Anti-government protesters inspired by the French movement "Yellow Vests" (Gilets jaunes) hold masks painted with the Lebanese flag demonstrate in Martyr's square, in central Beirut, on December 23, 2018. (Photo: ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)

Inability to Form Government Foments Concern of Lebanese Economic Disaster

Again Hizbullah’s political strength grows while economy nosedives

Lebanon’s dire social and economic situation stemming from the country’s ongoing political stalemate was the target of street demonstrations in Beirut earlier this week.

The deadlock, arising from disagreements between political factions over the country’s sectarian quota system, has again prevented the formation of a new government, this time some seven months after parliamentary elections were held. The May election was Lebanon’s first since 2009.

The Lebanese government is built around a unique “confessional” framework: the 128-seat parliament distributed equally between Christians and Muslims and proportionally between their respective sects. The prime minister is charged with both forming and heading the Council of Ministers, a 30-seat body subject to the special quotas.

The May election again saw an increase in the political strength of Iran-backed Hizbullah which has long held a strangle-hold over the government. While its number of seats did not drastically change, the Shiite terrorist group’s political allies fared well, causing concern among some Sunni parliamentarians about their rival’s burgeoning political power.

“Lebanon can make do without the government as the country is based on family dynasties and monopolies, with many private institutions. Therefore, lacking a government for almost a year isn’t paramount,” Professor Eyal Zisser, Vice Rector of Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.

As the political stalemate deepens, the country’s economic woes are coming more sharply into focus. It currently holds a debt of $85 billion, compared to its 2017 GDP of $51.84 billion. A World Bank official warned in November that without a newly-formed government to launch much-needed economic reforms, “the Lebanon we know will fizzle away.”

Prof. Zisser, however, says these doomsday predictions are overblown. “The country’s debt isn’t new and in the past the Lebanese have managed. It’s there, like a volcano that’s threatening you, but you live alongside it.”

Dr. Rima Majed, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the American University of Beirut, disagreed. “The ‘volcano’ has erupted many times. An economic crisis preceded the Lebanese Civil War [1975–1990]. An eruption may have already begun as inflation rates have drastically increased,” she explained to The Media Line. Lebanon is on the verge of an economic collapse, and the repercussions of this are rooted in our everyday life,” she continued.

The Lebanese are no strangers to protests, having held large rallies in 2005, 2006-2008, 2011 and most recently in 2015-2016. In 2011, demonstrations were also held against the confessional system and calling for political reform.

Commenting on the potential for such structural amendments, Prof. Zisser opined that the prospect is unlikely. “In Lebanon, ethnicity is everything. Before you have a sense of civic affiliation, you are loyal to a community. That’s what Lebanon is all about.”

But again, Dr. Majed differed. “I think these protests have to be read as part of a long history of dissent. These types of gatherings have been occurring regularly. It’s a continuous movement that has taken different forms and shapes.

“Past protests have usually been staged by secular, leftist and progressive activists. The recent ones are interesting because they’ve mobilized an important section of society, namely the supporters of the sectarian political parties,” she added.

Commenting on the stalled government-formation process, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri tweeted on Sunday that “sometimes silence is necessary so that others will listen.”
For the Lebanese, however, a prolonged silence could spell economic disaster.

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