Since Thursday, a protest movement of an unprecedented scale paralyzes Lebanon, after the announcement of a tax on calls made via WhatsApp, supposed to bail a little the bloodless finances of the country. On Monday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced the adoption of a series of reforms and the 2020 budget, delayed or blocked by the divisions within the government coalition. During a chat, Benjamin Barthe, correspondent of World in Beirut, answered questions from users of Monde.fr.
Djamila: it seems that these manifestations are multi-confessional. If so, is this new?
Benjamin Barthe : It's not completely new. The anti-system demonstrations of the summer of 2015, triggered by the garbage collection crisis, a precursor of the protest movement we are witnessing today, already had a multi-faith dimension. The main feature of the current revolt, in addition to its magnitude, lies in its geographical spread. It is not only Beirut who are demonstrating, as was the case in 2015, but also the people of Tripoli in the north, a predominantly Sunni city, Tire, in the South, which is predominantly Shiite, localities of the Christian and Druze mountain, to the North and to the East.
Farzad: Do you think Saudi Arabia can manipulate this movement to weaken Saad Hariri's government?
B. Ba. : This is a thesis that we see emerging on some pro-Hezbollah Twitter accounts and in the press titles that favor this movement, like the daily newspaper. Al-Akhbar. But for the moment, there is no factual basis to accredit it. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah himself acknowledged in his Saturday speech that the movement was spontaneous, reflecting the very real frustrations and suffering of the population.
Lupita: Are these middle class young people, fed by Facebook, who mimic the countries of the North and the Arab countries? Topics range from feminism to inequality, corruption, patriarchy and communitarianism – only the environment and climate change are missing …
B. Ba. : Most of the protesters are young people aged between 20 and 30, who are actually middle-class. It is the post-Ta'if generation, the agreement that put an end to the fifteen years of civil war, in 1989. Young people who have not experienced these rifts and who therefore may have less inhibitions than theirs. seniors, less reluctance to turn the tables, with all the risks that this may entail, in a country as fragmented as Lebanon.
It is also about a generation that had been promised reconstruction, a new country, and that saw nothing coming, if not a growing economic slump, an increasingly clogged professional horizon, a confiscation of power by a small clique, that of the old warlords, converted into notables businessmen.
Social networks, as everywhere else, have played a role of facilitator and accelerator of a movement that is above all organic and spontaneous. These young people do not imitate anyone. Their grievances are rooted in a very particular experience. But it is obvious that there are resonances of the Arab Spring of 2011, which we find the slogans ("The people want the fall of the regime"), but also more recent revolt movements, such as protests in Iraq earlier this month. Here too, people were protesting against corruption, the breakdown of public services and unemployment.
Jandi: what are the protesters' demands? Do the reforms promised by the government respond to protesters' demands?
B. Ba. : The measures announced by the government are supposed to respond to the protesters' complaints and thus encourage them to stop their movement, to leave the street and return to work, at least for those who have one. And, in fact, many of the announcements made by Prime Minister Saad Hariri match these demands, such as the development of a law on the recovery of stolen money or the establishment of a national authority to fight against corruption.
The announcements of a drop in ministers' salaries, intended to give the image of a more humble, more economical executive, closer to the people, also go in the right direction. The problem is that the protesters no longer believe in these promises. The word of this government is completely demonetized. It comes too late.
Michel: which political parties support the movement?
B. Ba. : To listen to the Lebanese political leaders, one has the impression that they all support the movement, that the slump in which the country is located is not their fault but that of the other parties, etc. This is the strength of this movement. It has acquired instant legitimacy, which forces politicians to make concessions to it, at least oratorically.
In fact, the parties that really support it are the Lebanese Forces, a Christian right wing formation, whose ministers have just resigned from the government, and, to a certain extent, the Progressive Socialist Party of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
Garcona: Is there a chance that this movement will lead to the end of confessionalism, which seems to have paralyzed any constructive decision for years, each of them confining themselves to defending the interests of his community?
B. Ba. : This is the most important and at the same time the most difficult challenge. To give you an idea, the elaboration of the last electoral law, which served as a framework for the legislative elections of the spring of 2018, and which aimed to reform a little bit this system, required nine years of negotiations … And on arrival , a pitiful result, this law has not changed anything, confessional voting reflexes have prevailed.
Citizen lambda: What is the position of the French government vis-à-vis what happens? No official position?
B. Ba. : The French authorities have invested heavily in Saad Hariri. At the Economic Conference for Development through Reforms and Enterprises (Cedre), organized in Paris in April 2018, $ 11 billion (€ 9.9 billion) in aid and investment was pledged Lebanon, under conditions of reforms. The announcements made by the Prime Minister, which correspond for many of them to long-awaited reforms, have surely satisfied Paris. It is therefore likely that the French authorities would prefer to see Saad Hariri remain in office and lead these changes, rather than the government falls and a transition period, full of uncertainties, does not open.
hady: what are the possible scenarios in the coming days?
B. Ba. : The question is whether the protesters have enough resources to hold and put pressure on Saad Hariri. He believes he has taken the initiative with his reform plan. These ads may partially deflate the protest movement. We will measure their impact today and in the coming days. It is obvious, in any case, that protestors will come back to protest, in Beirut as elsewhere. But will they be strong enough and organized to last long, and resist those who will try to delegitimize them, in the media or in the field?
Lebanon is a country on the brink of bankruptcy. The state of paralysis in which he has been for five days, with blocked roads, schools, banks and private businesses, obviously does not improve this situation. To what extent could the fear of a collapse of the pound, the local currency, which showed signs of weakness before the beginning of events, weaken the movement? We will know it in the next days.
The reforms adopted by the Hariri government
Public finances :
- Reduction of the State deficit to 0.63% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020, compared to 7.59% in the 2019 budget.
- 50% decrease in salaries of current and former Presidents, Ministers and MPs.
- Suppression as a measure of economy of certain ministries and state agencies, in particular the Ministry of Information.
- Contribution of the Central Bank and commercial banks to a reduction of the public deficit up to 5,100 billion Lebanese pounds (3 billion euros). This amount includes the expected revenue from an increase in the tax on bank profits.
- Decrease in the Electricity of Lebanon (EDL) deficit by 1,000 billion pounds (600 million euros).
- Launch of a study on a partial or total privatization of several public institutions and sectors, including the mobile telephony sector, the port of Beirut, the Casino of Lebanon and Middle East Airlines (MEA).
- Adoption by the end of 2019 of a new pension and social protection scheme.
- Allocation of 20 billion additional pounds (11.9 million euros) to the program to support the poorest households.
- Speeding up the World Bank loan of about $ 100 million, with a 1% interest rate, to support the underprivileged.
- Subsidized housing loans up to $ 160 million.
- Adoption, by the end of 2019, of an amnesty law whose terms remain to be defined.
Fight against corruption :
- Creation of a National Anti-Corruption Authority.
- Stopping funding for new infrastructure projects by the state, which will draw on other sources, including foreign direct investment. The goal is to avoid the "Waste and corruption".
- Installation of scanners to track down contraband and increase the penalties imposed on offenders.
- Drafting of a bill on the recovery of stolen public money.
- Awarding, within four months, licenses for the construction of new power plants.
- Launch of the first phase of the infrastructure investment plan approved at the international aid conference held in Paris in April 2018.
- Launch of road development projects at the northern and southern entrances to Beirut.
- Establishment of regulatory authorities for the energy, telecommunications, civil aviation and Beirut Stock Exchange sectors.