Lebanon is undergoing the worst economic crisis in its history, and protesters have filled the streets of its cities and towns since October. Rampant corruption, mismanagement and a lack of job opportunities are at the root of the uprising. Protests initially opposed a new tax on Whatsapp, the popular messaging application, quickly took a political twist, with demonstrators demanding an end to corruption and sectarianism – as well as the departure of the entire political class.
In response, Shia political outfit Hezbollah and its allies – which effectively dominate Lebanese government – have orchestrated an assault on the legacy of the late Rafik Hariri, who as prime minister in the 1990s and 2000s, helped build an economically liberal Lebanon. They have blamed him for the current economic collapse, 14 years after he was assassinated.
Such criticism could not be further from the truth. However, before talking about his legacy as a nation-builder, it is important to provide the political context that the country finds itself in.
Iran-backed Hezbollah has been allied to the Free Patriotic Movement, or FPM, founded by Lebanese president Michel Aoun and headed by his son-in-law, Lebanon’s foreign minister Gebran Bassil since 2006. A decade later, the alliance gained a majority in parliament and inside the council of ministers. For Hezbollah, this was an ideal arrangement. The FPM provided a broad Christian cover to the terrorist organisation, while rapprochement between the FPM and the now former prime minister Saad Hariri – the son of Rafik – served to appease the West and its Gulf allies, understandably worried about the rise to power of an Iranian proxy.
All three major players in Mr Aoun’s unity government ignored the signs of a battered economy on the verge of collapse. A strong sense of entitlement prevailed. With Hezbollah dominating government, foreign investment dwindled, especially after the group provoked a month-long war with Israel in 2006. Tourists who used to flock from the Arab world by the thousands stopped visiting Lebanon, depriving the country of an important source of revenue, which Beirut relied on heavily during Rafik Hariri’s time in office.
In recent years, banks have applied skyrocketing interest rates to attract money to the cash-strapped country, where a combination of endemic corruption and poor governance has resulted in empty state coffers.
While Hezbollah and the FPM have blamed the economic policies of the senior Mr Hariri for the country’s financial woes, these parties have failed to acknowledge their own responsibility in precipitating Lebanon’s economic demise. Hezbollah’s Iranian backing, for instance, has made Lebanon the target of US sanctions against Tehran, which were by default extended to entities dealing with the proxy. The banking sector took its toll, with Jammal Trust Bank having had to close down in September for its dealings with the group. A few years ago, the Lebanese Canadian Bank came under strain after the US accused it of laundering money for Hezbollah. Not only did ordinary civilians with no relation to the terror group lose their jobs as a result of it, but the banking sector had also been tarnished.
Hezbollah and its allies have added further strain on the economy by delaying the formation of a new government. The junior Mr Hariri and his cabinet bowed to protesters' demands and resigned in October but Mr Aoun has yet to name a successor to form a technocratic government – a key demand made by the protesters. Hezbollah and the FPM insist on a shared technocratic-political government, an alternative that is refused by both the protest movement as well as Saad Hariri himself. This impasse has precipitated the country's economic problems. In the past few weeks alone, the private sector suffered tremendous losses with many businesses halving their employees' salaries for lack of revenues. The currency lost one-third of its value against the US dollar.
Returning to the issue of Rafik Hariri's legacy, one must remember that he had a vision for an economically liberal Lebanon, closely allied with the West and fellow Arab countries, especially in the Gulf. The sound business acumen of the self-made billionaire gained the trust of Arab and European nations who invested in Lebanon after the 15-year civil war came to an end in 1990. Today, Beirut has failed to convince its allies to invest in a country unable to manage its resources properly, or to prevent funds from being siphoned off by corrupt officials.
I am confident that historians looking back at Rafik Hariri’s reign will describe him as a patriot who worked hard to end the war, paving the way for reconciliation and just representation with the so-called Taif Agreement. Signed in 1989 in Saudi Arabia, the deal that effectively ended the war focused on a power-sharing solution between the country’s three main religious groups. From then on, Lebanon’s president would always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shia. In addition to his political achievements, Rafik Hariri oversaw an unprecedented period of growth in post-war Lebanon and had his country’s best interests at heart.
The restoration of downtown Beirut, entirely rebuilt after the war, was to be the jewel crowning Rafik Hariri’s achievements. The neighbourhood was supposed to revitalise the local economy and become a tourist destination. Its vacant shops and deserted alleys have now become silent witnesses to the end of an era.
Years from today, we will recall Rafik Hariri’s time as prime minister as many Lebanese now recall Camille Shamoun’s presidency of the 1950s: a golden age of prosperity.
Dr Basem Shabb is a former member of parliament in Lebanon