For a long time, Lebanon has been synonymous for civil conflicts and sectarian clientelism; Lebanese citizens never had a high level of solidarity and sympathy across their various sects and regions. The consociational democratic system in the country has brought huge impediments to most socio-economic and political sectors. Consequently, a vigorous model of sectarian partisan clientelism has been established in the country as the sectarian parties replaced the central state as the main provider of social services and built their own quasi-states within Lebanon. It is not surprising to see Lebanon in the highest ranks of corruption worldwide. Moreover, this sectarian clientelism in Lebanon has been associated with other external transnational bonds. The problem with the consociational system is that it convinced every sect that the “Sectarian bond” is to be prioritized over the “National bond”. In other words, as there are proxy militias during civil wars; there are also proxy parties during peacetime and so the domestic situation severs and stabilizes inside Lebanon according to the political interactions outside in the region. Nonetheless, this perspective on Lebanese politics passed by huge transformations since last October. A new national solidarity raised hopes for the Lebanese societies’ readiness to transcend communitarianism and achieve a modern citizen-centered state; however, this was then diluted by the Coronavirus outbreak in the country. Coronavirus lockdown has given the lead back to the traditional corrupted sectarian leaderships and this may result in violent civil conflicts and the rise of extremist and terrorist organizations with the imbalance in the socio-economic standards across different sects.
On 17th of October 2019, a nationwide protests erupted in Lebanon giving birth to a new aesthetic revolution in which all the confessions, regions and classes marched asking for radical reforms in both economic and political systems. Politically, this revolution resulted in the formation of a new cabinet. On the other hand, this revolution deteriorated the economic crisis; all economic indexes were worsening. Beside those worsening indexes, a significant paradigm shift took place on the national level concerning the inter-sectarian relation within the political system. The revolution marked a turning point in the Lebanese history with the unprecedented trans-sectarian uprisings in streets and public squares. For the first time in Lebanese history, protests were not confined in a certain community. For the first time, Lebanese people marched in all cities asking for their rights from the central state and not from their sectarian parties as previous demonstrations. The slogan of “All means All” was spreading everywhere to target all the parties of their corruption and external agendas.
On the 21st of February, Lebanese minister of health confirmed the first Corona virus case in Lebanon. Indeed, Lebanon was already grasped by its severe economic crisis, so the pandemic timing was so unfortunate for both Lebanese citizens and government. Nonetheless, the new unpopular cabinet looked at the situation as an opportunity and started its mission to oppress the revolution in parallel to the lockdown in the country. After the protests were subsided due to the taken curfew due to the novel coronavirus, Security forces purposely tried to wipe every remaining memory of the revolution and its protests. They forcibly destroyed the last few remaining in the city centers of Beirut and Tripoli. Furthermore, the parliament took the advantage also to pass the laws that were questioned with many corruption accusations and declined the laws that were supposed to satisfy the demands of the protestors such as the law of judiciary independence, the law of early parliamentary elections and banking reformations.
A more significant political aspect of the Coronavirus Lockdown is new opportunity for the political sectarian parties to step up and try to regain their popular legitimacy again. With the lockdown all around the country, more people lost their jobs and incomes with 75% of the population are in urgent need for social aid and hyperinflation achieved unprecedented levels of 86%. With no economic cycle in the country and in the presence of a bankrupted state; partisan clientelism has prospered again. Sectarian parties returned to be the last resort of many citizens to ask for social aid. Main political parties started to open their social aid institutions, distributed food subsistence, prepared their private healthcare institutions, launched sanitizing campaigns and distributed watermarked masks among their regions of influence.
Here, three main models of sectarian communitarianism were differentiated among the Lebanese mélange. Firstly, the Christian parties started to develop their own social security networks by distributing required social aids watermarked with their logos. Notably, Christian communities have the biggest portion of the middle class in Lebanon with a big strong Lebanese diaspora abroad. Secondly, the Shiite community where Hezbollah deployed all its resources to counter the pandemic. It started to open and equip its health care institutions with quarantine centers, sanitizing campaigns and lastly it proudly proved its high preparedness with a huge parade of its affiliated health volunteers and ambulances in the southern suburb of Beirut. This is of course due to the huge Iranian fund that was also distributed in the forms of cash assistances to the families and businesses in its regions. Hezbollah proved to be a role model for other parties in responding to the pandemic; it has been far much more successful than the Lebanese state itself. Lastly, the Sunni communities were the most impacted community compared to the Christian and Shiite communities. With the highest poverty and unemployment rates, lack of social security networks and most importantly the lack of external support due to the block of Saudi support after 2016.
All those factors made the main Sunni cities to witness the first outbreak of the second wave of the revolution during the first week of the holy month of Ramadan. This wave has been much more violent with protestors burning local banks and military checkpoints while other regions were relatively stable with minimal protests. These recent developments in the Sunni regions raise many concerns and puzzling questions. It is a very dangerous equation to put the class struggle in parallel to the sectarian conflict. It stigmatizes the sect with being the poor lowest class that is facing an unfair game setup. It equalizes the conflict of the poor with the struggle of the Sunnis. This stigmatization is a perfect nucleus for the feeling of injustice and irritation and accordingly for extreme movements to fill the political vacuum. In fact, with the ongoing severe economic crisis and the few riots spreading, this may lead to huge uncontrolled civil conflicts. This brings to mind, the long sense of oppression throughout the Shia community in the past century which brought extreme militant parties like Hezbollah to power; the ongoing riots in Tripoli now is very similar to the riots that took place in the southern suburb of Beirut in 2004 between the army and the Shiite demonstrators. In fact, this also brings to mind, the eruption of extremist terrorist groups in surrounding Syria and Iraq, thus, the ongoing status-quo being the lack of strong central state cannot sustain security and stability under the grasp of Corona and Economic crisis.
In conclusion, the aesthetic image of equality among Lebanese citizens that was brought by the recent revolution has started to fade and the feelings of injustice is rising up back during the Coronavirus outbreak. The ruling parties succeeded in rotating the scene and putting the game setups to the old pre-revolution default. Consequently, the sense of oppression and inferiority in the major Sunni cities during the pandemic is producing a perfect ambience for extremist and populist movements especially with the lack of partisan organization in those communities. These extremist movements can translate their sense of inferiority into a sympathy with terrorist groups especially religious ones due to the sectarian color of the class conflict in Lebanon.