Naming of prime minister-designate adds to Lebanon unrest

Anti-government demonstrators poured into central Beirut, protesting Diab being chosen for the post soon after the decision was announced.
Sunday 22/12/2019
A prompt answer. Lebanese protesters shout slogans outside parliament to denounce the nomination of Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab in Beirut, December 19. (AFP)
A prompt answer. Lebanese protesters shout slogans outside parliament to denounce the nomination of Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab in Beirut, December 19. (AFP)

TUNIS - With unrest continuing across Lebanon, the naming of not widely known former minister Hassan Diab as prime minister-designate could open a new chapter in the fraught relations between the government and the country’s increasingly agitated population.

Anti-government demonstrators poured into central Beirut, protesting Diab being chosen for the post soon after the decision was announced. Across Lebanon, the Daily Star reported, roads were blocked as protesters rejected the former education minister’s selection.

For several weeks, protesters called for replacing Lebanon’s confessional system of government with a technocratic one. This would preclude parties representing the countries’ various sects from government.

While those demands were echoed among many senior politicians, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the Amal Movement and Iran-backed Hezbollah were insistent that any government include a mix of technocrats and politicians.

Popular anger was initially triggered by a series of small events, including a proposed tax on the WhatsApp messaging service, it “morphed quickly into protesters demanding a drastic overhaul of the country’s political system,” said Emily Hawthorne, a MENA analyst at risk consultancy Stratfor.

“That is much easier said than done in Lebanon, where a complicated confessional system of governance in some ways predates even the modern country’s founding and was reinforced after the civil war’s end in 1990. The entrenched system is trying to defend itself against political reforms that risk eroding their power with sectarian constituencies,” she said.

Diab’s backing by the Shia Hezbollah and Amal, as well as their largest Christian ally, the FPM, could prove problematic. His lack of support from Lebanon’s main Sunni bloc is unlikely to help him form a new government or secure the Western backing that Lebanon desperately needs.

The severity of Lebanon’s financial circumstances is difficult to overstate. The confessional system of government, in which roles and ministries are allocated by sect, has become overwhelmed by corruption and little of the country’s infrastructure is functional.

The Lebanese pound has fallen to one-third of its official rate while banks impose tight capital controls. Across Lebanon, companies are cutting jobs and squeezing salaries.

“A government with a Hezbollah-backed prime minister would be even less likely to secure support from the Gulf countries… and might also potentially reduce the chances of Lebanon getting support from the [International Monetary Fund] if the US raises concerns,” Jason Tuvey, a senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, told Reuters.

The increasingly sectarian nature of the violence in the streets continues, something Diab’s appointment is unlikely to ease.

On December 16, hundreds of men on motorbikes crowded Beirut’s streets, carrying flags of Shia groups as they chanted, “Shia, Shia,” setting tyres on fire, throwing stones at security forces and setting cars ablaze, witnesses said.

The men, reportedly incensed by a video criticising Amal officials, including parliament Speaker Nabih Berry and religious symbols such as Imam Ali, attempted to break through a security cordon around a makeshift campsite erected by anti-government protesters. Security services used tear gas to push them back.

The latest violence came after an especially brutal mid-December weekend in which 40 people were injured after police intervened to separate Amal and Hezbollah supporters from attacking protesters in central Beirut. Violence, however, escalated and police resorted to rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons in an attempt to regain control of Beirut’s city centre.

“From the start, there has always been a concern that the protests could either turn sectarian, violent or both,” said Mouna Yacoubian, a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.

“Indeed, the fact that the protests have still remained relatively peaceful is remarkable in and of itself given Lebanon’s history of civil war and conflict,” Yacoubian said. “The current unrest is largely the result of sectarian actors instigating greater violence by attempting to inject a sectarian element into the protests and by resorting to more aggressive tactics, e.g. throwing stones, in confrontation with security forces.”

Little of the violence appears to be directed by any of the parties’ leadership. While Amal and Hezbollah were initially critical of the anti-government protests, their position has become more accommodating, raising questions about the motivations behind the violence.

“What is more concerning is the prospect that some of the violence is being generated from the grass roots and that party and religious leaders have less control over these elements,” Yacoubian said.

9