In the past week, mass protests have been raging in Lebanon over the high cost of living, the surfeit of taxes, the corruption in the political system and the sectarianism in the country. The protests, which broke out spontaneously on October 17 in response to the government's intention to tax WhatsApp calls, have so far been devoid of any specific sectarian, religious or political character, and seem to involve all sectors of the Lebanese society. They are directed at the Lebanese authorities as a whole, which are accused of corruption and of leading the country into a deep economic crisis. Taking place in numerous locations across Lebanon, the demonstrations refuse to abate despite the government's promise to cancel the new taxes and despite PM Sa'd Al-Hariri's announcement of a comprehensive economic rescue plan that includes, among other measures, an increase in taxes on bank profits and cuts to politicians' wages. The protestors deem this insufficient and are demanding the resignation of the government and the holding of new parliamentary elections.
The mass protests were not unexpected, however, since Lebanon has been in the grip of a severe economic crisis for quite some time. The most conspicuous manifestation of this crisis is a debt of some $100 billion, which has forced the Lebanese government to announce severe austerity measures in order to unlock $11 billion in aid pledged by the donor countries at the CEDRE Conference, held in France on April 6, 2019. The crisis has been exacerbated by the tightening of the U.S. sanctions on Hizbullah and its institutions, and recently also on the Lebanese Jamal Trust bank, which was forced to shut down due to sanctions imposed on it for its financial ties with Hizbullah. In the past month, a dollar shortage in Lebanon's banking system and a drop in the value of the Lebanese pound have destabilized the economy and sparked protests in specific sectors that later spread to the entire country.
In light of the crisis, even before the outbreak of the current mass protests, some Lebanese politicians and journalists held Hizbullah responsible for the economic situation in the country. They claimed that the organization's activity in the service of Iran had caused trouble for Lebanon and brought its economy to the point of collapse. Hizbullah, for its part, placed the blame for the crisis on Riad Salameh, the governor of Lebanon's central bank, who implemented the sanctions on the organization, although this accusation was widely rejected.
It should be noted that, since the outbreak of the protests, only very few voices in Lebanon have explicitly held Hizbullah responsible for the dire economic situation. This may be due to the protesters' desire to avoid lending the demonstrations, which are currently perceived as non-partisan, any sectarian or political orientation, which could alienate parts of the public and thus decrease their momentum.
This report will review some of the statements by Lebanese politicians and writers who blamed Hizbullah for the economic crisis before the eruption of the current protests.
The Lebanon protests (sources: Twitter.com/WesamHamiid, October 22, 2019; twitter.com/KMarielyne, October 21, 2019)
Lebanese Writers: Lebanon Is Paying The Price Of Hizbullah's Loyalty To Iranian Axis
As stated, even before the outbreak of the protests, Lebanese figures and columnists claimed that the country is paying heavily for Hizbullah's commitment to Iran's interests, and that the U.S. sanctions that have been imposed on Hizbullah because of this commitment are affecting the Lebanese economy. Former labor minister Camille Abousleiman (who resigned from the government several days ago along with the other ministers from his party, Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces, in response to the protests), said on September 15, 2019: "The sanctions [on Hizbullah] have a severe impact Lebanon. What is happening in our lives today is the result of [Hizbullah's] defending Iran and involving Lebanon in its affairs... If Hizbullah decides to confront the U.S. in the economic arena, and if [the U.S.] starts to pressure the banks, as it has done with the Jammal Trust bank, the result will be a catastrophe. That is why I hope the confrontation will remain far away from the economic arena... Lebanon is experiencing a very grave financial and economic crisis, and we must launch a rescue plan. There is insufficient awareness of the gravity of the situation. It's true that an economic emergency situation was declared three weeks ago, but nothing has [actually] been done."
Ahmad Al-'Ayyash, a columnist for the Al-Nahar daily, couched his criticism in harsher terms, writing: "Lebanon's current government, which is under the influence of Iranian [Supreme] Leader Ali Khamenei, is not very different from the Vichy government that was created by the German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler after his conquest of France... The influence Hitler wielded by means of this government back then is similar to Khamenei's influence over the Lebanese government today... No matter what ultimately befalls the [Iranian] regime, Lebanon will pay heavily for this influence, on every level, as is [already] happening today on the economic level..."
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Journalist 'Ali Al-Amin, known for his opposition to Hizbullah, wrote in the London-based daily Al-Arab that Lebanon's economy is slipping due to Hizbullah's black market activity, which is prompted by the U.S. sanctions. "Hizbullah," he added, "has conveyed that it will not allow anyone to throttle it by economic means, and that, if it is left with no choice, it will not [face this fate] alone. All of Lebanon will suffocate [with it]..."
Lebanese Writer: An Economic Confrontation Between Hizbullah And U.S. Will Lead To Lebanon's Collapse
Lebanese author and journalist Antoine Farah wrote: "Hizbullah has decided to confront the [new] sanctions that the U.S. is expected [to impose on it]. The talk we are increasingly hearing, about 'plans' being discussed for this confrontation, does not bode well, [namely the plans to] directly involve the state or to encourage it to 'isolate' the U.S. by suspending cooperation with it and turning to cooperate with other countries!... These creative ideas [of Hizbullah's] not only hasten [Lebanon's economic] collapse, but also ensure that the phase following the collapse will be much harder than it will be if [Hizbullah] does not force [the state] to commit suicide. Today we have several models [of what can happen] following an economic collapse. One model is that of Greece, which following its collapse received preferential treatment [from the international community] that helped it complete its recovery within a reasonable period of time and with obvious efficiency... The other model is that of Venezuela, which reached the point of collapse many years ago but has not yet been able to launch a rescue plan, and the situation of its citizens is [therefore] going from bad to worse. Their country operates outside the international system, [for] it is the spearhead of the resistance axis. As a result, Venezuela does not receive any support worth noting to help it emerge from the pit. It is deep in the abyss. Its people are starving, its food stores are bare, yet the state [keeps saying] 'resistance until victory.'
"Those who say that perpetuating the current situation will lead to Lebanon's collapse are not exaggerating. Hizbullah's decision to fight the U.S. using the Lebanese people's money will hasten the collapse and will prolong the stay at the bottom, just like in the case of Venezuela."
Lebanese Officials Condemn Hizbullah For Blaming The Crisis On The Central Bank Governor
Even before the outbreak of the protests, as the economic crisis unfolded, Hizbullah and elements close to it began blaming the situation on the Lebanese banks, and especially on central bank governor Riad Salameh, accusing them of treason and of serving the U.S. and collaborating with its sanctions against Hizbullah. Lebanese elements replied that Hizbullah itself was responsible for the crisis and was trying to obscure this by shifting the blame to others. For example, former MP Fares Sou'aid tweeted on September 26: "Hizbullah's campaign against the governor of Lebanon's central bank, Riad Salameh, does him an injustice. [Hizbullah] wants him to be held responsible for the financial crisis, and refuses to admit its own responsibility for this crisis, which is purely political [in origin]." In another tweet, he wrote: "Blaming the central bank for the [economic] situation, while ignoring the role of Hizbullah, which is the cause of the crisis, is misleading. If Hizbullah takes over Lebanon we will not remain silent over it, even if we are the only ones [to speak out]."
Maronite patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi said that "the attempt to evade responsibility and place it on one person or institution is worrisome. The state and its institutions are in charge, yet they have not taken any reformative measures or launched any practical initiative to stop the waste and corruption... It is unacceptable to direct criticism at Lebanon's [central] bank and at its governor, who has garnered international acclaim and managed to keep the [Lebanese] currency stable in these difficult conditions... The current authorities must acknowledge their responsibility instead of evading it, shifting the blame to others, and looking for scapegoats, which will [only] undermine [Lebanon's] social, economic, financial and humanitarian stability."
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 16, 2019.
 Al-Nahar (Lebanon), September 28, 2019.
 Al-Arab (London), October 1, 2019.
 Al-Jumhouriyya (Lebanon), September 16, 2019.
 Twitter.com/FaresSouaid, September 26, 2019.
 Twitter.com/FaresSouaid, September 28, 2019.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 30, 2019.