warned: “Almost half of the population can't afford to buy sufficient food to last them through the supermarket closures.”

Lebanon continues to be ruled by improvisation, incompetence and impunity

Days before the lockdown began, the government raised the price of bread by 50%. This came months after a large shipment of flour – donated by Iraq as relief following the 4 August Beirut port explosion – was found to be rotten and unusable, having been inappropriately stored in a sports stadium. Local authorities also reported “evidence of rodents and insects, including rat faeces, surrounding the flour bags”.

Tripoli is the poorest city in the eastern Mediterranean, though it is also home to some of Lebanon's richest billionaires. The irony is not lost on the protesters, who are tired of empty promises from politicians and the country’s super-rich – who are often one and the same. Lebanon has achieved one of the worst income-inequality ratios in the world.

Anti-government activists in Tripoli carry the coffin of somebody who was killed during a protest in January 2021
STR/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

The country has long been suffering from a devastating financial and economic crisis, primarily caused by corruption, mismanagement and incompetence. The local currency was sent into free fall over a year ago and has lost more than 80% of its value since October 2019.

The Beirut explosion and the COVID-19 pandemic have only worsened the situation , exposing the deadly incompetence of the political elite. Unemployment and poverty have reached unprecedented levels. In August 2020, the United Nations warned that half of Lebanon’s population was at risk of going hungry by the end of the year.

While the country’s rich and powerful are funnelling their money out of the country, regular people who had money in the banks have lost access to their savings and are living with the anxiety that they will not get them back unless the government comes up with a real solution to the crisis.

Nothing new

Lebanon continues to be ruled by improvisation, incompetence and impunity as a result of the sectarian power-sharing agreement that followed the 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. The country’s warlords put on suits and became the country’s politicians. A general pardon was issued and the state’s coffers became a lucrative cash cow to be divided among the major political and financial players who were now running the state.

The financial crisis since 2019, the pandemic, and the Beirut port explosion are only the most spectacular examples of the failures of the state and those who run it.

Last week’s protests in Tripoli are not new, nor are the reasons behind them. People, especially in the north of the country, have beendemonstrating without fail since 17 October 2019, demanding accountability for corrupt elites and solutions to their many economic and social woes.

Protesters have been met with violence from official forces such as the army and police, as well as from the thugs of various political parties. Meanwhile their demands for change have been ignored – so much so that on the first anniversary of the 2019 protests, which brought down the government of Saad Hariri, he was reappointed as prime minister by Parliament and tasked with leading a new government, which he has yet to form.

People are fed up with the political deadlock caused by personal feuds and power-sharing agreements between political parties, who repeatedly accuse one another of corruption but always end up sitting together in the same governments.

No trust

The lack of trust in state institutions makes it hard to imagine any way out of the crisis. People have little faith in new promises, especially after witnessing first-hand both the incompetence and the violence of the state.

Since last year, medical supplies have been running low, not only because of the pandemic but also because of the severe financial crisis. Yet while people suffocated to death for lack of oxygen machines, a field hospital donated to Lebanon by Qatar, containing 50 respirators and 500 beds, was left unused for months because the two major Shiite political parties, Hezbollah and Amal, could not agree on where to set it up to get credit for it.

A man throws a stone at security forces during a protest in Tripoli, Lebanon, on 26 January 2021
Khaled/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images/ All rights reserved

Meanwhile medicine and other subsidised items were turning up for sale abroad, in countries with a large Lebanese diaspora, signalling corruption and criminal activity. Other medical aid donated to the country was reportedly missing.

The institutions responsible for these failures are the same as those responsible for the criminal neglect that led to the catastrophic Beirut explosion last year. And, unfortunately, they are the same ones responsible for facing a global pandemic that has put to shame countries which are far better equipped.

As expected, there has been no real plan to tackle COVID-19. There were actions, but random ones. Closing the country, then opening it up. Then closing it again without clarity or purpose – and certainly without taking into account the socio-economic needs of the poor, or communicating the decisions and the rationale to the population.

Contradictory opinions and decisions within the government itself plagued the measures it took, leaving the country prey to rumours and false information, and a complete absence of leadership.

For many, the choice is between the risk of catching the virus and the certainty of hunger

The state saw fit to lift all protective measures over the December holiday period, causing a huge surge in cases. Then came the severe lockdown and curfew, later extended without regard to the fact that for millions of people, staying home is a luxury they cannot afford. For many, the choice is between the risk of catching the virus and the certainty of hunger. This reality is what drove thousands to the streets in Tripoli and elsewhere across the country.

The state promised to deliver aid packages to the country’s most vulnerable. It is not known if these were even delivered, but regardless, the plans were a far cry from what people needed. There are rumours that the packages were, like everything else in the country, funnelled into partisan distribution networks.

What people instead received were bullets, tear gas and death.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media and the political elite were busy demonising protesters. They found all sorts of explanations as to why people would take to the streets, ranging from global conspiracies to local ones, but refused to accept the real reasons for the riots: hunger, poverty and anger at the failure of the state and the corruption of its officials.

The cost of the ammunition fired by the army and police force could have better been used to provide much-needed economic support to the angry people. The calls from the resigned prime minister, the president and other politicians to hold protesters accountable for the destruction the riots caused might have better been directed at the many crimes that their political establishment has committed.

As long as there is no accountability for those politicians, it is unlikely that the country will ever get over its deepening crisis. But protesters on the streets are determined to get justice.

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