The rage in Beirut is a reminder of Lebanon’s toxic politics
The streets of downtown Beirut were momentarily transformed into a war zone when an anti-government demonstration turned into a riot that involved protesters burning tyres and closing main streets leading to the heart of the Lebanese capital.
Despite a small turnout and the petering out of the crowds, the September 29 protest spread fear across the country as an omen of what might come if Lebanon’s economic downturn goes into full meltdown.
It was not the voices of the protesters demanding the overthrow of the corrupt political establishment but rather the message the vandalism and rioting carried to both Lebanon and the international community and what would come if the United States’ maximum pressure campaign and the sanctions on Iran and its main auxiliary Hezbollah continue.
The protest was triggered by a crisis that erupted after a high demand on dollars led to the currency’s scarcity, forcing the Lebanese Central Bank and the banking sector to take measures that caused havoc and a currency stampede.
While the prime reason for the economic meltdown is to be found in unethical and corrupt policies — or lack of policy — of successive Lebanese governments, the immediate reason is the US sanctions against Hezbollah and the latter’s reactions and actions to avoid them.
It was not only the Syrian regime’s and Hezbollah’s need for hard currency that sparked this crisis but equally that many of Lebanon’s merchant class have been importing key commodities for the Syrian regime, which they “legally” export to Syria.
Such supplies include petroleum products and medicine, which is priced and paid for in dollars, forcing Lebanese merchants to go to the black market in search for dollars as demand increases.
Consequently, the rioting was a pre-emptive move on the part of Hezbollah and its Syrian allies to protect their racketeering business and to ensure that no obstacles disrupt the channels, which they intend to continue using.
One of the most vivid threats that was issued to the international community, and to the US government in particular, is that Hezbollah can threaten Lebanon’s stability and security through these ostensibly disgruntled young men and does not need to use its armed militia, like it did in May 2008 when it led a failed coup against the government of former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Depicted as an attack on its main Christian ally President Michel Aoun and, by extension, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Hezbollah’s violent message allows the two factions to justify their inability to implement economic sanctions against Hezbollah.
Consequently, under the pretext that tighter sanctions would lead to full-scale civil war, the Lebanese state can appeal to the Trump administration to delay or reconsider measures that could be counterproductive to the initial goal of the sanctions — the containment and weakening of Iran.
The riots, equally, will perhaps give Hariri enough ammunition to hammer through the pledges of the CEDRE economic conference by appealing to its French patrons and stressing the urgency of dispensing the funds to prevent the economic collapse of Lebanon.
Faced with a gloomy and somewhat unavoidable fate, the Lebanese are trying to envision the day after their economic doomsday and what will basically happen to their savings and their livelihoods.
While true that the Lebanese are renowned for their great resilience and strength against the odds, the current political and economic meltdown is one of unprecedented magnitude and long-lasting effects.
Yet, what is more alarming is that the Lebanese political class and the public have not realised that while the crisis might appear as financial, in fact, it rests in the toxicity of the Lebanese political system and the ruling establishment that refuse to abandon its 18th-century practices and adopt modern governance methods, ones that would pave the way for a deep state capable of standing up to any challenge, including any Hezbollah-like hostile takeover such as the present one.
The violence on the streets of Beirut is another rude reminder of what awaits Lebanon if a drastic emergency economic plan is not immediately and fully implemented. Hoping for Hezbollah to abandon its violent world outlook is clearly a losing bet on which only compulsive gamblers would consider a wager.