Lebanon’s Domestic Political Crisis and the Armenian Community

13 m.   |  2019-12-23

Domestic political situation in Lebanon deteriorated again on October 17, 2019. Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned after the mass anti-government protests on October 29 [1], which made the domestic political crisis even more serious. The process of forming a new government wasn’t smooth as expected, and preserved tension, as well as the high level of public excitement threaten to turn into serious clashes.

The essence and evolution of crisis

T he onset of mass turmoil was due to the social-economic factor. All population sections regardless of their ethnicity and religion, complained about their low standard of living. Government’s decision on setting a fee for using the WhatsApp application, which became the peak of social conditions’ deterioration in Lebanon, caused the current mass turmoil.

Demonstrators blocked one of the main roads in Beirut

Though the wave of mass protests resulted by social-economic factor soon turned into a political crisis, which is a normal phenomenon, given the fact that there are many examples in human history, when political crisis began from social-economic or environmental turmoil. 

First, the Government made a promise on presenting a comprehensive reforms plan to the public within 72 hours (3 days), which he did. The reforms consisting of 20 points, included 50% salary reduction of former and current state officials, adopting a law on returning the stolen money to the state budget, privatization of some of the state institutions, solving electricity problem and so on [2]. However, the demands of the protestors were radical: they weren’t satisfied with the reforms and demanded the Government’s resignation [3], which took place about two weeks after the launch of the protests.

The current Lebanese political crisis, which bears the seal of country’s ethnic and religious diversity, also manifests itself as a confrontation between the various ethno-religious parts of the population, particularly in the form of confrontation between Christian Maronite, followers of Sunni and Shia Islam. The “Hezbollah” party, which represents the Shiites, is a military-political force acting under the influence of Iran and serving its interests and ranks among the terrorist organizations according to the U.S. It is not a coincidence that some time after the popular turmoil, on November 5, the US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo stated, that the Iraqi and Lebanese people have the right to get rid of the Iranian influence [4]. According to Shahan Kandaharian, editor in chief of Beirut’s “Aztag” Daily, this was followed by the harsh reactions from the Iranian Foreign Minister and the Russian Ambassador to Lebanon [5].

“Hezbollah” leader Hassan Nasrallah had previously announced, that the demonstrators were financed by its foreign enemies, adding that the roads closed by protesters should be reopened [6]. It can be assumed from these statements, that the “Hezbollah” notices certain threat in this popular turmoil in terms of weakening or even neutralizing its political positions.

We can also observe almost simultaneously running domestic political turmoil in Iraq and Iran in geopolitical context of the current Lebanese crisis.

According to one of the central and well-informed figures of the Lebanese-Armenian community [7] reach countries of the Persian Gulf, for example Saudi Arabia can easily get Lebanon out of the socio-economic crisis. The provided financial aid whether in lending or otherwise, is a small amount of money for a country rich in oil resources. However, their authorities refrain from assisting Lebanon because of political reasons.

Hence, the turmoil going on already for a month and a half have political significance and have just turned into a political movement. The demands of the protesters have had a certain dynamics during this time, which make the domestic political crisis, that is the transition from socio-economic into political. The stages of that dynamics can be briefly presented with these following points:

  1. Crowded protests against the Government’s decision on deteriorating population’s socio-economic conditions, particularly setting a tax for using WhatsApp application,
  2. Demand for the Government resignation,
  3. Demand for forming a government of professionals despite the political government, where the proportion of political forces in the Parliament is taken into account,
  4. Demand for the change in Constitution, that is the state order change.

The last demand is the most radical, which can open a door to a long-term crisis and even to a civil war. The current constitutional order of Lebanon was approved after 15-year-long civil war (1975-1990). It is based on the country’s ethnic and religious diversity and is a unique compromise between different communities. According to that order, every religious community in Lebanon has a proportionate representation in the government bodies. In particular, the post of the President is always held by the Christian Maronite, the post of the Speaker of the Parliament by Shia Islam and the post of the Prime Minister by the representative of Sunni Islam community.

Lebanese Armenians are represented in the form of two religious communities that is the Armenian Apostles and the Armenian Catholics. Armenian Evangelicals do not represent a separate community, but form part of the general Protestant Christian community. In the Lebanese Parliament of 128 deputies, the Armenian Apostles have 5 and the Catholics have 1 seats. Another 1-parliamentarian seat is given to the Protestant Christian community.

Referring to the executive body, two ministerial portfolios were previously allocated to the Armenian Apostolic community. Currently this number decreased to one, due to the decrease in the number of Lebanese-Armenians. There were two Armenian Ministers in the previous Government, one of them, the Minister of Tourism Avetis Kitanyan, representing the Armenian community, and the other one, the Minister of Social Affairs Richard Guyumjyan, representing the “Lebanese Forces” party [8].

The protesters do not specify what the future Lebanese Government should look like. It is only mentioned, that the community model should be changed into a civic one, that the current system is not efficient and that it led to a large corruption. 

The Constitutional amendment supposes either retreat of the state system based on religious confession of the population or a change in the degree of involvement of different religious communities in the government if this principle is adhered to. Both of these cases can lead the country into a new long-term civic war. The other communities will suffer as well from this situation and there are already inter-community clashes in Lebanon [9].

Inter-community clash in Lebanon

The revision of the current state order may lead to abolition or restriction of the Armenians representation in the governmental bodies, as well as the reduction of their rights and freedoms.

The position of the Armenian Community

A s a state-owned entity, the Lebanese-Armenian community cannot stay indifferent to this situation. Armenian individuals participated and still participate in the protests; however, there is no precise data on the numbers.

Actually, justifying the dissatisfaction and mass upheavals, recognizing the right of the citizens to hold demonstrations and rallies, the Armenian institutions though differ somewhat from each other in the issue of resolving the situation.

The Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia, ARF and SDHP parties are in favor of overcoming the crisis through negotiation and agreement, as well as improving the socio-economic conditions of the population through reforms.  Aram A, at an early stage of popular upheavals, stating that “the sentiments, hasty steps and the attempts of political speculation may aggravate the situation”, came up with a proposal consisting of 5 points to overcome the crisis [10].

Whereas the ADL party didn’t initially believe in the government’s reform program and demanded for its immediate resignation, without the threat of a possible governmental crisis and thinking that “…with the refusal of individuals the state institutions will remain and will function” [11].

This approach is right for the European countries, where (e.g. Italy, Belgium, Swiss and even Germany) there have been times when they failed to form a government for a long time. However, thanks to the effective work of the state institutions, it has not been a serious issue for the citizens. It is difficult to say how applicable is this approach to the Middle East countries, in this case to Lebanon.

Currently the ADL maintains its harsh position, which is probably due to the allied relations with the “Lebanese Forces” party, which is just the main opponent of “Hezbollah”. During the last parliamentary elections (May 2018), the ADL participated in alliance with the “Lebanese Forces” party.

Currently this Armenian traditional party seems like doing its allied responsibilities, however, according to the above mentioned Lebanese-Armenian politician, just that much. The ADL media’s publications in other countries also confirm this indirectly [12].

Possible Developments

J udging by the development of the Lebanese crisis and its current reality, it’s unlikely to overcome it quickly. Forming a government is generally a hard process for a country like Lebanon, which complex ethno-religious mosaic, a number of problems and external factors to bear on itself and it envisages prolonged negotiations of different powers.

The former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s refusal of an offer to head the new government [13] makes the prospects for the formation of a new executive power even more vague, which means that the socio-economic crisis in the country is accompanied by the government crisis as well. The problem is further complicated by the fact, that the people who take to the streets do not have a leading individual or a political force to negotiate with.

Even if it is possible to form a new government and implement a reform program, such as the comprehensive plan of the previous government, one can hardly notice any positive change in lifestyle in the near future without a serious foreign financial aid. Each reform, especially a package of reforms take some time to be implemented and to produce positive results. Therefore, the socio-economic revolution in Lebanon will be maintained for at least some time, which means, that the socio-economic preconditions destabilizing the country’s domestic political life will be preserved.

And if the formation of a new government fails for a long time, the mass protests and inter-community clashes will turn into a civil war. In that case, the whole population, including the Armenian community will reappear in adverse conditions.

At the moment there is a serious disruption of infrastructures. The roads connecting Beirut with the regions of the country are blocked, educational (including Armenian) and other institutions do not work. If this goes on, problems may also arise for the smooth operation of Beirut International Airport. However, the most worrying fact is that the actions of the demonstrators put the already weak banking system of Lebanon under attack [14].

Hence, the collapse of infrastructures and the possible stoke of the monetary system resulted by the clashes may lead to a deterioration of living conditions. Mass outflow of population is also possible.

The Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia appealed to the Lebanese-Armenian businessmen not to fire Armenian employees in these difficult conditions, to the Lebanese-Armenian rich people to lend a hand to community institutions and families in need, as well as to other communities in the Diaspora to support the Lebanese-Armenians. The Catholicosate itself donated 100 million Lebanese gold to the families in need [15]. Moreover, 10 million Lebanese gold was donated to “Aztag”, “Zartonk” and “Ararat” by the Catholicosate “to appreciate and support their work” [16]. The matter is that the economic downturn caused by the Lebanese domestic political upheavals put the Armenian institutions, including the media, whose future is at risk, in dire financial straits.

Gathering of intellectuals on current issues of Lebanese Armenians in Mother Church of Antelias under the chairmanship of His Holiness Aram l.

Though it is a matter of serious concern that there are still no position on ensuring the security of the Armenian community if the crisis continues and deepens, however, it is one of the urgent problems. It is probable, that in case of a new civil war the Lebanese Armenians or some of them will have to leave the country again. In that case, Armenians may once again face the issue of spontaneous repatriation, which we must be prepared for in advance. We have touched upon this and other adjacent issues in our previous articles [17].

* * *

As of December 3, Lebanese political forces were discussing the issue on forming a new government. The name of Samir Khatib is circulated as a candidate for PM. Although the overall tension in the country still persists, the negotiations inspire hope for a positive solution to the issue [18]. Traditional Armenian parties hold consultations on the ways of resolving the Lebanese crisis. As well as the problems related to the Armenian community [19].

[1] Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri says he will resign amid anti-government protests

[2] Hariri addresses to the demonstrators, Zartonk, 22.10.2019։

[3] ‘It’s preposterous’: Protesters dismiss Lebanese PM promise of reform as country’s banks stay shut

[4] Pompeo Says Iraqis and Lebanese Have The Right To Get Rid Of Iran's 'Meddling'

[5] See Shahan Kandaharian’s  interviews to “Today’s Guest” TV program by “Erkir Media”, 28.11.2019 and to “CivilNet” website, 02.12.2019

[6] PM Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent

[7] For certain reasons, we refrain from disclosing his personality.

[8] V. Hovyan, Political Potential of Lebanon Armenian Community

[9] See Lebanon protesters and Hezbollah, Amal supporters clash in BeirutSecond night of clashes in Lebanon amid anti-gov't protests

[10] See “Political responsible people should make a public promise to people to get started with the process of reforms”, His Holiness Aram I Catholicos, Zartonk, 21.10.2019.

[11] 72 Ժամուայ Միջոցը Ժողովուրդը Յոգնեցնելու Կամ Խաբելու Միջո՞ց, Թէ Զայն Առաջարկողին Ինքնազգաստութեան Առիթ, Զարթօնք, 21.10.2019։

[12] H. Moskofian, Efforts to Turn People’s Upheaval into a Color Revolution Continue, New Day, 28.11.2019.

[13] Lebanon's Saad Hariri says he does not want to be next PM

[14] See Exclusive: Lebanon needs solution to crisis in days - Central bank governor

[15] Aram l Catholicos donated 100 million Lebanese gold to needy Armenian families

[16] Same link.

[17] V. Hovyan., Operation “Peace Spring” and Lebanese-Armenian community

[18] See; There are Positive Signs in the Sense of Government Formation.

[19] See Meeting between the ADL and SDHP representatives, Zartonk, 29.11.2019.