February 11, 2020 | Security forces fire tear gas and water cannon to break up protesters near Parliament (France 24 / AFP) | pax-Syriana policy article
February 11, 2020 | Security forces fire tear gas and water cannon to break up protesters near Parliament (France 24 / AFP)

Lebanon’s new political formula takes the country back to pax-Syriana

“No confidence!” permeates activist circles as a slogan after four months of shaking the status quo in the pursuit of a brighter future. 

Simultaneously the headline of last Saturday’s march and Tuesday’s protest, it embodies many demonstrators’ recurrent dissatisfaction with the ways in which the country’s political class has reproduced itself once again. 

While Prime Minister Hassan Diab has spoken of a new “opportunity” to build a competent and technocratic government, many would argue that the new political formula takes the country not only back to October 16, but even prior to 2005.

Political class responds to uprising 

Commencing as a reaction to a tax imposed on the usage of communication products, the few thousand demonstrators of October 17 have evolved into a national uprising, with hundreds of thousands filling the squares and facing public institutions, judicial offices, banks, and police stations.

Climaxing with the bank protests, riots, and weekly marches encompassing the month of January, the uprising has produced a discourse demanding a wide range of policies, including but not restricted to: redistribution (of wealth and costs of crisis), debt restructuring, police reform, and judicial independence. 

During a press conference in which the new cabinet was announced last month to respond to these demands, Diab proclaimed that “this government represents the demonstrators of our nation and will work on delivering judicial independence and restoring stolen public funds.”

On the other hand, the cabinet makeup and leaked policy statement have left many hopeful protesters with different ideas, creating a flashback to the pax-Syriana days. 

Syrian influence article

Tuesday, January 11 | Protesters near Parliament (AP Photos)

New ministerial order: Pax-Syriana figureheads and neo-liberal policy

“After Hezbollah informed all parties that it has done its duty to ensure [ministerial] agreement, calling upon all forces to negotiate amongst one another and with the designated Prime Minister, concessions were made and all was set,” tweeted Hezbollah ally and former head of General Security MP Jamil Al-Sayyed.

In a striking return to intra-elite politics, Al-Sayyed’s close business and former military connections to Minister of Economy Raoul Nehme and Interior Minister General Mohamad Fehmi raised concerns over his role in shaping the new academic-esque government named entirely by the pro-Hezbollah alignment.

A week prior to the cabinet formation, Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader and former MP Walid Joumblatt substantiated these concerns in a public appearance from Ain El-Tineh; “I was informed that he [El-Sayyed] is now one of those who shape governments.” 

As head of General Security up to 2005, Al-Sayyed was known for his infamous connections to the Syrian regime and association with brutal security methods in face of rising discontent. 

Introducing his former colleague General Fehmi into the political set up has exacerbated fears of further securitization, particularly with regards to Fehmi’s praise for the Internal Security Forces in reference to measures characterized in an Amnesty International report as “arbitrary detention” and “use of excessive force.”

On the level of preparing an economic road map, the leaked policy statement (or the cabinet’s proclaimed economic and political road map) is reminiscent of monetary and fiscal policies spearheaded by former Prime Minister Rafic Al Hariri.

In the past, the government of Hariri Sr. installed the value-added tax, formed private-public partnerships in a variety of sectors ranging from telecommunication to water, cut down on public spending, and began accumulating a large amount of high-interest national debt.

On the other hand, today’s policy statement highlights establishing private-public partnership, coordinating extensively with the banking sector, succumbing to the conditions of international monetary institutions, and standardizing current capital controls via legislation.

“Hassan Diab’s cabinet unites the worst of both sides in the ‘Hong Kong-Hanoi’ equation: dictatorial suppression led by Jamil Al-Sayyed and Hezbollah, and the neoliberal trajectory of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) under the umbrella of technocrats and academics,” writes refugee researcher Dima Krayem.

While today’s Lebanon is not under the mandate of the Syrian regime, authoritarian tendencies, painful neo-liberal economic policy, and the hegemony of pro-Syrian regime figureheads are said to be important commonalities to be taken into account.

“The fall of Hariri and the formation of a new Cabinet dominated by pro-Syrian regime parties and figures, most notably Interior Minister Mohammad Fehmi, may signal a return back to the pre-2005 period of Syrian influence, but there are important distinctions worth noting,” Beirut-based analyst Nadim El Kak told Beirut Today.

“Syria is in a much weaker position, and is still facing various challenges at home – reclaiming the North-West, negotiating reconstruction deals, figuring out its relationship with the SDF, dealing with those internally displaced and refugees, and seeing what the Iranians and Russians want in return for saving the regime,” he continued.

In this sense, to many stakeholders in the country, pax-Syriana does not solely revolve around the immediate geo-political salience of the Syrian regime, but also represents a collective memory of a style of governance characterizing the pre-2005 era.

Street fights back: “No confidence!”

In response to a “polarized one color” government reproducing an unjust economic system and exacerbating securitization measures, independent syndicates, youth organizations, and progressive political groups have attempted to revive the momentum.

“We consider that those who instigated the crisis we are encountering and accumulated wealth over the years are solely responsible to pay off the costs,” said economist Mohammad Zbeeb in a press conference on Monday, the 3rd of February.

The conference came in response to statements from the ministerial committee suggesting that the measures being discussed are anticipated to be “painful.”

See also: Diab’s “painful measures” are not necessary, they’re a political choice

Meanwhile, taking place on Saturday the 1st of February and extending from the Central Bank to Riad El Solh, a march of diverse groups objected to the very essence of this new cabinet, particularly its two-fold nature combining bank-friendly neoliberal policies and authoritarianism.

“Not only are some of these ministers bank executives or with close ties to commercial banks, but also they supported Hariri’s initial ‘reform package’ –the same package we  brought down,” said protester Wissam Haidar, a member of the MADA Youth Network.

“We now have an interior minister who formerly held the position of a general working closely with the Syrian regime’s brutal security apparatus in the country,” he stressed while pointing out today’s resemblance to the mandate era.

“The current cabinet and its policy statement ridicule the people, alongside their uprising and demands,” activist and member of Li-7aqqi Rain Zahreddine told Beirut Today.

Zahreddine further emphasized that the political equation is currently no longer 8 vs. 14 March, and that the political class in its “entirety” has united against the interests of the people.

“All revolutions have chapters, and now is the chapter of organizing one’s popular base. It is crucial that decentralized networks are formed cross-regions to consistently coordinate the pressure on the ground,” she said.

“The purpose of such an organizational strategy is to give people an active alternative which pushes them to the street in favor of continuing the struggle!”