Beirut's ruling elite may be down, but they are not yet out

In the “Lebanese Politics Podcast”, co-host Nizar Hassan analyses political events in Lebanon. In interview with Qantara, he talks about solutions to the country’s economic crisis, the role of Hezbollah in the political negotiations and Lebanon's political prospects

By Julia Neumann

Seit sieben Wochen protestieren Hunderttausende im Libanon gegen die grassierende Korruption und die anhaltende Finanzkrise. Wie beteiligen Sie sich persönlich an den Aufständen?

For seven weeks, hundreds of thousands in Lebanon have been protesting against the corrupt politicians and the ongoing financial crisis. How are you personally involved in the current protests?

Nizar Hassan: I am part of the direct action working group of the LiHaqqi (‘For My Right’) political movement, which was the first to call for protests on Thursday, 17 October, when we learned that the government was proposing a new tax on WhatsApp. That tax was the most regressive form of taxation possible, because it was about taking 20 cents for every first call per day from every citizen, which mostly would have targeted poor people who cannot afford normal telecom call prices. So we issued a call to protest in the streets in downtown Beirut, which attracted thousands within a few hours. Over the next three days, it became the biggest of any protest in Lebanon's history. On Saturday and Sunday, the whole country was disrupted by roadblocks.

From that moment on, my role personally shifted to helping set the demands in a clear way. At the same time, I am writing analyses about what is happening.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his government resigned at the end of October in response to the uprising. What are the current demands of the people on the streets?

Hassan: We want a government that is independent from the political parties and independent from the ruling class, the bankers and real estate speculators and people who have been benefitting from the economic system for the last 30 years. We want people who are independent experts to oversee a transition period in which early elections are held, the economic crisis is dealt with and where steps towards cracking down on corruption are taken.

 Anti-government demonstrations in Beirut (photo: Reuters/A. M. Casares)
Aufstand gegen Misswirtschaft und eine Politik des "Weiter so": Im Libanon kommt es seit Mitte Oktober immer wieder zu Protesten gegen die politische Führung. Die Demonstranten beklagen vor allem Misswirtschaft, grassierende Korruption und einen Mangel an Jobs. Sie haben den Rücktritt der politischen Führung gefordert und wollen diese durch eine Regierung aus Technokraten ersetzen lassen.

How are the protests organised?

Hassan: We have political movements or parties that were formed before the uprising. Some of them are more grassroots movements without a party-structure, some are based on a few individuals or a very successful Facebook page. And then you have groups have grown out of the protests that are more focussed on direct action and mostly organised via WhatsApp. They coordinate direct actions specifically, for example blocking roads; others discuss and then meet on the ground. There are tens of thousands of WhatsApp groups now across the country. I personally am involved in around 40 of them.

What strategies is the government using to deal with the situation?

Hassan: They are using counter-revolutionary strategies. For instance, politicians have been releasing anti-roadblock propaganda, comparing blocking the roads to checkpoints. This brings back the trauma of the Civil War, where areas were separated by checkpoints and people from a different sectarian background were not allowed to cross. We also have direct attacks on protesters: supporters of Amal and Hezbollah, for instance, have been taking to the streets to beat up protesters or burn their tents. These very serious attacks not only aim to scare those who are protesting, but also to intimidate their own supporters, so that they are not tempted to join the uprising. At the same time, the supporters of parties opposed to these two parties have been trying to co-opt the movement by joining the protests and influencing its rhetoric and strategy in terms of street action. This is creating division, the idea of many opposing 'streets'. And when you do this, you destroy the idea of a uniting popular uprising against the establishment.[embed:render:embedded:node:38359]

What is Hezbollah’s role in the political negotiations?

Hassan: The role of Hezbollah in this uprising has been to be the counter revolutionary guard. Hezbollah is basically doing what all political parties in power want to do but cannot, which is: to take the blame for being the ones that are opposed to the revolution, because they know they have the biggest capacity to influence the people and convince them. They have the most effective propaganda machine and the strongest base of support across the demographic spectrum, but especially among young people.

How are politicians aligned with the banking system?

Hassan: Politicians and their families are very connected to the banking sector, as well as the real estate and import sectors. They own shares of banks, and you often have bankers appointed as ministers. The tax system is very biased towards the banks as well. Basically the banks are part of the new bourgeoisie that has controlled economic policy in Lebanon after the end of the civil war in 1990. Politicians, bankers, the real estate and development companies have created an alliance that serves their interests.

The Lebanese pound (lira) is depreciating; there is a shortage of US dollars in the economy. How does the economic crisis play out for people?

Hassan: Because of the depreciation of the lira on the market, people’s savings in lira have lost 40 percent of their value in US dollars. Businesses have been hit very hard: a lot of businesses rely on products they import from outside, which they have to pay for in dollars. The government has adopted austerity measures for more than two years. This has an impact on how much is spent on social welfare and public investments, which harms economic development and therefore worsens the already high unemployment rate.

If not austerity measures, what is the solution to the financial crisis?

Hassan: We need to re-schedule the public debt, which is mostly owed to the banks, to allow the state to pay at least some of it back without going bankrupt. Longer term policies should also encourage investments in the productive sectors. Our economic model has encouraged people to put their money in the bank and get high interest rates without any investments. We need progressive debt relief – for instance, by only targeting people with more than one million dollars, where the state confiscates some of the money they made out of the high interest rates given by banks. Around 0.5 percent of the population owns around half of the wealth in the banking sector. By only targeting the millionaires and multimillionaires, we can protect the working class and the middle classes.

Caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced that he does not want to be Prime Minister in the future. What do you expect to happen next?

Hassan: The ruling parties have agreed on a format where they would distribute shares in the upcoming cabinet seats and each party can decide whether to be represented by technocrats or known politicians.

As for the identity of the new prime minister, one part of Hariri’s speech went unnoticed. He said the Prime Minister and the government need to be in line with people's aspirations, especially with women who have shown the ability to be political leaders. He is paving the way for the interior minister of the previous government, Raya Hassan, who has been working with him for at least 10 years, to be the next prime minister.

He can sell it as the first female Prime Minister in the Arab world, together with a bunch of technocrats who have no political profile. It would look like a ‘cool’ government, but with the same political paradigms on economic policy that currently represent the ruling class. It seems as if Hassan's name is off the table, but I believe it is actually in the top drawer. Still, it remains impossible to predict either the actions of the ruling class or the response of the people to them.

Interview conducted by Julia Neumann

© 2019

Nizar Hassan is a political researcher and podcaster based in Beirut. He is co-founder of the political movement LiHaqqi, researches workers’ rights and social movements and co-hosts “The Lebanese Politics Podcast”.