On the 15th of March Lebanon declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic that introduced strict restrictions on citizens. Many activists, as well as former prime-minister of the country Saad al-Hariri, have condemned this move and described it as an “attempt to monopolize the State’s positions.” A joint statement by al-Hariri and three other former prime-ministers, namely Najib Mikati, Fouad Siniora and Tammam Salam, said that “at a time when Lebanon is going through political, economic, financial and administrative crises, the pandemic of coronavirus comes to deepen and complicate further the situation. The Lebanese can see how their government tends to make appointments with an intention to grasp control of administrative, financial and monetary positions without respecting the standards of competence and merit”, hinting at Hezbollah’s influence over the government.
Response to the government’s coronavirus measures
LiquaaTeshrin, a group formed by Lebanese activists, demands government reform to safeguard citizens’ health and livelihood. Since the announcement of the state of emergency, the government has shut most public institutions and private businesses, closed borders and ordered its citizens to stay home unless they really needed to go out. At the same time the government does not provide an alternative to their citizens on how to secure their daily needs. Activists see all of these moves as an effort to increase the powers of the army and police. Moreover, founding members of LiquaaTeshrin, Jad Yateem, strongly condemns the government for activating criminal laws to arrest and charge people that broke the rules. Not only that but “there is no transparency in revealing the readiness of the health sector’s ability in Lebanon to deal with this issue, because this might uncover the amount of corruption. Now this crisis is being used as a cover-up for former mistakes and to pass more political and economic gains by the ruling elite” Yateem stated.
Human Rights Watch shares a similar view on the situation and in a report states that the government is pursuing a “spate of prosecutions” against journalists and activists critical of the government. This campaign is threatening free speech in the country which is in contradiction with what is written in the constitution.
Lebanon’s government was formed right at the start of the pandemic, with prime minister Hassan Diab only obtaining the position on the 21st of January 2020. Many Lebanese politicians claim that this new cabinet is made up completely of Hezbollah and its allies (as was the case to some extend in previous cabinets) and excluded the mainstream Sunni bloc lead by former prime-minister Hariri’s Future Party.
Hezbollah’s influence within the government and their parallel health network
Hezbollah is a Shiite radical group that was founded in 1982 and enjoys support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Group. The United States considers the group a terrorist organization that aims to advance Iran’s agenda in the Middle East. In fact, Iran became the first country in the region to record a case of the coronavirus. The initial response of the Lebanese government was to do nothing and it came under heavy criticism. The government refused to suspend flights between Iran and Lebanon because of Iran’s influence on the Lebanese government. The frustration with the Lebanese government grew even further when the first reported case in Lebanon was a woman who had recently returned from Iran. The Lebanese government initially denied any reports of an outbreak and threatened to arrest journalists who reported otherwise. The lack of freedom of speech and the initial refusal to act deepened the mistrust the Lebanese citizens had for the government even further.
Hezbollah’s influence is not only large within government, but also outside it. Hezbollah recently mobilized 25.000 people (including frontline medics) and prepared hospitals in an attempt to battle the coronavirus. It made available a hospital in Beirut that they owned as well as renting four disused hospitals, prepared 32 medical centers across Lebanon and made plans for three field hospitals in case they were needed in the future. It also rented hotels that could be used to quarantine people in.
The state itself is too weak to effectively battle the virus amid the unprecedented financial crisis the country is facing. The government announced that it could not pay foreign currency debts and the local currency has sunk by 40% since October 2019. Therefore Hezbollah has seized the opportunity to play a prominent part in the country’s response against the virus. Political rivals say that privately funding a parallel health network undermines the delicate power-sharing balance that underpins Lebanon’s government. It has long been called a “state within a state” by its critics because of its powerful military force and provision of health and social services.
However, this time Hezbollah’s efforts are part of a much larger campaign by Lebanon’s parties to show that they can help in an emergency. Many political elites see the pandemic as an opportunity to restore community support that damaged during nationwide protests against corruption and economic troubles six months earlier. Hezbollah in particular is using the pandemic to show that they can fill a void left by the state.
What are other parties doing?
Nevertheless, other sectarian parties are trying to make their mark when it comes to fighting the coronavirus. Sunni, Christian and Druze parties alike have started initiatives such as distributing food to those most in need, sanitization of public spaces and raising general awareness of the situation all over the country. In one instance, the Druze-led Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) started a campaign to sanitise the streets in a small town in the mountains called Aitat. On the sanitiser car big speakers were attached that called on residents to stay at home. Their political rivals such as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Lebanese Democratic Party quickly followed suit with their own campaigns and initiatives.
Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon’s main Druze leader, made donations to hospitals, the Progressive Socialist Party organised quarantine areas besides running sanitisation initiatives and the Future Movement distributed food packages.
The Christian Free Patriotic Movement, the party of President Michel Aoun, started to procure COVID-19 testing kits from China that they would use in mobile clinics that they would set up as well. President Aoun has recently pleaded to the international community to provide Lebanon with assistance as they fall into a deeper economic crisis each day. At the same time the government has repeatedly promised to free up large sums of money ($6 million) from the country’s insolvent banks that never happened which in turn decreased the trust in the government and increased insecurity among citizens even more. This is exactly what Hezbollah wants though.
How do these responses contribute to the legitimacy of the involved political actors?
The aim of all parties attempting to influence the coronavirus response is to make citizen feel insecure, or at least maintain the level of security that is already present regarding the pandemic as well as the economic situation. The reason for this is to push citizens away from national solidarity and instead make them focus on their own security (or their own social environment) that can be provided by the parties outside of state institutions (which is what Hezbollah is doing).
The government’s coronavirus measures have been vague. The government allowed local administration to take independent decisions, which resulted in the absence of a centralized approach pushing more and more citizens to look for a solution outside of state institutions. Political actors than encouraged dependence on connections in their response, by cultivating that insecurity to gain legitimacy and control over certain areas. Even though most political parties are using the pandemic to gain political control at the expense of the government, Hezbollah stands heads above the rest in the campaign.