What happens next with Lebanon’s leaderless uprising?

If the oligarchs fail, and they will fail to come up with a clear map for the transitional phase the Lebanese are demanding, they simply must retire into political oblivion.
Sunday 03/11/2019
A Lebanese protester holds a picture of her face painted as the Joker in Beirut, October 23. (AFP)
A Lebanese protester holds a picture of her face painted as the Joker in Beirut, October 23. (AFP)

Few people would have predicted the Lebanese uprising in which millions of Lebanese across the country and the diaspora took to the streets to demand the toppling of the decrepit political system and the elites who operate it.

The Lebanese people had been rightfully accused of being a nation that refuses to reform and rather celebrates corruption and glorifies clientelism and wilfully embraces an archaic confessional system belonging to the Dark Ages.

The nationwide protests followed several events, culminating with the economic meltdown and the rush on the US dollar, which warned of more terrible times to come if the Lebanese political class did not act immediately.

Having failed to do so, the Lebanese took to the streets not only seeking economic reform but to demand a change of a corrupt system that can no longer provide basic clientelist services to people who time and again blindly supported and elected their leaders who failed to deliver.

Two weeks of protests forced Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to submit his resignation, a demand the protesters hoisted from Day One, but the million-dollar question remains: What happens next?

For many the demand for a change of Lebanon’s archaic system seems far-fetched but the protesters seem adamant that any form of cosmetic reform will exacerbate the matter and lead Lebanon into the pits of the underworld, never to be resurrected.

Following Hariri’s resignation, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who in a televised speech came across as feeble and detached from reality, must start the constitutional process of parliamentary deliberation to name a prime minister who would form the next government.

This somewhat simple legal process seems to be riddled with obstacles as the ruling establishment is trying to rehash the current government while keeping the same balance of power, something protesters definitely oppose.

Essentially, Hariri imprudently believes that the challenge is economic and that by inserting some technocrats into his next lineup he can appease the raging street and survive the political onslaught. For millions of Lebanese, the economic crisis is a symptom of a chronic and cancerous disease shared by all the political class and previously the people: corruption.

The protesters also are fully aware that any form of economic reform cannot take place in the existing toxic environment and the operating system of governance which, time and again, has absorbed and co-opted any attempt to drive through reform.

Perhaps more important, the national ethos of the Lebanese uprising “all of them means all of them” indicates the deep mistrust of the public of all political parties and their subsidiaries and to anyone who has previously occupied office. To the men and women demonstrating on the street, the road to economic prosperity needs to pass through political reforms, which Hariri lacks the capability, or the competence, to carry out.

For three years, Hariri has been deceptively trying to project an image of a desperate statesman who is focused on economic salvation while, in fact, he was a partner in a settlement in which Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, and their ally Hezbollah fully hijacked what remains of Lebanon’s resources and sovereignty.

Many have doubts that the protests will persevere and that the public will not simply grow weary and accept to compromise over their basic demand for radical and sustainable change. While the ruling establishment is not totally defeated and is playing possum, the protesters are aware of the tactics and the challenges that await them because most of them were part of the parties and associations and they are trained to smell political snares and avoid them.

One of the recurrent queries addressed to protesters has been: What do you want and what is your list of demands?

Simply the public is in no position nor needs to do the work of the ruling elite and thus it is the duty of the inept politicians to present to the public a clear plan of action and not the other way around. If these oligarchs fail, and they will fail to come up with a clear map for the political and economic transitional phase the Lebanese are demanding, they simply must retire into political oblivion and allow for a new generation of policymakers to take the reins of governance.

Building a state is no easy task and building a nation to make the Lebanese feel proud again is ever harder. Yet the fighting spirit the Lebanese have exhibited across the land proves that the country’s second centennial next year might be the rebirth of a country that decided to wake up and face its demons.