As the clock wound down on the Lebanese government’s 72-hour deadline to come up with solutions for the country’s most crippling crises, prime minister Saad Hariri unveiled a package of measures aimed at appeasing the masses protesting across the country. His 18-point plan, hastened through an emergency cabinet meeting yesterday, promises to tackle the sources of deep-rooted discontent: soaring unemployment, a sluggish economy and failing basic services such as electricity.
Extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures but judging by the crowds that continued to gather for a sixth day, from Downtown Beirut to Tripoli and Tyre, in the biggest protests in Lebanon in decades, the proposed reforms have done little to quell anger on the streets. The country is burning – with rage as much as actual fires, and an estimated one million people, one quarter of Lebanon’s population, are continuing to gather in public places to make their voices heard. What began as protests against a tax on Whatsapp last Thursday has swelled into something much more significant, speaking to years of dissatisfaction with the sectarian political system, a stagnant status quo and a lack of real prospects.
What Lebanese citizens need is tangible action to follow words and achievable aims, not empty promises. Mr Hariri’s proposals included a pledge to provide round-the-clock electricity by next year - a feat officials have failed to accomplish since the end of the civil war in 1990. The cabinet also approved a budget for 2020 that aimed to reduce the deficit to 0.6 per cent – revised from an already optimistic earlier target of 6.59 per cent, which economists had decried as unrealistic. The proposals included scrapping several government ministries, withholding new taxes on individuals and halving the salaries of current and former ministers and parliamentarians, which raises the question of why such important measures have not been imposed before this critical juncture.
Mr Hariri’s suggestion of salary cuts could also backfire. Endemic corruption is a significant challenge in Lebanon and protesters have demanded greater transparency. That was acknowledged by Mr Hariri, who promised to tackle corruption head-on. Yet slashing salaries could increase the risk of corruption as government officials attempt to make up for the shortfall in their salaries. Meanwhile Lebanese citizens have been deprived of basic services such as reliable access to water, power and adequate health care for more than 30 years. Unsurprisingly, they have little faith that a solution concocted in 72 hours will resolve decades of despair. Many of the government officials pledging to effect change have been in power for years - in some cases, decades - and many have become complacent in their posts, unwilling to give up what they see as entitlements. Since protests first erupted, leaders across the political spectrum, from Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah to Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces, have tried to claim other parties in the country’s unity government prevented them from taking steps to resolve the country’s many issues. Mr Geagea announced his ministers would resign in support of the protests. But such excuses and evasion of responsibility hold little water with Lebanese citizens after years of decay. They want a better future and an improvement in living conditions, sooner rather than later.
There can, of course, be no quick fixes for the country’s woes and the process of weeding out corruption and enacting reforms will inevitably be long and arduous. And while it is heartening that the government has said it is listening to protesters’ demands and responded swiftly, it is vital that citizens continue to be heard without being threatened or harassed. There are reports of armed members of Amal and Hezbollah targeting protesters speaking up against them in the Shia-majority south and intimidating them in demonstrations in Beirut. Some militia members have been detained. Lebanese citizens have a right to express their concerns without fear for their own safety.
If the Lebanese government wants to show it is deal with their people’s concerns seriously, it must start taking concrete steps instead of making overreaching, unrealistic promises. Even if more resignations follow, there is no guarantee that newly appointed officials will be any more efficient at tackling Lebanon’s problems. The government must work together with protest leaders and members of civic society to come up with actionable solutions that will assure real change in offering job opportunities and bringing an end to the economic crisis.