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Analysis: MPs might back Lebanon’s cabinet but the true test is in the streets

The thousands who took to the streets of Lebanon on Tuesday demonstrated again how a new government has done little to cool the anger at elected officials

Lebanon’s MPs have passed a confidence vote in the new Cabinet and ministers can now get to work.

But the administration of Hassan Diab faces perhaps the greatest challenge of any Lebanese government since the civil war ended in 1990.

Not only is the country facing a financial crisis of mammoth proportion but anger on the streets of the country from north to south leaves ministers little room to take the likely painful steps needed to fix the economy.

Banks have capped cash withdrawals to a few hundred dollars a week, importers are struggling to keep the flow of goods entering the country and unemployment – already high before the October uprising began – has spiked.

Timeline: the Lebanese uprising as it unfolded

“Usually a situation like this may face a government on his way out, not on his way in so this is just to say how big the gap is between the political establishment, the ruling class and the people,” said Sami Nadr, the Director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.

The struggles of the new government are a confluence of years of chronic problems that have all come to a head.

No single issue, from supporting the struggling agriculture sector, the crippled banking industry, sluggish manufacturers or even the once envied and now bankrupt media outlets, is easy on its own. Taken together, it may prove an impossible task.

If taken at face value, Mr Diab is saying many of the things people want to hear.

The new prime minister on Tuesday told parliament that his administration will take the reforms needed to access $11 billion (Dh40.39bn) in soft loans to rebuild shattered infrastructure. He will take tough action on tax evasion and cross border smuggling. They will tackle public debt and safeguard customers’ deposits. He will strengthen local commerce, industry and agriculture and refuses the permanent resettlement of refugees. He will build a social safety net to support the country’s poorest.

But many on the street still distrust him. Most of his promises, they point out, are simply lifted from the lofty aims of Cabinets past.

“Most ministers to Hassan Diab are primarily … former advisors to politicians that have been nominated and approved by political parties,” said Imad Salamey, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Lebanese American University. “[It is] widely believed to be subservient to the will of corrupt politicians so I think the government of Hassan Diab has already lost the confidence of the people before it was even inaugurated.”

This sentiment explains the mass protests outside parliament on Tuesday and the anger iterated by many on the streets of Beirut.

“We’re trying to push more, in order to deliver the message that you [politicians] no longer represent the people,” Wissam Daou, a protester attempting to block a major road in Beirut with a banner that read “no trust”, told The National.

Almost every government since 1990 has promised to provide 24/7 centrally generated electricity and yet 30 years later those who can afford it still rely on private generators to bridge the daily cuts. With 40 per cent of the country now classed as living in poverty, those who cannot afford private suppliers just sit in the dark.

Away from the technical challenges the new administration faces, there is the political one.

The new government, and politicians in general, are widely despised.

Politicians dining out with their families are heckled out of establishments by groups of protesters, as MPs gathered for Tuesday’s session their cars were pelted with eggs and stones and one was hospitalized.

A handout picture provided by the Lebanese Parliament press office shows Lebanese MP Salim Saade arriving to attend a parliamentary session after being attacked by protesters, in the Lebanese capital Beirut on February 11, 2020. Lebanon's parliament met for a confidence vote on a new government as security forces used teargas and water cannons to disperse protesters trying to prevent a quorum. More than three months since massive protests brought down the government, demonstrators say the proposed new cabinet fails to address their demands and cannot rescue Lebanon's ailing economy. - === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / LEBANESE PARLIAMENT PRESS OFFICE" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS === / AFP / LEBANESE PARLIAMENT / - / === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / LEBANESE PARLIAMENT PRESS OFFICE" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ===
Lebanese MP Salim Saade arriving to attend a parliamentary session after being attacked by protesters. AFP hand out from Lebanese Parliament Press Office

Mr Salamey says that the broader question amid the current crisis is about the future of Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.

Sectarian parties that bill themselves as the protectors of their community and have long relied upon the support of their respective confession are now faced with anger at every turn.

“The sectarian system is in crisis,” he said. “It has been widely blamed for the current political impasse and the current economic crisis the country has undergone. It has been unable to manage the day to day life of the Lebanese citizen….and has not been able to provide satisfactory management or political leadership for the country as a whole.”

Politicians, if they wish to keep their jobs, will have to build a new covenant with their constituents. But, Mr Salamey says, sweeping away an entrenched decades-old system will take time.

“Sectarianism is in crisis, but for the protesters to eradicate sectarianism from Lebanese political life is not easy but I guess that the road towards the deconfessionalisation has already begun in a very serious way.”

Updated: February 13, 2020 08:51 AM

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