The Rise of the Technocrats: Lebanon’s Protest Movement Meets Institutional Power
On December 19, 2019, a relatively unknown figure in Lebanon stepped to the podium at the Presidential Palace just outside Beirut, his bookish and stoic demeanor contrasting with the cheery Christmas decorations adorning the hall from which he was about to make his speech. To the millions of Lebanese watching Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab begin his remarks in a seldom-employed academic Arabic, however, the absurdity of the scene did not eclipse their astonishment with the preceding months that gave to its rise.
Since the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, the cardinal rule of Lebanese politics was that there were no unknowns. For decades, confessional power-sharing dictated in the Lebanese Constitution and reaffirmed by the 1989 Taif Agreement to end the Civil War ensured that none of the nation’s Christian, Sunni, or Shi’ite constituencies would become too powerful as to dominate over the others. Accordingly, the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shi’ite Muslim.
Not surprisingly, entrenching pluralist harmony in constitutional structure does little to change social facts. Although sectarian tensions indeed declined following the conclusion of the Civil War, the confessional system ensured sporadic flare-ups, be they over the assassination of Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the issue of Shi’ite Hezbollah’s arms and its involvement in the Syrian Civil War, and the declining influence of Lebanese Maronites due to demographic shifts. But what perhaps animated frustrated Lebanese the most was a secondary effect of confessionalism: consolidation of power in a rotating cabal of political elite whose accumulation of wealth and influence was perpetuated by a system of patronage to their respective sectarian constituency. It encourages the gravitational pull of a select few parties, each with a clear sectarian identity, who maintain grip over their respective constituencies; the costs of own-sect factionalism is too high – dissent risks that power and favor would then shift to another sectarian identity. The ballot box was similarly no avail to concerned citizens – excessive gerrymandering and sect-only voting only provided paper legitimacy to democratic choice. The result was to keep the political system dominated by the same cast of political characters, many of whom were still relics of the Civil War, taking turns at the helm in a cynical game of musical chairs: no unknowns.
These structural defects were well understood by the Lebanese, who had taken to demonstrate against the political elite several times in the last 20 years. The entrenchment of the political class contributed to corruption, economic malaise, and general instability. Subsequent protests included the 2005 Cedar Revolution, which resulted in the end of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and the 2015 Tal’3et Rehektoum demonstrations against government paralysis and a garbage collection crisis. Each time the Lebanese would take to the streets, however, calls to end the confessional system would quickly be followed by retreat to the comfort of their patrons: it was easy to criticize the naked corruption of opposing party leaders, but a third rail
to look internally. Mounting accusations of sectarianism would doom these movements to failure.
Meanwhile, corruption and government inefficiency continued to leave the Lebanese economy in a chokehold. The ascension of Michel Aoun, head of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, to the Presidency on an anti-corruption platform in 2016 saw the formation of yet another cabinet dominated by the political class; many of the old guard had aged such that the torch was now passed to their children, as the political family business seemed to be one of the few industries thriving in Lebanon. The national debt continued to accumulate, but few gains were felt in the nation’s productivity. To pile on, the economic situation sharply worsened in 2019, with high unemployment now supplemented by a currency collapse. Amid the mounting frustration, the Aoun-led government announced a tax increase in October 2019, proving to be the proverbial fuse that lit the match: soon thousands of Lebanese demonstrated in Beirut expressing their frustration. Frustration quickly turned into anger, and demonstrations rose into the hundreds of thousands. This time, unlike in previous movements, the street was more decidedly unified in calls to bring down the confessional system, which many concluded as the root of corruption and economic stagnation. Instead of the usual retreat to the status quo, the movement matured in intensity and scope, resulting in sometimes violent demonstrations against politicians and government institutions. With many in the country concerned about a real sea change, many rushed to withdraw assets from already woefully undercapitalized banks, resulting in a banking crisis to add to the mix of challenges the country was facing.
With the economic and political crises spiraling, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned from his post, and with that the Aoun cabinet collapsed. But demonstrators continued to set up roadblocks to lobby for a fundamental reform to the political system, starting with a new government that constituted not of the traditional political parties, but of reformists and outsiders. Sensing that this time was indeed different, President Aoun moved to meet demonstrators half-way: to encourage formation of a government with relatively less interference of traditional party politics. The new government would be for the first time a hybrid of technocrats and parliamentarians. It is hard to understate the significance of this shift. Although this was not the complete overhaul demanded by many demonstrators, it marked the first time in nearly 40 years that the composition of the government would not be totally dominated by establishment officials, a refreshing and less predictable arrange of ministers. A well-functioning political system not only tolerates, but must engender a degree of uncertainty; this shift, although not aimed directly at confessionalism, was a welcome first step towards reducing consolidation of power.
But who then, was to lead this novel rise of the technocrats? Careful to avoid a relapse of mass demonstrations, the ruling Free Patriotic Movement and its ally Hezbollah settled on a little- known Computer Engineering Professor and one time Minister of Education Hassan Diab. Any record of pointed political views was relatively nonexistent, making his appointment palatable to partisans on both sides. Prior to the protests, the appointment of a virtually unknown political outsider like Professor Diab would be unthinkable. With looming debt and currency
crises in full swing, he was thrust onto the national stage faced with the demands of a restless populace, a floundering economy, and a political class that begrudgingly approved his nomination. After weeks of consultations and pursuant to mandated power-sharing agreements among Christian, Sunnis, and Shi’ites, Diab was indeed able to form a cabinet hybrid of technocrats, some outsiders, and traditional politicians, including 6 women.
Although the formation of a technocrat-led government was an important victory for Lebanon’s burgeoning protest culture, the fundamental question remains: is this the right time for a political revolution? The urgency of solving Lebanon’s political deficiencies cannot be isolated from the threat of economic collapse. In a time where decisive solutions are needed to handle banking and debt challenges, the technocrats are being asked to balance both practicality and structural change. In the short term, only one thing is assured: the Lebanese will continue to suffer from economic instability. Meanwhile, demonstrations, although significantly reduced in size, continue to lament the insufficiency of a half-step technocratic change in light of their preferred, more drastic alternative – to scrap religious power sharing entirely in favor of purely secular political system. Furthermore, the traditional political parties, finding themselves in an unusual position, are likely to view continued economic and political disruption with glee – that discontent is opportunity for a return to the status quo. With these various pressures in mind, the Diab-led government has an almost impossible task: to fix what might be unfixable and to please groups not inclined to feel pleased.
This quagmire calls more into question than simply the state of Lebanese politics moving forward. It remains that fundamental issues in Lebanese society’s social fabric continue to prevent the formation of a national identity independent of sectarian identity. Still, the Lebanese have long been prideful about their identity and nation, despite decades of political strife. They often remind the world that Beirut is “the Paris of the Middle East,” derided by some as misguided colonial ingratiation, but perhaps more correctly understood as a prideful vision for what the country could and ought to be. Now, with the situation so dire as to necessitate IMF concerns over a sovereign debt default, the Lebanese are beginning to wonder whether Greece is a more apt comparison than France. The Diab technocrat government will no doubt need to convince the country that a new approach to government is desirable over the status quo, but even if it makes all the right moves, circumstance may doom it to failure. The result would be to leave the country trapped in a confessional system that few like, a tragic fate whose populace feels unable to escape.