Lebanon is no stranger to crisis. But this one is different for the tiny country that straddles the geopolitical fault lines of the Middle East and endured a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. The latest unrest was triggered by pocketbook issues rather than sectarian violence or regional conflict -- which isn’t to say an economic crisis in Lebanon couldn’t lead to bigger problems in the volatile region.

1. What started the violence?

The immediate trigger for protests was a plan to impose, starting in 2020, a levy of 20 U.S. cents on the first call a user makes each day on WhatsApp, the otherwise free text-messaging and voice-calling app that has become an essential communication tool throughout the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe. Some news organizations have gone so far as to call the protests the “WhatsApp Revolution.” But the new fee was really just the tipping point to months of public frustration over the government’s inability to navigate the country out of a looming debt crisis.

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2. Why such passion over WhatsApp?

Mobile-phone charges in Lebanon are among the most expensive in the region. To save money, many Lebanese rely heavily on WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook Inc., and other free communication apps. In response to the protests, the government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said it would scrap the planned levy but the reversal came too late to calm public anger.

3. How bad is Lebanon’s economic plight?

One of the most indebted countries in the world, Lebanon is struggling to find fresh sources of funding as the foreign inflows on which it has traditionally relied have dried up. Promises of assistance from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Lebanon’s former benefactors, have largely failed to arrive. The government needs to cut spending, raise taxes and fight corruption to unlock some $11 billion in international aid pledges made at a Paris donor conference in 2018. The WhatsApp levy was going to be part of that effort. The government has also discussed gradually increasing value-added tax, currently at 11%, and levies on gasoline as part of a planned austerity budget. Many Lebanese blame decades of cronyism, corruption and profiteering among the political class for the nation’s economic plight.

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4. What could happen if the government falls?

Hariri’s administration is a fragile cohabitation of most of Lebanon’s political groupings. Opposition to austerity measures, for instance, has been led by ministers allied with Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed armed movement considered a terrorist group by the U.S., European Union and some other nations. One fear is that if Hariri and his allies resign, Lebanon could end up with a government even more dominated by Hezbollah, making it harder to attract investment and aid. Some members of Hezbollah are under U.S. sanctions, as is its Iranian sponsor, making it harder for the group to rule Lebanon without partners. Even Hariri’s key rivals inside the government have warned that a collapse in the government could hit the economy and lead to chaos.

5. What could this mean for the Middle East?

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A power vacuum or other government failure in Lebanon would have ramifications for other conflicts that keep the region on edge, including the war in neighboring Syria, the broader struggle for power between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the conflict with neighboring Israel. Hezbollah intervened in the Syrian war to help prop up President Bashar al-Assad. Hariri, on the other hand, is a Sunni Muslim traditionally backed by Saudi Arabia, and the region’s wider divisions often play out in this tiny country, with often bloody results. Israeli officials have repeatedly said they consider Hezbollah, with an arsenal Israel estimates at more than 100,000 missiles, to be a major threat. The two sides fought a 34-day war in 2006 that left about 1,200 Lebanese and 165 Israelis dead.

To contact the reporters on this story: Dana Khraiche in Beirut at dkhraiche@bloomberg.net;Lin Noueihed in Beirut at lnoueihed@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Mark Williams at mwilliams108@bloomberg.net, Laurence Arnold

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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