The long-expected explosion has happened. On Monday night, riots broke out in the northern city of Tripoli — one of Lebanon’s most neglected areas and home to some of the richest politicians. Angry and hungry people smashed the fronts of local banks and clashed with the army. Other areas of Lebanon, like Saida, also witnessed eruptions of violence and citizens burning tires to block roads. The situation is out of control and only declaring a state of emergency, coupled with drastic reforms, can re-establish stability.
Three weeks ago, a contact of mine, an activist in Tripoli and a member of the municipality council, told me that groups from Bab Al-Tabbaneh, who are living in dire conditions, told the municipality that, if they do not get food support, they are going to turn violent and break in to stores. People cannot take it any longer. The collapse of the currency, which is losing value by the day, and the skyrocketing food prices have pushed Lebanon into the abyss. Meanwhile, the government is delusional. Its members are so busy fighting over their share of the cake that they don’t realize there is nothing left to share.
In the last parliamentary session, lawmakers dodged most of the important points to discuss. A law to hold corrupt politicians to account was shelved, as was a resolution to disburse financial aid to people in need, such as widows, the extremely poor, and daily workers, who have not been able to earn a living due to the lockdown and the worsening economic situation. The government is still in denial and is refusing to make concessions. People are furious. They see those politicians leading lavish lifestyles and transferring their billions overseas, while the average Lebanese citizen can’t access his or her hard-earned money in the bank. In exchange for dollar accounts, banks are only offering a currency that has no value.
In a desperate attempt to appease popular anger, Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Friday blamed the governor of the central bank for the crisis. While the governor is as culpable as the political elite, scapegoating him will not ease the popular wrath. The people need to see leadership and a firm plan to lift them out of this muddy situation. They know that, with the current government, they will never see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The only institution that the people still respect is the army. These riots are an important test for Lebanese President Michel Aoun and for the army. For Aoun, who is in his eighties and is adamant on grooming his son-in-law Gebran Bassil to replace him, the time has come for him to choose between his son-in-law and Lebanon. If he chooses Lebanon, he will declare a state of emergency and transfer power to the head of the army. Since the Taif Agreement, a state of emergency requires two-thirds of the Cabinet to vote in favor. However, if the president agrees to it, ministers will not dare to object.
Here, there is another test for the army and its commander to show commitment to the people. The situation is catastrophic and needs drastic measures. The state of emergency should be put in place not to preserve the current status quo, but to conduct radical reforms. It is the time for the army to clearly choose the side of the people.
The people know that, with the current government, they will never see the light at the end of the tunnel.
In a state of emergency, the army’s control extends over the internal security forces as well as the important institutions of the country. So far, the political elites have only declared general mobilization, which requires the armed forces to cover the country while the power remains in the hands of the existing government. They would not declare a state of emergency and risk being sidelined by the popular commander. Hence, the general mobilization has served its purpose: For the political establishment to use the army while retaining power. However, this does not work anymore. The country is collapsing. Shortly, the people will march to these people’s homes and, sooner or later, they will lose power.
For the army endeavor to work, a clear break with the past is needed. Those “zuaama,” or confessional leaders need to be brought to justice. Once a state of emergency is declared, the army should detain or put under house arrest all the corrupt “zuaama” and conduct trials with an independent judiciary, while immediately implementing the needed reforms. To do that, a provisional government of technocrats with exceptional power needs to be put in place. The provisional government’s main tasks should be to recover stolen funds and fight corruption, carry out fiscal and monetary reforms, and maintain social protection measures for the majority of the working and middle classes, while preparing for free parliamentary elections that will transition Lebanon from its democracy of the confessions to a democracy of the citizens.