LEBANON: Protests Rage On as Economic Collapse Looms

Photo: Protesters assembled outside the Parliament building last Tuesday to reject the new cabinet headed by Prime Minister Hassan Diab

By Miriam Cordova

On February 11, over 400 protesters were injured in a riot outside the parliament building in Beirut as the Lebanese parliament held a vote of confidence on the newly appointed cabinet.  The vote was held as Lebanon faces a deepening financial crisis that threatens to collapse the country’s economy.

Protesters in Beirut avoid water cannons in clash with police

Leading up to the vote, protesters attacked the car of one member of parliament and sent another to the hospital. The protesters held barricades blocking the roads surrounding the parliament building and threw molotov cocktails and other projectiles at the police as they responded with tear gas and water cannons.

While the cabinet was ultimately approved, less than half of parliament actually voted in favor of the new government, with over 40 legislators failing to attend the session at all.   The new cabinet is comprised of technocratic ‘specialists’ and has been described by new Prime Minister Hassan Diab as an “economic rescue team.” Diab has also sought assistance from the imperialist International Monetary Fund (IMF) in a desperate bid to stabilize the economy and avoid bankruptcy as a $1.2 billion Eurobonds debt is set to mature in March.

The anti-government protests have persisted for months, and although the new government was formed as a concession to the ‘leaderless’ protest movement, protests have only intensified. The movement began as a largely non-violent movement, but has become more combative over time, engaging in open clashes with security forces in the streets.

Earlier on January 27, dozens of protesters threw stones at police to prevent government officials from attending the 2020 budget meeting in Beirut. This meeting saw attendance from only 70 of the 128 members of parliament due to mass protests as well as boycotts from some political parties. “We want to bring down the entire parliament, it does not represent us,” said Abdelrahman Mohammed, one protester outside the parliament session.

The 2020 budget was ultimately passed by parliament and signed by Diab, but has been criticized in that it was originally drafted by the administration of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was forced to resign after weeks of protests against his government. The budget has also been criticized for overestimating projected revenues, and many fear that the budget will force more austerity measures on the people while electricity is already being cut off for 3-17 hours per day.

These escalations build on the movement incited on October 17, 2019, when around 100 protesters, gathered to oppose proposed taxes and assembled on top of the Minister of Higher Education Akram Chehayeb’s car. Protesters also vandalized offices of major political parties Hezbollah, Amal Movement, and Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), showing a rejection of the existing political parties and the sectarian political system as a whole.

Also in January, thousands participated in what was dubbed the “week of wrath,” which saw hundreds of arrests as protesters stormed banks in Beirut. The week also included protesters hurling firecrackers at police. The masses were not content to injure police officers once, as they entered hospitals to attack police who had been taken there for treatment. Over 400 protesters and 100 police were injured as a result of the week of heightened struggle.

Protesters in Beirut smash the window of a bank on January 14

The Lebanese mass movement has advanced, escalating in offensive tactics. The people forced riot police to withdraw from a mosque in central Beirut while chanting, “revolution,” and more have taken on the term “revolutionaries” to describe the non-sectarian movement.

The newly approved cabinet has been largely backed by Hezbollah and its Christian allies, which has heightened tensions with the country’s current allies of Gulf states, most notably Saudi Arabia. At this point, the Lebanese government is desperate for foreign aid, and after being snubbed by Saudi Arabia they have sought support from the Iranian government. Just yesterday, both Diab and Lebanese President Michel Aoun met with Iranian Shura Council Speaker Ali Larijani, who stated, “We, as a friendly country toward Lebanon, express our total readiness to support it in all fields.”

As the spontaneous movement has advanced, Lebanon’s police have increased their attempt to disunite more militant protesters from “peaceful” ones. While the movement has been successful in disrupting the country’s economy and forcing the political elite to seek resolution, a lack of revolutionary proletarian leadership casts uncertainty over its future.

Now that Hezbollah has taken a larger role in steering the country, Iran is poised to fill the void left by the Gulf states in Lebanon’s economy. As the government scrambles to save the country from collapse, this desperation creates favorable conditions for imperialist meddling. Diab’s collaboration with the IMF and US imperialism’s opposition to both Hezbollah and Iran, which it has designated as ‘terrorists,’ opens the door for further escalation.