Lebanese protesters wave the national flag in front of riot police in the capital Beirut on April 28, 2020, as anger over a spiralling economic crisis re-energized a months-old anti-government movement in defiance of a coronavirus lockdown.(Photo by PATRICK BAZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Is the Lebanese government using COVID-19 to undermine protests?

05/01/2020 . By Luna Safwan

Months of accumulation of economic challenges and disappointments in both the banking sector and the current ruling government in Lebanon culminated in mass protests on October 17 last year, during which citizens from different social classes, students, workers, teachers, and more protested to demand change and accountability.

Protests in Lebanon went through a series of ups and downs, some days all over the news and on others completely absent. However, it wasn’t until mid-February of this year when the streets turned deserted. Protesters’ tents in squares remained in squares across many different cities—including Beirut—but the people were gone, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing demonstrators to take a step back.

And as the whole world struggles to understand the nature of such a pandemic and how it will affect life as we know it, the newly-appointed cabinet in Lebanon headed by Prime Minister Hassan Diab has found in this pandemic an opportunity to tighten its grip, and most importantly, to counteract the demands made by protesters in recent months.

Wiping out any memories of the protests

Protesters have argued that the cabinet’s use of “general mobilization” measures have been exploited to crack down on freedoms and to tighten its grip on the streets that are no longer occupied by protestors. Security forces in both Beirut and Tripoli forcibly removing tents after the declaration, arresting the remaining few protestors and opening the streets which had been blocked for months. With heightened security measures, the a state of general mobilization means curfews, deployed security forces, media monitoring by the state, and a crackdown on press freedom.

All of this has occurred as the government works to contain a pandemic after an initially slow response, at first refusing to halt flights or impose mandatory quarantine on travelers. However, the current situation represents a golden opportunity for the political ruling class to gain back its previously-lost momentum, portraying minimal preventive measures as exceptional efforts.

Political blocs try to gain back momentum

As the Lebanese cabinet has undertaken these actions, many political blocs have taken advantage of the situation for on-the-ground political opportunity.

Cars, trucks, and vans with banners have roamed the streets across the country, blasting relevant political parties’ anthems, all while sanitizing the streets, distributing aid, and organizing support groups to “help locals and the elderly.”

Protests in October 2019 had managed to snatch back the popularity of many of these political groups, many of which were competing for youth appeal. These political factions found themselves competing with a a protest movement without a leader of any sort.

A fertile environment for sectarianism 

Despite the collective local efforts combined with steps taken by the government and different political parties, this pandemic has managed to highlight the battle of collective versus the individual that the Lebanese society has engaged in for years.

This dynamic was clear across different political parties and their efforts implemented in areas across Lebanon which reflected boldly—even if not intentionally—a divide in the society, where Christian parties invest in predominantly Christian areas, Muslim parties in predominantly Muslim ones, and so on.

And while different parties have financed and prepared quarantine centers in their local areas, one of the major indicators towards how such a pandemic could induce more sectarianism is the fact that Hezbollah remains a major side player in the equation.

Hezbollah has tried to reflect an interest in collective capacity building through mobilizing up to 70 ambulances and thousands of health workers, allocating 3.5 billion Lebanese pounds to implement in an anti-coronavirus plan, according to Hashem Safieddine, who heads the party’s executive council and revealed the numbers in a local interview with Al Manar TV Channel.

This pandemic will serve as a short-term fix for the sectarian ruling elite; threatening collective efforts of initiatives that had been in action for months since the start of the Lebanon protests, as the current situation suggests, but the damage is not irreversible.

Long term consequences beyond COVID-19

Under the umbrella of “physical distancing” and “the good and safety of the society” while under the state of general mobilization, the Lebanese government proceeded to implement a crackdown that has included burning protestor’s tents, arresting activists who were demanding private banks to release the depositor’s money, and approving and proceeding with the Bisri Dam project.

Thus, the long-term ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic might lead to radical changes and losses to the protest movement, especially when such measures have been implemented during an time when citizens are driven to abide by any new rules or laws or structures imposed by the government with a promise to protect them from the pandemic.

These imposed rules and structures vary, specifically in a country like Lebanon where new bills are known to be passed under the table in both the parliament and cabinet under normal circumstances. This pandemic presents an opportunity not only for more impunity, but an increased lack of accountability.

As journalist Diana Moukalled wrote in an article on freedoms in Lebanon and the region during a state of emergency, citizens may not pay attention to the rights they are waiving in exchange for health, security and protection from this virus. What will happen to emergency laws post-crisis is not yet clear, and it is important that such procedures do not become normalized beyond the pandemic.

The Lebanon protests’ legacy

What are the protestors doing now? Where are they? What will happen next?

Several individual initiatives have been launched over the course of the last few weeks in Lebanon to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. These have included aid collection, food, providing quarantine centers for suspected cases, and offering free residential units to doctors and nurses operating in hospitals treating patients of the virus.

The protests were initially toned down due to the urgency of the global pandemic, respectfully abiding by the state of general mobilization announced by the cabinet. However, with no solutions in sight regarding the deteriorating economic crisis and with the Lebanese Lira rapidly losing value, protestors have found themselves in the streets again amid the pandemic, because “hunger is worse than corona.”

The protests are a legacy of transparency, equality and social good that goes beyond the sects and cities, it’s a decentralized legacy, and that’s the legacy that has and will continue to challenge the status quo in Lebanese politics.