Beirut, Lebanon- Lebanon’s stunning political paralysis in the face of an ever-deepening economic crisis was on full display on Thursday after Prime Minister Hassan Diab admitted that a gathering of top brass would likely end up disappointing the general public.
“Let me speak frankly. The Lebanese do not expect fruitful results from this meeting. In the view of the Lebanese people, this meeting will be like those that came before it. And after, it will be as it was before, or perhaps worse,” Diab said in a short five-minute speech before the meeting commenced.
He also did not shy away from naming what matters most to the people of Lebanon right now: “Today, the Lebanese only care about one thing: At what rate is the dollar priced?”
The collapse of Lebanon’s embattled currency has accelerated in recent days, triggering more protests around the country.
The Lebanese pound hit a new low of more than 7,000 to $1 on the black market on Thursday – a rate which pulls the value of the monthly minimum wage down to a less than $100 – insufficient for a country that relies heavily on imports priced in US dollars.
Just two days ago, the exchange rate was 6,000 pounds to the dollar.
Today, the Lebanese only care about one thing: At what rate is the dollar priced?
Against this backdrop of financial ruin for the people of Lebanon, current and former top officials held a “national dialogue” at the presidential palace in the hills above Beirut on Thursday.
As Diab had telegraphed, they failed to hatch any actionable measures to shore up the Lebanese currency. But they did agree on one thing – the need to preserve security and civil peace by silencing those who engage in “provocative campaigns”.
Boycotts and bickering
Thursday’s meeting was headed by President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Diab and attended by the heads of several large political blocs and one former president.
A source close to the president told Al Jazeera the meeting aimed to create a “united front” in the face of crisis.
But rather than advance the cause of national unity, the lead up to Thursday’s national dialogue degenerated into a striking show of discord and old-school political bickering after at least eight establishment figures decided to boycott the meeting.
Four former prime ministers called it “a waste of time” in a joint statement earlier this week. A former president and the heads of three major Christian political parties – the Lebanese Forces, Marada Movement and Kataeb Party – also announced they would not attend.
“They have their own calculations. They have a lot more to lose than gain from having a seat there and are fine being sidelined to have their enemies be in the forefront,” Nadim el-Kak, a researcher at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, told Al Jazeera.
Crackdown on free speech
Those who did have a seat at the table during Thursday’s meeting did reveal their priorities. Aoun placed a premium on maintaining stability, warning that anti-establishment protests were creating an “atmosphere of civil war”.
Nationwide protests against years of institutional corruption and financial mismanagement first swept Lebanon back in October. Save for a brief hiatus during the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, pockets of protests have routinely erupted around the country, as people pushed to the financial brink vent their anger at the government’s failure to put the country on the road to recovery.
Sectarian clashes did take place in several Beirut neighbourhoods in early June. But some government critics noted on Thursday the irony of national dialogue leaders who had themselves participated in the country’s 15-year civil war warning against sectarian strife.
“I was born at the tail-end of the civil war and decades later we still hear the same goddamn things,” Anis Tabet, a Lebanese film critic wrote on Twitter. “All we’re asking for is the bare minimum. Nothing more, nothing less. Don’t lecture us about war and conflict. Everyone knows you feed on them.”
I was born at the tail-end of the civil war and decades later we still hear the same goddamn things. All we’re asking for is the bare minimum. Nothing more nothing less. Don’t lecture us about war and conflict. Everyone knows you feed on them.
— Anis Tabet (@AnisTabet23) June 25, 2020
A post-meeting statement of the national dialogue emphasised there are limits on freedom of speech.
“Freedom of expression is safeguarded in the introduction and body of the constitution, provided that this freedom is exercised within the limits of the law that criminalizes curses, insult, and infringement of dignities and other personal freedoms,” the statement read.
“Those gathered call for stopping all kinds of provocative campaigns that would stir strife, threaten civil peace and destabilize the security that has been achieved.”
Kak says the statement signals a growing priority for self-preservation among Lebanon’s ruling classes.
“This focus on security makes it clear that the direction the government is headed is not in the people’s interest,” Kak said. “Security was the main item on the agenda of today’s meeting, despite the pressing economic issues. The ruling class is putting in place schemes to protect themselves from public uproar over policies that go against the people’s interests.”
And activists say freedom of expression has already been in the establishment’s crosshairs for months.
“We’re not going into a crackdown, we’re in the middle of one,” Jad Shahrour, the spokesperson for the Samir Kassir Center for Media and Cultural freedom, told Al Jazeera.
Shahrour said there have been more than 100 violations against journalists and activists by authorities and groups affiliated with the ruling class since the beginning of the year, including interrogations and detentions over social media posts critical of politicians.
“They are basically saying: ‘We know you’re going to criticize and insult us because our work is horrible, but we won’t improve our work – we’ll go after you instead,'” said Shahrour.
A government critic active on Twitter, Michel Chamoun, was interrogated and detained last week after he posted a video criticising Aoun for an official roundup of individuals who had allegedly insulted the president – a crime punishable in Lebanon by two years in prison.
They are basically saying 'we know you're going to criticize and insult us because our work is horrible, but we won't improve our work - we'll go after you instead'.
He was released after protesters blocked a main highway and clashed with security forces. A number of those who had protested to call for his release were subsequently arrested.
On Thursday, protesters took to the streets again, blocking roads from north Lebanon to the Bekaa, and Beirut, while dozens gathered outside Beirut’s Justice palace to demand the release of protesters who had been rounded up.
“We’re not leaving, we’re not leaving from the squares,” they chanted. “We’re not scared, we’re not scared of the dogs of the sects.”