Politics

'It's preposterous': Protesters dismiss Lebanese PM promise of reform as country's banks stay shut

Key Points
  • Demonstrations kicked off on October 17, triggered by a new tax reform plan put forward by the government that imposed taxes on a number of everyday services, including Whatsapp.
  • Unemployment sits at nearly 40%, and Lebanon ranks 138 out of 175 countries in Transparency International's Global Corruption Perception Index.
  • Low economic growth and astronomical debt — at 150% of GDP — have only exacerbated problems like crumbling infrastructure that make frequent power cuts and mounting piles of uncollected garbage an everyday occurrence.
Lebanese demonstrators take part in a rally outside the Mohammad al-Amin mosque in the capital Beirut's downtown district on October 20, 2019.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP via Getty Images

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a wide-ranging reform package Monday in an attempt to quell Lebanon's largest popular protests in 14 years. Banks have remained closed since Friday, threatening the financially beleaguered Middle Eastern country with a nationwide cash crisis and a run on the banks when they finally do reopen, the time of which is not yet known.

The plan includes a 2020 budget targeting a deficit of 0.6% of GDP, halving the salaries of lawmakers and ministers, eliminating some public bodies, a draft law to restore looted state money and, importantly, no new taxes.

But protesters, who've been counted at more than a million across Lebanon for the past five days in historic demonstrations, are not convinced.

People who took to the streets from across Lebanon's numerous cities, sects and religious groups in a mass rejection of the status quo told CNBC that the promises are "not enough," that they are "old announcements" and that "people won't stop till the government is disbanded."

"There's a severe feeling that this is bullshit," Carmen Geha, an assistant professor at the American University of Beirut, said via phone while on her way to participate in the country's fifth day of protests.

"It's really not going to curb people's anger on the street," Geha said. "People made very clear claims about the failure of this ruling class, including Hezbollah, including (Prime Minister) Hariri, to address any of the socioeconomic and political grievances in the last 30 years. For them to come out with this bullshit list of 25 technical reforms, without addressing anything about political failure… It's preposterous."

Demonstrations kicked off on October 17, triggered by a new tax reform plan put forward by the government that imposed taxes on a number of everyday services, including Whatsapp. The government has since walked back the Whatsapp tax.

An economy on the brink

At the heart of citizens' anger lies an economic crisis and a dire lack of basic public services in the country of six million. Protesters blame decades of government corruption, a deeply entrenched system of patronage and immunity for those in power.

Unemployment sits between 35% and 40%, and the country ranks 138 out of 175 countries in Transparency International's Global Corruption Perception Index. Meanwhile, Lebanon's 1.5 year interest rate is an eye-watering 23.5%, which bond traders say implies a 75% probability of default over the next 18 months.

Low economic growth and astronomical debt — at 150% of GDP — have only exacerbated problems like crumbling infrastructure that make frequent power cuts and mounting piles of uncollected garbage an everyday occurrence.

Lebanese demonstrators raise national flags in front of a makeshit barricade set up on a main road in the area of Jal el-Dib, north of the capital Beirut on October 21, 2019.
IBRAHIM AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

"You are liars. I would love to tell them that," Yumna Fawaz, a Lebanese journalist and filmmaker, told CNBC, stressing that Hariri's plans still failed to address the corruption and the electricity shortages that plague her country. She wrote on Twitter shortly after the speech: "If you possessed the ability to pass these economic reforms, what were you waiting for? Do you care so little for the people?"

Ratings agency S&P Global reported in September that Lebanon could face a currency devaluation and another credit downgrade if its foreign reserves keep falling. S&P estimated that the country's usable foreign currency reserves could drop to $19.2 billion by the end of 2019, down from $25.5 billion in 2018. In August, ratings agency Fitch downgraded Lebanon to CCC while S&P held their rating of B-.

'People are more determined than ever'

"It's up to you to decide when to stop, but it's because of you this reform package has been passed," Hariri said in a speech Monday, appearing to support the protesters' right to demonstrate.

If the current mood on the street is any barometer, they won't be stopping anytime soon, according to Lebanese political activist Jean Kassir.

"In Tripoli, in Beirut and other regions, people were unanimously not buying any single promise that Hariri was making," Kassir, 26, told CNBC. "People are more determined than ever."

The Prime Minister, in his speech, said he was open to early parliamentary elections and told protestors, "I will not allow anyone to threaten you or scare you away," something that Kassir believes will reassure people.

"You will have more people in the street, which is what you want — to achieve the demand of the resignation of the government and early elections under a better electoral law," he said.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.
Mohamed Azakir | Reuters

Common chants heard on the streets include "The people want the fall of the regime" and "All of them means all of them, Nasrallah is one of them," referring to Hassan Nasrallah, the powerful leader of Lebanese political and militant group Hezbollah. This is significant, observers say — as is the apparent solidarity across sects, cities, age groups and religions.

"It was really a turning point in many ways," former Lebanese parliament member Robert Fadel told CNBC in Beirut. "This is the first time we have some kind of uprisings everywhere in the country. Also interesting is this revolution is the millennials' revolution. They took the lead," he said. "And very, very important is that this is the first time that all the Lebanese are telling their sectarian leaders that enough is enough."

As for what will happen next, it's too soon to say, Fadel and Kassir said. But it's clear that the Lebanese public is determined to see deeper change.

"As opposed to stay where they are and push the country to collapse, the (political leaders) need to help in their own interest for a transition," Fadel said. "A smooth transition, so that we don't end up in chaos. Because otherwise, it's going to be chaos."