COVID-19 threatens not only lives and livelihoods, but also governments and democratic institutions. The International Republican Institute (IRI) is profiling our partners and other leaders who have been the “first responders” in our global fight to protect and strengthen democracy.
In this new series, #DemocracyFirstResponders, we spoke with an anti-corruption activist in Nepal, a journalist in Zimbabwe, a former government official in Georgia and others to discuss their efforts to prevent democratic backsliding in the time of COVID-19.
For the third episode of this series, our guest host Natalie Longwell spoke with Makram Rabah, an activist, journalist and professor at the American University of Beirut, who has been influential in exposing the government’s efforts to silence Lebanon’s pro-democracy movement.
You can listen to this conversation and others by subscribing to the Global Podcast on Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.
Natalie: First of all, could you tell me a little bit about how you’ve seen the coronavirus impact Lebanon?
Makram: Well, unfortunately I don’t think our main problem in Lebanon is the coronavirus. Coronavirus was simply the cherry on top. Lebanon, or what remained of Lebanon, had been destroyed long before we had this existential threat to humanity, which is the coronavirus. The problem is many of the people think that the difficult road that had is because of the coronavirus.
I tend to disagree because there’s no longer a viable state, and given the fact that the state is no longer able to pay its debts, and there’s an important thing that Lebanon as a nation has been isolated from. It’s Arab and [it’s been isolated] from the international community in a way. There’s no way [to] an economic resurgence given the current factors and the coronavirus makes it more difficult. Our inability to rise up again doesn’t have to do directly with the coronavirus. However, the coronavirus is one additional challenge.
Natalie: Can you tell me a little bit more about Lebanon’s inability to pay its debts, and specifically the people power movements demanding accountable and transparent governments that were really surging before the coronavirus hit?
Makram: Well, on October 17 of last year, we had a revolution, [and] we [were] asking for the removal of the ruling elite and [a] new independent government. Although we were not able to achieve the independent government, we were able to topple the government of former prime minister Saad Hariri. The problem is not the fault of Saad Hariri alone, but rather decades or even essentially [longer], of corruption. More importantly, recently the challenge that Hezbollah and Iran has placed on the Lebanese system.
We as Lebanese have been proud to call ourselves the only functioning democracy in the Arab world. This is no longer the case, simply because the people controlling the Lebanese government are [a] combination of corrupt politicians who use Hezbollah as a pretext, as well as the fact that Hezbollah does not want to relinquish its hold over Lebanon, because it is a shell that it uses to operate on the Mediterranean.
As you know, there’s this highway between Iran going through Iraq and Syria all the way to Beirut. This is something which Hezbollah wants to maintain, and Hezbollah ultimately is not a political party as many might claim but rather a militia, and it’s only concern at the moment [is] its ability to supply troops. This is why all of this makes the Lebanese situation very thorny and very explosive to say the least.
Natalie: These protests, as you mentioned, were successful in some ways before they had to stop due to coronavirus. How are those protests now adapting?
Makram: To be fair, these protests did not die down only because of the coronavirus. They died down because the people could no longer sustain a 24/7 movement because it was too expensive. Second and more importantly, the majority of the people thought to give the current Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who is only [a] facade for the ruling establishment, a chance. However, since he took office, he has not [taken] any step[s] in the right direction, but rather he has been empowered by the ruling establishment and given some opportunities to come out of this as a popular prime minister. However, I think the coronavirus made sure that this charade doesn’t go on.
The main achievement of the popular movement is the fact that people had enough of this clientelist system, [which] unfortunately they have been abusing over the years. We had the national movement and these movements were not restricted to cities and towns, but rather to the peripheries as well as [and] to the diaspora who are sending a clear message that we might not want a modern state. Lebanon’s economy was connected to the economy of the Gulf and the Gulf states, [which] at the moment see Lebanon as a threat because of the control of Iran over its political establishment. Thus, we have been cut off from our political as well as economic surroundings.
Natalie: As COVID-19 continues to evolve and the current Lebanese government is now imposing strict measures to manage the economic and the health crisis, do you feel that this response will lend itself to backsliding of democracy in Lebanon?
Makram: The government has been abusing the coronavirus situation. People have been on lockdown because they know that the government or the health care system [is] just like other countries and we are not the only country that has this problem. Even what we used to believe were modern states like Italy and Spain simply collapsed. At the moment, we are doing well simply because we have not been testing everyone. This gives us a false sense of safety.
The healthcare system will collapse if we have a real challenge on our hands, but people have been aware and conscious of this fact. Thus, they have been somewhat very strict on implementing… the coronavirus. However, the coronavirus is politicized by the fact that Hezbollah has not allowed the government to announce a proper emergency scenario, where the actual people that would take care of the logistics are the Lebanese army, because Hezbollah acquires or needs to move around.
This is something [that] brings us back to the idea of the sovereignty of the Lebanese government. More importantly, there are suspicions that in areas which are under the control of Hezbollah, many of the people who came back from Iran and from Iraq are not tested, and thus, we don’t know really the magnitude of the infected people in Hezbollah-controlled Shiite areas. This would place more and more restrictions on Lebanon.
Second and more importantly, in general the government historically doesn’t have the ability to reach the peripheries where we suspect that the most cases of coronavirus will be. In general, the healthcare system is no different from other government institutions, which [have] ceased to function [in] the last decade or so.
Natalie: You mentioned earlier that it’s not only because of the coronavirus, that the protests of last fall are changing and adapting. How else are they adapting to this new environment though with coronavirus and everything that’s present, and how are they continuing their fight for democracy?
Makram: First of all, they have realized that it’s not only about mass demonstrations, nor about rioting and the ability to take to the streets, but rather this so-called conviction that this political elite or what it exemplifies can no longer represent us. There is a very aggressive attitude from people. The ruling establishment has lost their eminence and people have no respect for them, and this is very important. People over social media and over other means have been very aggressive in following up, and every citizen in a way has become a watchdog.
We have a main problem that the ruling establishment here is in control of the mainstream media, and many of the negative elements of the actual demonstrations and the popular movement have been highlighted. [Whereas] the real unity of the people and their common goal to remove this establishment has not been properly focused on. More importantly, we have many cartels in Lebanon, many lobby groups, be it the banking lobby, or these rich contractors [who] make a lot of money, have been trying to influence the so-called public sphere and [trying] to portray people that are taken to the streets as maybe hooligans or people that have no political direction.
Simply these people are not politicians. The people on the streets shouting their heads off are asking for a viable date, where the taxpayers’ money is accounted for, and more importantly, to have access to our money. As you are fully aware, we have a quasi-capital control here in Lebanon. We cannot have access to our money, [nor] to our dollars and because that means the economy is so dollarized, we go back to the issue of the healthcare.
The healthcare system cannot have access to medical supplies from abroad, because first of all, the government owns these public or private institutions, health institutions, money, which it will not pay. Even if they pay in Lebanese pounds, they don’t have the ability to purchase basic medical equipment, which makes the coronavirus threat even more and more challenging.
Natalie: What do you think is next for Lebanon? Do you think that the government will rise to the challenge of this crisis and try to work for people? And do you think that the pro-democracy protest movements will continue to evolve in a way that will make them effective?
Makram: As long as people have to line up in the banks, and again, people are not all of the same political consciousness or the same political education, and thus, they might not be interested in going into how government properly works. But as [users] of this system, as long as they have to beg for their money, as long as their healthcare system is in utter shambles, and as long as we see in front of us Hezbollah abusing the system, and we have militias which are exposing Lebanon to U.S. sanctions and U.S. punitive measures, I don’t think any Lebanese citizen would go back home.
Even if they go back home, they will no longer be willing to cooperate with this clientelist system, which uses all the tricks in their bag to stay in power. It’s no longer about if they stay in power or not. People on the streets have made fun of these politicians, and thus, what we [say] the pro–democracy movement is not only a pro–democracy movement, but it’s a nationwide movement simply to tell these people enough is enough. If you want to be empowered, corruption should have a limit.
Their unheeded corruption and their appetite for money and for abusing of the system has rendered this system inactive, and thus, any attempt by these politicians to abuse sectarian identities or even national identities, I think has failed. They are using the coronavirus even to try to empower themselves as political parties and as sectarian leaders to try to say that the government does not protect you, but rather your community or your tribe does. This is something that does not belong to the 21st century.
Natalie: The world is watching Lebanon very closely. If you have a message for the global community, what would it be?
Makram: First of all, Lebanon is not only a small state in the middle East. Lebanon is an idea, and the U.S. government and the international community has a duty to protect the citizens against this corrupt class of politicians. My main message is not to listen to these politicians, but rather to inspect their record, and their record renders them unfit to rule.
Makram: I think the U.S. government as well as the U.S. taxpayers should understand that they should continue [to help] the Lebanese people, because simply Lebanon is not only an example of what a good state could be in the Middle East, but rather how the international community has a responsibility to fix what it has broken over the years. Thus, Lebanon should always be the [top] priority simply because it does not cost the international community a lot to first of all, stand by us, more important morally and then financially.
Natalie: Makram, thank you so much for your time.
Makram: Thank you very much.