Opponents of anti-gov’t protesters clash with riot police, throwing rocks and firecrackers against volleys of tear gas.
Beirut, Lebanon – For almost two months, Lebanon has been swept by protests against a ruling class of sectarian elites who came to power as a result of a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.
The movement has brought down a government and brought together people from across the country’s religious divides.
Now, analysts say that the uprising, coupled with the most serious economic and financial crisis since the civil war, maybe ushering in the death of the country’s political system where power is apportioned among religious groups.
“This system is clearly over,” Sami Atallah, the director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, told Al Jazeera. “Economically and politically it is very clearly the end of an era. But we have yet to produce another one: we have left Lebanon 2.0 but don’t have Lebanon 3.0 yet.”
For Atallah, the economic and financial crisis in Lebanon today has become the clearest indicator yet of the incompetence and corruption of the political elite, in a country where basic services such as electricity and water are still unreliable 30 years after the civil war ended.
Decades of unsustainable financial policies, coupled with unchecked, unaccountable spending, have left Lebanon with the world’s third-highest debt burden as a percentage of its gross domestic product (GDP). The country has increasingly had to borrow new money to pay back old debt, leading it into a debt spiral.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese pound, pegged to the US dollar for decades at about 1,500, has depreciated by about 25 percent to 2,000 Lebanese pounds, due to a dollar shortage tied to a years-long economic slowdown and a decrease in remittances from abroad.
When the government sought to impose more taxes in October, people took to the streets in an explosion of popular anger.
This has led parties that were previously in government together to become increasingly at odds, exposing and exacerbating existing divisions and creating new ones.
“The entire political establishment, which is endemically corrupt, is responsible for the impoverishment of Lebanon,” Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera.
“The leaders are trying to dissociate themselves from the bankruptcy of Lebanon and are blaming one another without naming a culprit.”
“They are facing the moment of truth because the vast majority of the Lebanese people have lost faith in them,” Khashan added.
Atallah concurs that the protests “broke something”.
But “materialising this breakdown or changing of alliances into something more material is another ball game”. “We’re at the end of the first phase, but how do you actually make something new,” Khashan asked.
Lebanese politics is notoriously fractious, with parties quickly shifting alliances based on interest rather than ideology. But the scale of the splits since the eruption of the uprising points to a moment of severe crisis, Atallah said.
Caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s allies in the Lebanese Forces and Progressive Socialist Party have said they will sit out the next government even if it is headed by Hariri, with the latter saying it was going through a period of soul-searching and wants to return to its former socialist values.
Hariri has sought to take the side of the protesters, calling for the formation of a government of technocrats or specialists, albeit headed by himself, which many protesters have rejected.
“Hariri is opportunistic. His late father originated the financial crisis by heavy borrowing. Saad Hariri is hardly a reformer,” Khashan said.
Hariri’s father, Rafik Hariri, was a former prime minister who was assassinated in 2005.
Despite being brought to power by an alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a powerful Christian party headed by caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Saad Hariri has sought to exclude Bassil, who is perhaps the most reviled figure on the street.
Bassil recently responded by saying that his party would sit out the next government if it was a government of experts and politicians headed by Hariri, effectively breaking his alliance with the caretaker prime minister.
Bassil also explicitly noted he disagreed with his ally Hezbollah, which has backed Hariri.
Hezbollah has sought to maintain the pre-uprising status quo. In a speech on Friday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called for a government of the “widest possible representation”, similar to the one protesters brought down, that includes the FPM and is headed either by Hariri or a person the caretaker PM backs.
Nasrallah “is trying to preserve a system that he has learned how to operate in since 2005”, Atallah said. “He’s holding onto a system that is largely defunct.”
As a result, Hezbollah is now the main backer of its nominal political foe, Hariri, whose father the group has been accused of assassinating.
MP Paula Yacoubian, the only legislator to be elected on an independent list in 2018 polls, said she believed that the Lebanese people would no longer accept a political system where “politicians disagree with each other and then make up later when they’ve settled their deals, all while the country loses”.
“Masks are falling down. What happened with the revolution uncovered the deep understanding between the ruling class. It showed how each side is somehow dependent on the other sectarian leader,” she said.
“I think the mindset of the people is changing, their political approach is changing, they realise the high price they paid to sustain these leaderships,” she added. “It’s a price on their lives and basic needs that they are no longer able to pay.”
In recent months there have been warnings of shortages of medicine, fuel, wheat and other basic goods. Yacoubian sees the worsening crisis spurring on the uprising in the streets, which she said may soon become a “revolution of the poor and unemployed”.
Whether such uprising can bury the sectarian system and erect something new remains to be seen.
Atallah said that elections, whenever they are held, would be a crucial indicator.
But in any case, he does not see the relationship between people and politics returning to how it was before October 17, when protests broke out.
“The ground has been shaken. All parties are trying to use these protests to their advantage, but I think people see through this. Their credibility is more dismal than ever before,” he said.