[The COVID-19 crisis arrived in Lebanon on the heels of widespread protests that commenced in late 2019 against the country’s political system and elites. Lebanon today is beset by a resurgence of coronavirus infections, and in addition to the public health crisis is facing the prospect of genuine economic collapse. Jadaliyya Co-Editor and Quick Thoughts series editor Mouin Rabbani interviewed Ziad Abu-Rish and Maya Mikdashi, both Jadaliyya Co-Editors, to get a better understanding of the context and consequences of Lebanon’s multiple crises. The Quick Thoughts series provides background, context, and detail to issues that are, or should be, currently in the news.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): Lebanon has seen a series of protests since 2019, predating the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic reverberations. Can you tell us a little about those protests and where they stand today?
Ziad Abu-Rish and Maya Mikdashi (ZA & MM): Lebanon has featured episodic protests and strikes for the last several years. While the demonstrations that began in October 2019 were a major turning point in the politics of the country, they also drew on the networks, experiences, successes, and frustrations of these previous instances of mobilization. These included a myriad of campaigns and other forms of mobilization by public school teachers, retired military personnel, community activists, and municipal voters—not to mention the 2015 garbage protests and the 2019 protests by Palestinian refugees.
Beginning 17 October 2019, Lebanon featured an intense wave of popular protests that were variously referred to as the “October Uprising” or “October Revolution.” They quickly expanded in terms of both geographic range and numerical strength, and effectively shut down business as usual throughout much of the country for months. At one point an estimated two million people were on the streets of various cities and towns, representing approximately one-third of the total population of Lebanon. While large-scale rallies, marches, encampments, and roadblocks lasted into January 2020, those that subsequently continued taking to the streets began to focus on more direct symbols and spaces of the government and status quo: parliament; various ministries; the central bank; the national electricity company; and the office of the Association of Lebanese Bankers.
This was partly a function of strategic shifts by activist groups and their coalitions, some of which were formed prior to the uprising and others during it. It was also due to violent repression by security forces as well as party loyalists. Thereafter, activist precautions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the government ban on public gatherings (part of the declared state of emergency on 15 March 2020) effectively muted the demonstrations. Episodic protests have reappeared in much more disparate and smaller numbers since June 2020. Yet, by then the intensifying economic crisis, stalling tactics by the government and politicians, and episodic violence on the part of the security forces had worn down much of the population’s capacity for direct collective action.
MR: What were/are the main drivers of these demonstrations, what are the protestors' objectives, and do they have widespread support among the Lebanese population?
ZAR & MM: The October-January mass mobilizations encompassed a range of grievances vis-à-vis the status quo in Lebanon. They primarily took aim at the unresponsiveness of successive governments, parliaments, and main political parties more generally to address long-articulated calls for accountability, transparency, and social justice. In terms of immediate demands, first and foremost was the call for the government to resign (which it eventually did on 29 October 2019). There was also relative consensus around demands for an independent judiciary, which in turn was related to the desire of many for the full and equal application of the Lebanese constitution and of the 1989 Taif Accord that officially ended the 1975–1990 civil war and underpinned the post-war political order. Another currently somewhat-resurgent demand has been for early parliamentary elections, which in turn raised the issue of restructuring the electoral law.
There were also more systemic demands articulated and debated. Some called for an end to the confessional distribution of political office and related positions. Others demanded a rethinking of the development model as well as economic and fiscal policies that have increased poverty and unemployment, weakened purchasing power, encouraged corruption, and enriched a very small percentage of the population at the expense of the rest. Lebanon has one of the highest wealth inequality ratios in the world: between 2005 and 2014, the richest one percent claimed twenty-five percent of total national income; in 2017, twenty percent of the entire domestic banking deposit base was concentrated in 0.1 percent of all deposit accounts. Also important were feminist and anti-racist demands that challenged gender, sexual, racial, and other hierarchies inherent in the Lebanese political system, its legal edifice, and daily practices in the public, private, and domestic sectors.
It would be difficult to claim there was agreement on the majority of specific demands advanced during these numerous protests. There is nevertheless general agreement that the political elites as a whole have failed to produce a meaningful postwar order in Lebanon—one in which the average Lebanese can live in dignity and have a say in the policies that shape their everyday lives as well as long-term aspirations. The complete rejection of these political elites was palpable both in the rhetoric of protesters as well as the near-total withdrawal of these elites from public and media appearances for about two months.
MR: What are the main economic and political elements of Lebanon's current crisis? How has the political establishment sought to address these, and do you think they are in a position to implement a successful strategy that preserves their position and power?
ZAR & MM: Lebanon today can be described as featuring a set of multiple and overlapping crises. These include developmental, infrastructural, fiscal, and currency crises. Developmentally, revenue generation has come to standstill and its over-reliance on attracting external financial flows through the service sector (primarily banking and real estate) has meant that its distribution was quite lopsided. The electricity, water, waste management communication, and transportation infrastructures of the country are dilapidated. Electricity is rationed, the potable water supply is inconsistent, while cellphone and internet services are expensive and inadequate. Fiscally, the government is unable to balance its budget, due to the combination of an annual debt servicing burden equal to a third of the annual state budget and a taxation system that is overly reliant on indirect taxes (e.g., customs and excise) as opposed to direct taxes (e.g., income tax). Politically-backed smuggling networks through both the ports and land borders—not to mention official exemptions for politicians and their allies—also deprive the state of much of these (already insufficient) indirect taxes. More recently, the government has been unable to pay its bills for many of the privatized services such as traffic light administration and waste management, leading to breakdowns in service. The government has also delayed or failed to make payments to public and private hospitals it has contracted with, causing disruptions to the health care system.
Despite being a dollarized economy, there is a massive shortage of foreign exchange in the country. This is affecting its ability to import not only luxury goods but also basic foodstuffs, fuel, and medical supplies. This is to say nothing of the fact that banks increasingly limited dollar withdrawals and eventually locked people out of their dollar deposits. One cumulaive effect of this dramatic shortage of foreign exchange has been the rapid depreciation of Lebanese lira. While the official rate remains at 1500 Lebanese lira per 1 US dollar, the (black) market rate is today approximately 8000 liras and climbing. In other words, the lira has lost more than eighty percent of its value. The banking sector's locking of depositors out of thier dollar accounts is reflective of one of the single-most dramatic instances of wealth destruction in recent history; by most accounts the banks have squandered a large portion of their dollar deposit base. They did so by paying out extravagant shareholder dividends and executive bonuses, and more generally by making bad investments. More recently, they have allowed clients with powerful connections to transfer their wealth out of the country while simultaneously denying ordinary depositors access to their dollars.
These “bad investments” by the banking sector have been a structural feature of the post-war Lebanese political economy. They primarily involve collusion between government officials, the central bank, and the banking sector around an agenda of profiteering from public debt and financial engineering schemes. Furthermore, we contend, with others, that delays in addressing the economic crisis should be understood as a political and economic choice to foist the burden of bankruptcy onto ordinary citizens and non-citizens through inflation and other tactics. It of course bears emphasizing that many politicians and their associates are major shareholders in Lebanon’s top-tier banks.
These developmental, fiscal, infrastructural, and currency crises predate the October uprising. Yet many politicians and banking executives have attempted to re-write history by claiming the “real” crisis began with the protests. A careful assessment of public statements, currency tracking, central bank statistics, and banking practices throughout 2018 and 2019 reveals a different story. Well before the uprising, many banks were incentivizing borrowers to convert their lira-denominated loans to dollar-denominated ones, while also making cash withdrawals or international transfers from dollar-denominated accounts more difficult. On the other hand, according to one 2018-19 estimate, seventy-one percent of the workforce was employed in the service sector, and forty percent of the workforce was informally employed (i.e., no access to social security benefits, minimum wage, work hour regulations, or fringe benefits). That same survey found that only fifty-five percent of the population was covered by any (public or private) health insurance plan. Furthermore, the months leading up to the October uprising featured gas station strikes protesting the government’s inability to secure dollars for fuel imports, and public sector employees complaining about chronic salary delays. What the uprising did was confront politicians and their business allies head on. The latter in turn responded by trying to shift the blame to the protesters while also scrambling to protect their assets. This is precisely the intra-elite struggle and debate transpiring today: devising acceptable mechanisms to distribute the financial losses and political blame.
There is also a political crisis, which has two main features. First, the ability of leading political parties to cooperate and collude with one another to keep the overall system working has run aground. Second, the ability of leading political parties to maintain their hegemony over their respective constituencies has been greatly eroded. This is not to say that a breakdown in the social order or regime collapse is inevitable.
We could of course reframe the question of political crisis and center the majority of the population by simply pointing to the fact that the political system is unresponsive to the basic needs, daily lives, and life-span horizons of the majority. Whatever savings elder segments of the populations had, were wiped out by the continuously rising cost of living, the recent currency depreciation, or the banks’ de facto confiscation of dollar deposits. Young adults have few options for professional development or upward social mobility—to say nothing of employment in a service-based economy largely dependent on the unstable influx of tourists, diaspora visits, and regional or international media outlets and humanitarian industrial complexes. Each successive parliament and government have failed to deliver on promises to improve infrastructure, expand employment, arrest the rising cost of living, and address corruption. Moreover, any economic crisis is also itself a political crisis: the economy, however liberal, open, and laissez-faire, is a function of economic policies and governing practices.
While these multiple crises form the backdrop and context for many of the grievances and mobilizations that animated the October-January uprising, many worry that the continued intensification of these crises may once again resuscitate Lebanon’s political elite in the name of stability. Others argue that only a broad-based elite coalition can enact a set of policies necessary to abate the crises, even if it also perpetuates their hold on power and resources to reinvigorate patronage networks. In the unequal terrain of Lebanon’s political economy and vastly differential access to what funds remain in the country, we—like several others—worry that the rapid impoverishment of the population is laying the groundwork for the hardening of clientelist and dependency networks between established (and perhaps, new) politicians and their publics. It is worth noting that such networks have in fact become cheaper to maintain, even if available funds are scarce.
MR: Is the current crisis organically related to Lebanon's confessional power structure, and if so is there a serious prospect of increased sectarian tensions?
ZAR & MM: We do not believe the current crises are organically linked to confessionalism and/or sectarianism in Lebanon, nor are they merely a function of the regional and international system. These crises are the result of home-grown policies and decisions by those in control of the top levels of the state bureaucracy, designed to maximize their political power and economic privilege at the expense of the general population. They have, of course, been supported by regional and international allies as well as multilateral institutions. But it is possible to conceive of a confessional political system in Lebanon that is at the same time a little more responsive to the needs of the people. So the real question has to do with the incentive structures and cost-benefit analysis that those in power face in deciding how to conduct themselves in the absence of any kind of legal constraint or meaningful popular accountability.
A prominent way in which confessionalism does directly impact state policy is the distribution of certain public sector employment and government contracts in the name of proportional “sectarian representation.” Major government works projects, including power plants, waste management facilities, and other infrastructure, are divvied up among leading politicians, their allies, and broader networks. Meanwhile, sectarian parity in government employment, save for top-level jobs, is actually not required since the Taif Accord. But employment in the government sector and the distribution of government projects and infrastructure contracts is a major way that politicians cultivate sectarian bona fides and patronage networks. While we are supportive of a robust public sector and believe the solution to this problem lies in reform and massive reinvestment in the public sector rather than privatization, we also hold that employment in the public sector should not be based on sectarian parity, as this only increases the ability of sectarian leaders to entrench their networks within the state.
If the October uprising has shown us anything, it is that the sectarian card has its limits as an instrument of rule and mobilization. It is less a constant feature than it is a repertoire in the political toolbox of existing parties and officials. This is not to say that the political system, whether through the apportionment of political office according to sectarian quotas or the adjudication of personal status matters by religious and state institutions, is irrelevant to the political economy of the country. But it is to say that there is no shortage of cross-sectarian collusion among political parties and government officials. The fundamental dividing line between ruler and ruled is one of class and access to state resources, the nature of such rule is shot through with patriarchal and heteronormative hierarchies, and divisions among the ruling political parties are ultimately about international alliances and different perceptions of what constitutes an existential threat.
While sectarianism itself may not be a primary factor in the current crisis, the structural conditions of the Lebanese state are critical. The Troika system of power-sharing—specifically the division of executive authority between the offices of the presidency, premiership, and parliamentary speakership—has engendered an environment where broad-based consensus among politicians is necessary for any major policy. This has more to do with the institutional reorganization of the Taif Accord than with confessionalism or sectarianism. Even if the president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament hailed from the same sect, the structural problem of distributed executive power and consensus-building (often through bartering) would persist.
The uprising and the current period reveal a truism about Lebanon: sectarianism is most often a strategic mechanism to access scarce resources. Indeed, sometimes one has to participate in sectarian networks in order to access what are supposed to be public goods. Such networks are currently less able to perform this function. The fact that sectarian discourse is in this period less effective with protestors and the public at large, and the fact that protests were against all political elites and sectarian leaders, demonstrates yet again that Lebanese citizens are not “ride or die” for their sectarian leaders. Rather, their support is contingent on these networks being able to perform particular functions that meet their needs. In this sense, we should also explore specific sectarian networks and political parties to understand these dynamics, as they do not all operate at the same capacity, resonance, constraints, or scales.
MR: How do you assess the COVID-19 situation in Lebanon?
ZAR & MM: As of 15 July 2020, Lebanon’s Ministry of Public Health has confirmed a total of 2542 COVID-19 cases, and thirty-eight deaths, since the first case was confirmed on 21 February. For the last four months, government officials and many international observers have claimed the COVID-19 pandemic is under control in Lebanon, especially given the total estimated population of six million residents. That assertion was always problematic, for at least three reasons. First, there was very little one could do to verify the statistics provided by the Ministry of Public Health, or the claims of public and/or private hospitals to be COVID-19 ready. This is not to deny the efforts that were made with respect to testing, tracing, quarantining, and otherwise identifying/containing the spread of the virus. However, we were never given consistent data, for example concerning the number of available hospital beds and ventilators, nor provided with the proper context to measure the broader picture (e.g., the total number and geographical distribution of tests). Second, access to and the quality of healthcare are endemic problems in Lebanon. This is due to the effectively privatized nature of the health care system and its marked discrepancies with respect to costs, the legal status of patients (e.g., citizens, refugees, migrant laborers), and regional variations. Third, there is nothing “under control” about the economic dislocations and psychological pressures caused by the government-imposed lockdown in Lebanon.
This is not to challenge the idea that a lockdown was necessary. But it is to highlight the fact that it was not accompanied by any meaningful social safety net. While the pre-existing crises discussed earlier certainly facilitated such problematic responses, the government and leading political parties could have used the COVID-19 crisis to turn a corner and, even if only temporarily, demonstrate a genuine interest in the well-being of the population. Instead, as soon as the political utility of the lockdown abated (i.e., mass protests were nullified), the government completely re-opened the country, placing a higher premium on the influx of foreign currency and resumption of general economic activity than on public health, which was placed at dangerous risk. The fact that Lebanon has now featured three consecutive days of record-breaking increases in new COVID-19 cases—coupled with revelations the healthcare workers in several hospitals have tested positive and that many hospitals are in fact insufficiently prepared to respond to the pandemic—highlights the fact that the worst is yet to come.
MR: There has recently been increased media attention to the fate of migrant workers in Lebanon. Could you tell us more about these dynamics and how these are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
ZAR & MM: Lebanon is a multinational space. Approximately one-third of residents in Lebanon are not citizens but rather refugees, migrant laborers, foreign expats, and children of Lebanese mothers who are structurally excluded from Lebanese citizenship. Each of these groups has a different social, economic, legal, and bureaucratic relationship with the state. In the case of migrant laborers, who primarily hail from East Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, racism forms an additional and significant dynamic.
As the economic crisis has deepened, racist and xenophobic language directed at migrant laborers has flourished. A US professor teaching at the American University of Beirut (AUB), a Syrian man working in construction, and an Ethiopian woman working as a domestic laborer are all technically “foreign workers” and temporary residents. However, labor laws and contractual rights apply to them differently, as do societal practices of racism, classism, and segregation. Nationalist, racist, and xenophobic discourses targeting foreign workers in Lebanon have increased in response to economic catastrophe. Of course, these discourses do not target US academics, French advertising executives, or British humanitarian workers—when perceived to be white—but rather, those perceived to be black and brown. Some Lebanese go so far as to scapegoat migrant laborers and their remittances to families abroad as a major source of the country’s foreign exchange crisis.
Most migrant laborers in Lebanon operate within the kafala (sponsorship) system: a set of laws, policies, and practices that tie the employee’s ability to legally work to specific employers, and giving the latter immense power over the employee’s everyday life, bodily health, financial security, and legal status. The kafala system excludes these migrant laborers from the Labor Code and standard labor protections and benefits, while also operating with little-to-no oversight. The result is systematic human rights abuses. Migrant labor activists in Lebanon have described the kafala system as a form of “modern slavery”, and there is a growing campaign to abolish it entirely.
Both COVID-19 and the economic crisis have put a stress test to the kafala labor system. For example, many upper- and middle-class Lebanese families are currently expelling their domestic workers from their homes because these families can no longer (or will no longer) pay their salaries or repatriation. There is no shortage of testimonials of cars pulling up in front of the Ethiopian Embassy as migrant laborers are forced out and left to fend on their own (in some cases without their belongings). Other migrant workers recently expelled, laid off, or simply seeking respite have taken to camping outside their respective embassies. Hundreds of South Asian sanitation workers have organized petitions and strikes demanding payment in dollars (as previously agreed) or in Lebanese currency at the market rather than the official rate. Some have demanded to be repatriated to their home countries. Consider that their 150-dollar monthly salary, now paid in Lebanese lira at the official rate, is worth a mere thirty dollars. These and other sanitation workers have been brutally suppressed by company managers, who in some instances invite in security forces and in others literally torture and imprison dissenters. At the same time, over two-hundred Syrian sanitation workers have been quarantined after approximately 140 of them tested positive for COVID-19. These statistics reflect the well-known overcrowded living quarters and precarious working conditions imposed by the sanitation company.
The publicity of these actions—the literal dropping off of women on the street and the entry of security forces into the living quarters of sanitary workers—are a portal through which to imagine what the relationship between the employing family or company and the employee look like in private, during what some analysts refer to as prosperous times. None of this is news to anyone that has followed the struggles of migrant workers in general and domestic workers in particular over the past several decades. We can add to this the complete lack of any proper statistics, resources, or guidelines for protecting, testing, and treating migrant workers (or refugees) for COVID-19. The fate of these two sets of labor migrants—domestic workers and sanitation workers—reveal the intersections between political economy and institutional and social hierarchies, and how they have in turn been amplified by both economic crises and the COVID-19 pandemic.
For years migrant workers have been active in speaking out and organizing their ranks. Mutual aid networks have sprung up to help alleviate the particular challenges of domestic workers, sanitation workers, and other forms of labor organized under the kafala system. As has been amply demonstrated across the globe, structurally subordinated communities experience COVID-19’s effects in compound fashion.