Travel Risk Analysis: Anti-Government Unrest Resumes in Lebanon 2020

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Unrest in Lebanon 2020
  • Unrest in Lebanon has resumed following a brief lull, with protesters declaring the week beginning 14 January “Anger Week”.

  • Clashes broke out on 14 January as Lebanese security forces fired tear gas at rock-throwing protesters outside the Central Bank in Beirut.

  • Formation of government appears unlikely to occur by protester’s declared 48-hour deadline due to ongoing disagreement between political parties and jostling for power. 
  • Unrest expected to continue in the coming days and weeks.

What are the most recent events?

Anti-government protests and unrest in Lebanon has resumed, with protesters declaring the week beginning 14 January “Anger Week” and taking to the streets under the slogan, “The revolution is coming back.” Clashes broke out on Tuesday night, 14 January, as Lebanese security forces fired volleys of tear gas at rock-throwing protesters outside the country’s central bank. Protesters using metal bars and sticks also smashed windows of commercial banks and foreign exchange bureaus nearby.

Earlier on Tuesday activists blocked several roads and highways around the capital, Beirut, including the Byblos-Tripoli highway. Major roads connecting Beirut with the south, east and north, including the Ring Road and Furn el-Chebbak highway, were also blocked. In Beirut, demonstrators marched to the house of the recently designated prime minister, Hassan Diab. A march was also held from Beirut’s Martyr’s Square to Talet el-Khayat. Rallies were also reported in Tripoli, Akkar province, Sidon, and Zahle, and clashes were reported in Batroun highway and in Jal el-Dib.

The protesters said on 14 January they were giving politicians 48 hours to form a new government. A general strike has been planned on 16 January, and a march to parliament in Beirut will take place on 18 January if the deadline is missed.

Why has there been so much unrest in Lebanon?

The nationwide demonstrations calling for a government overhaul, which began in October last year, have become smaller in recent weeks as the movement’s momentum slowed. Since the designation of Hassan Diab as PM in mid-December, there has been an overall lull in the unrest, in part due to the holiday season and in part due to the elevated regional tensions between US and Iran that dominated public concern. However, a number of outstanding issues persist which has led to the resurgence of anti-government unrest.

Diab, who was nominated by the President and a simple majority of parliament members, pledged to form an 18-member cabinet of independents and technocrats within six weeks. Since his designation Diab has failed to form an emergency government amid ongoing political divisions and grabs for power. One of the sticking points has allegedly been discord among political parties about what type of cabinet to have, with Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Amal preferring a mixed politico-technocratic government. Such a government would likely see sovereignty posts, like foreign affairs, defense, and interior, kept in the hands of the main political parties, while service-related portfolios would be assigned to independent technocrats. Diab reportedly said he would form a government of independent technocrats, which would satisfy the demands of protesters who have insisted on a government of independent technocrats only.

Many demonstrators also continue to view Diab’s nomination as unsatisfactory as it was approved by the established political system and therefore fails to satisfy demands for change. Others are angered by the fact that Diab’s support came only from Hezbollah and its allies, including the Maronite Christian party Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). The country’s sectarian governance system dictates that the position of prime minister must be filled by a Sunni Muslim. While Diab is Sunni, many other Sunni MPs abstained from voting or backed other candidates. Diab did not receive support from the Future Movement party of former prime minister Saad al-Hariri or from the Lebanese Forces, a large Christian bloc.

Socio-economic concerns are driving anger

The deepening economic crisis is another factor that has fueled protester anger. The country is facing its worst economic crisis in decades. The local currency has lost over 60% of its value in just the past few weeks, while sources of foreign currency have dried up. Meanwhile, banks have imposed informal capital controls limiting withdrawal of dollars and foreign transfers in the country, which relies heavily on imports of basic goods.

Many protesters have focused their anger on banks in light of the current situation amid concern that their deposits are in danger. Activists have rallied at the premises or outside banks over the last few weeks, demanding access to their deposits. There have been reports of protesters also taunting politicians who showed up in shopping malls or restaurants, sometimes chasing them out of public places and decrying their failure to address the economic crisis. Meanwhile, foreign countries have said that no financial assistance will be granted until a new government is in place, which will exacerbate the situation and increase pressure on politicians to appoint experts who can steer the country through its economic crisis.

Protests are likely to continue to occur on a daily basis as it is unlikely that a government will be formed before the protester’s declared 48-hour deadline. Roadblocks on major routes, sit-ins and demonstrations outside key government and financial institutions, and marches through urban centres are likely in the coming days and weeks. Beirut’s Riad al-Solh and Martyrs’ Square are particular flashpoints for unrest.

The lack of support for Diab from the Sunni community will contribute to political tensions and may lead to a deterioration in the security environment in the coming weeks. Upticks in unrest and violence are likely to occur as the situation protracts and sectarian tensions escalate. Hezbollah’s support for Diab may cause Western countries, particularly the US, to criticise the new government and withhold aid, especially given the recent elevated tensions between the US and Iran.

Travellers, monitor these escalatory indicators:

  • Sustained protests reaching extremely large numbers.
  • Increased crackdowns and use of force by security forces including the use of tear gas, water cannon, and live ammunition to disperse crowds.
  • Clashes between protesters and security forces resulting in further protester death or injuries.
  • Further reports of attacks and/or harassment by armed actors, especially from Hezbollah and/or Amal, against protesters.
  • Increase in hostile rhetoric among political parties.
  • Sustained closure of key routes, including to Beirut Airport.
  • Introduction of a curfew and/or restricted access to telecommunications and internet.
  • State of emergency declared.
  • Resignation of Diab and collapse of new government.
  • Shortages of key goods including food and fuel.
  • Embassies withdrawing staff and issuing enhanced advice.