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COVID-19 becomes a lifeline for Lebanon’s status quo

The pandemic had succeeded where Lebanon’s ruling elite had failed: getting protesters off the streets and giving the status quo a second chance.

Lucky GuleriaLucky Guleria | Updated: 10-04-2020 23:03 IST | Created: 10-04-2020 15:15 IST
COVID-19 becomes a lifeline for Lebanon’s status quo
Image Credit: Wikipedia

For months, Martyrs' Square in Beirut has been the nerve center of protests many Lebanese citizens hoped would end the corrupt clientelism that has reigned over their country for thirty years. Over the span of a few heady months, aggrieved activists, specialists, and average citizens tore through decades of taboos by debating everything from Lebanon's drained coffers to the chronic instability of its electric grid, braving attacks from counter-protestors aligned with establishment Shi'ite parties Hezbollah and Amal all the while.

The hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets starting in October 2019 notched a series of important victories. Prime Minister Saad Hariri was forced to resign, and two of his suggested successors were sidelined in the face of intense pressure from the street. The new government formed by Hassan Diab in January didn't meet all the protesters' demands, but it was smaller, included more women, and consisted primarily of so-called "technocrats."

On March 28th, however, Lebanese security forces cleared Martyrs' Square in accordance with confinement directives to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, reopening it to traffic after five months of occupation. The pandemic had succeeded where Lebanon's ruling elite had failed: getting protesters off the streets and giving the status quo a second chance.

A hollow government

This is of course just the latest instance of Lebanon's confessional factions taking advantage of a crisis to secure their grip. The formal division of power among Lebanon's 18 religious groups, a compromise solidified in the 1989 Ta'if Agreement that ended the civil war, parcelled out the institutions of the state between Maronite, Shi'ite, and Sunni political groups and made corruption a fact of life.

Since then, the central government has been completely hollowed out. One Beirut-based journalist remarked "Lebanon is not really a failed state, as many foreign observers like to claim, but barely a state at all". Indeed, the government is unable to provide its citizens with even the most basic services. Mountains of garbage have piled up on Beirut's streets and beaches, as the government's attempts at waste management have proven woefully inadequate.

Keeping the lights on

Corrupt actors from every creed and every industry have stepped into this void. The energy sector is a particularly egregious example. State-owned Electricité du Liban gobbles up some $2 billion of public funds each year, yet fails to keep the lights on 24 hours a day. The powerful "generator mafia" provides stopgap electricity—at an extortionate cost. The average Lebanese household spends 13% of their annual per capita income on avoiding the daily power cuts.

Even the gas needed to power these generations offers an opportunity for graft. Last December, the Lebanese government picked Dubai-registered ZR Energy to import 150,000 tons of fuel oil, roughly 10% of Lebanon's annual gas needs, to avert a fuel crisis. The choice of firm proved controversial, thanks to a host of accusations against one of ZR Energy's two owners, Raymond Rahme Zayna. According to a U.S. lawsuit, some $25 million in fees Iraqi defense officials owed to American contractor Dale Stoffel disappeared into Raymond Rahme Zayna's Lebanese bank account in 2004—right before Stoffel was ambushed and murdered on his way to meet the Lebanese businessman.

More recently, Rahme Zayna has been implicated in an arbitration dispute regarding Korek, a telecommunications company in Iraqi Kurdistan which counts him as one of its executives. Among other things, Rahme Zayna has been accused of concealing the terms of a loan to benefit well-connected Kurdish businessman Sirwan Barzani and leveraging London real estate to bribe Iraqi telecoms regulators into expropriating Korek shares belonging to foreign investors Orange and Agility. The two companies, which had collectively invested $810 million in Korek, have pursued legal action against Barzani as well as Rahme Zayna.

Corruption in the time of coronavirus

When protesters filled Martyrs' Square last fall insisting that "all of them means all of them", their anger was directed in large part at these patronage networks. Despite the groundswell of frustration at this rampant clientelism, the Lebanese state is still too weak to offer a credible alternative—a fact brought into sharp relief by the pandemic. Less than two weeks after Lebanon confirmed its first case of COVID-19, Hassan Diab made the startling admission that "the state is no longer able to protect its citizens".

Lebanon's healthcare system is as strained as the rest of its social services. Healthcare is 80% privatised, making it prohibitively expensive for many, while the public sector doesn't even provide ambulance services. Lebanon's severe cash crunch and the government's failure to reimburse hospitals have left them short of even the most basic supplies, including the personal protective equipment (such as masks and gloves) vital for healthcare professionals treating COVID-19 patients. The public sector only has the capacity to treat 139 coronavirus patients, while Lebanon's private and public hospitals combined only have 250-300 available and functioning ventilators.

Just as the Lebanese government's inability to keep the lights on gave a clear run to unscrupulous actors in the energy sector, its failure to adequately provision its healthcare system to cope with coronavirus has handed a golden opportunity to political parties who just months ago seemed on the outs.

Nobody but us

Indeed, Lebanon's various sectarian political parties are now exploiting the health crisis "to remind the public that 'you have no one but us'." The Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), affiliated with Lebanon's Druze community, has sent out trucks emblazoned with its logo to clean the streets and to warn people over the loudspeaker to stay at home. The Lebanese Forces party has passed out branded bottles of hand sanitizer. The Free Patriotic Movement, founded by President Michel Aoun, donned coveralls in the party's colors and handed out aid packages stamped with its branding.

No organization, however, has made its presence felt more than Hezbollah. The militant group recently led journalists on a tour of the new facilities it is rolling out to combat the coronavirus: squads to disinfect the streets, 25,000 volunteer medical workers, 70 ambulances equipped with ventilators, and a hospital repurposed for COVID-19 patients. The group has laid out plans to rent four former hospitals, set up treatment centres around the country, and even build field hospitals, showcasing its capacity for providing the services the country's atrophied central government no longer can.

These measures are propaganda, but they're nevertheless effective. As one man observing Hezbollah's street disinfection crew remarked, "Hezbollah is the only one doing anything. The government isn't doing anything". Even if it has cost them the square, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided Lebanon's dogged protestors with another poignant example of the void created by the government's shortcomings.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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