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Lebanon’s government resigned. Here are three possibilities for what’s next.

One, of course, is listening to protesters’ demands for reforms.

- October 31, 2019

On Tuesday, 13 days into the civilian-led uprising-turned-revolution, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned. This resignation, nine months after the government was formed, resulted primarily from the pressure in the streets throughout the country.

The Lebanese government has once again failed to deliver on much-needed economic and sociopolitical reforms. What comes next? Almost any possibility is determined by the character and momentum of the protests, especially the continued pressure on the government. Here are three possible directions for the government’s next steps.

1. Politicians could try to maintain the status quo.

My research shows that cross-sectarian bargains between Lebanon’s political elite are resilient and tend to form after moments of crises. However, the massive, unprecedented and leaderless uprising that began on Oct. 17 and quickly spread across Lebanon has emerged as a new force on the political landscape.

There are two possibilities for the current political class to prevent any meaningful change to the existing regime. First, based on constitutional procedures, the resigned government has become a caretaker one. Its functions are limited and mostly administrative; but many caretaker governments in the past lasted for months. This possibility would allow the current state of affairs to continue and the political class to exploit fears of a political vacuum that they helped create.

The second possibility is forming a government — probably under the leadership of the resigned Hariri — with a new class of public officials that are partisan but experienced professionals. Even a call to form a “rescue government” or simply one of technocrats is not unique in Lebanon’s political history. But in the current context, a technocracy under the leadership of Hariri or other nominees that represents different political factions is another savvy way for the political elite to stall much-needed reforms.

Both possibilities, broadly conceived as national unity governments representing almost all sectarian and political factions in parliament, will probably mitigate new rounds of sanctions, weather some of the repercussions of the growing economic crisis and probably unlock some of the promised economic aid from the CEDRE conference. By abusing the lack of confidence in the public sector and growing debt that pushed people to the streets, the new government could seek to rectify the deteriorating economic situation in several ways. It could promise serious reforms, including tax cuts, austerity measures that restrict public spending and wages for former and current public officials, and initiatives to encourage foreign direct investments.

However, as long as protesters remain committed to demonstrating and peacefully blocking critical roads to disrupt “business as usual,” the political class will not be able to dismiss their demands and simply refurbish the status quo by introducing and promising meager reforms. The people of the October 17 uprising have become the de facto shadow government. They monitor and gauge the credibility and effectiveness of different plans for reform. Pulling off another cross-sectarian political pact in today’s climate is much less feasible.

2. A one-sided and polarizing government might emerge.

The bargaining process between blocs in parliament and the political elite is daunting, especially because it involves divvying up ministerial portfolios, including ones that are crucial to maintaining popular support. The momentum and character of the protests suggest that many political leaders across different sects and political orientations are losing popularity in their communities. The open criticism of all political and religious leaders — including Nabih Berri, the speaker of the parliament and head of the Amal Movement, and Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hezbollah — in the streets of Lebanon is new. Politicians who refuse to participate in a national unity government will probably be able to garner support in their respective communities. However, a one-sided government representing only some factions in parliament is worrisome for two reasons.

The first materializes if President Michel Aoun nominates, through negotiations with heads of different parliamentary blocs, one of Hariri’s political opponents that is supported by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. If successful — and this will be hard to pull off, especially as it requires support from parliamentary blocs to command a majority — this will become a deja vu of the political competition between the March 8 and March 14 blocs that emerged after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. The danger here is that the refurbished March 14 bloc, broadly consisting of the Christian Lebanese Forces and Lebanese Kataeb, the predominantly Druze Progressive Socialist Party, and the mostly Sunni Future Movement, will continue to ride the revolutionary wave and present themselves as the “new” opposition to the ruling regime. This will allow these parties and their allies to restore their popularity and a small degree of legitimacy in the street.

The second, related concern is that a one-sided government will more likely lead to a new period of confrontation between political parties with clear sectarian overtones. This could result in the possibility of armed clashes similar to those that occurred in May 2008. In addition to the recent use of violence by groups close to the Amal Movement and Hezbollah, the popular protests will be dangerously framed along the lines of fighting Hezbollah’s growing power. This could spark a renewed wave of pressure on the party to give up its arms in line with various U.N. Security Council Resolutions that began in 2004. Importantly, it will undoubtedly lead to a new round of U.S. sanctions on Lebanon and increase the possibility of a new war between Hezbollah and Israel.

3. Or protesters’ demands could be met with the creation of a revolutionary government.

Protesters view the collapse of the Hariri government as the first step to overhaul the sectarian political system. The second is the possibility of forming a new transitional government including members from civil society organizations, especially nonpartisan academics and apolitical technocrats. It is what many are aspiring to achieve.

The people in the streets of Lebanon have succeeded in challenging how their leaders use sectarianism as a tool to divide and rule. They are not fighting Hezbollah but, rather, different movements, institutions and parties that continue to sustain the current political regime. What follows would be protesters’ continued push for sociopolitical and economic reforms. These would probably be pursued through early parliamentary elections and the subsequent formation of a government representative of the peoples’ demands and responsive to the October Revolution’s calls for change.

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Jeffrey G. Karam (@JGKaram) is an assistant professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. He is also an associate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Middle East Initiative. He is the editor of the forthcoming book “The Middle East in 1958: Reimagining a Revolutionary Year.”