IFI Op-ed #26: Lebanon’s Shock Doctrine: Crushing Civil Liberties amidst a Pandemic and an Economic Crisis
Karim Merhej| Friday, July 3, 2020
In the early 1960s, the late Raymond Edde claimed, perhaps with some exaggeration, that Lebanon had become a police state. At the time, Lebanon’s military intelligence – the notorious Deuxieme Bureau close to then-president Fuad Chehab – was increasingly playing an active role in politics, exerting pressure on the country’s media and political elites, often on an extrajudicial basis, in order to promote the Chehabist socioeconomic and political agenda, and silence dissident voices.
This era is long gone, but clampdowns on civil liberties, especially the rights to freedom of assembly and expression, have not dissipated. As a matter of fact, such clampdowns have been on the rise in recent years and accentuated more recently as Lebanon began to gradually bear the brunt of a brewing economic crisis. The novel coronavirus pandemic in Lebanon has only exacerbated this rapid downturn in civil liberties. Powerful figures in the political establishment and their crony allies in the private sector are making use of the state’s judicial branch and security apparatus to silence any opposition, be it online or offline, with the economic and financial meltdown alongside the coronavirus pandemic only adding more fuel to the fires.
Many have long imagined a certain “Lebanese exceptionalism” when thinking about freedom and civil liberties in the country, naively believing that Lebanon, uniquely in the region, enjoys such freedoms. Moving beyond such false narratives is of the utmost necessity, as our very basic civil liberties are being rapidly undermined.
“Many have long imagined a certain “Lebanese exceptionalism” when thinking about freedom and civil liberties in the country, naively believing that Lebanon, uniquely in the region, enjoys such freedoms.”
Economic Turmoil and Shrinking Civil Liberties
No country is devoid of human rights abuses and infringements on civil liberties by law enforcement officials. In countries with authoritarian regimes, such abuses tend to be systemic and rampant. In democratic states with transparent judicial proceedings and active civil societies, such abuses tend to be isolated and perpetrators are held accountable for their acts. However, regardless of the political system in place, periods of economic turmoil and social unrest lead to drastic increases in state-sanctioned repression and human rights abuses.
When oil prices plunged in 2014 and 2015, many oil-reliant states, with less-than-stellar human rights records, doubled down on repression, due to the fears that austerity measures implemented following declining oil-derived revenues would trigger widespread unrest. In Angola and Azerbaijan, two oil-reliant countries, repression and intimidation of journalists, lawyers, human rights activists and civil society organizations significantly increased. In Saudi Arabia, the number of death sentences skyrocketed since 2015, as authorities have struggled to cope with the socioeconomic shocks that the sustained drop of oil prices has had on the kingdom.
However, economic crises do not only lead to intensified repression in authoritarian regimes. The widespread anti-austerity protests in Europe in 2011 and 2012 were met with their fair share of harsh repression and human rights abuses. As Greece was heading towards “the worst recession in modern history”, Greek law enforcement officials used violent measures to disperse protests. Numerous human rights violations were documented, including the use of excessive force, arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment during detention. Peaceful protestors, journalists, the elderly and even medical professionals were targeted mercilessly, while no punishments were meted out to the police. The situation was similar in Spain, then also struggling with a debilitating economic crisis.
“When oil prices plunged in 2014 and 2015, many oil-reliant states, with less-than-stellar human rights records, doubled down on repression, due to the fears that austerity measures implemented following declining oil-derived revenues would trigger widespread unrest.”
Shrinking Civil Liberties in Lebanon
Lebanon has no laws protecting online freedom of expression, which has led to an unmistakable alarming trend to be observed since the outbreak of the ‘garbage protests’ in the summer of 2015 and the general economic downturn the country has experienced since then: Vague provisions in the country’s defamation and incitement laws, alongside an all-too-permissive judiciary and security apparatus, have allowed the country’s political elites to effectively and systematically silence activists, journalists, and citizens who criticize them on social media platforms, fostering a climate of self-censorship.
Such blatant instrumentalization of the law only worsened with the outbreak of the uprising in October 2019. A large number of individuals were called in for questioning by the Cybercrime Bureau due to their social media posts, from everyday citizens participating in the protests, to committed activists, prominent bloggers, journalists and media personalities.
The shrinking space for free expression has not been confined solely to the Internet. Alongside the excessive force used by the security forces, many protesters were arbitrarily arrested and subjected to humiliating and harsh treatment during their confinement, with no option to contact their families or a lawyer. Some minors were even arrested for removing posters of a political party.
In addition to the security apparatus’ violent response, non-state actors close to the ruling establishment were also involved in attempts at quashing the uprising and instilling fear among protesters. Thugs affiliated with political parties violently attacked unarmed protesters, burned their tents, and even terrorized specific individuals who had criticized particular political leaders.
The Shock Doctrine in Lebanon
Moments of dramatic crises – be it an economic and financial meltdown, a natural disaster or a severe political crisis – are often a time when political elites take advantage of the general population’s fears and distractions to pass highly unpopular measures. Journalist and activist Naomi Klein convincingly dubbed this phenomenon the ‘Shock Doctrine’ in her highly influential 2007 book. It appears that the Lebanese political establishment is using this age-old doctrine given the economic and financial meltdown Lebanon is experiencing coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic. Taking advantage of the fact that citizens are by-and-large wary of congregating in crowded spaces out of fears of the virus’ diffusion, and that many rightfully fear protesting due to the usage of excessive violence by the security apparatus, many unpopular and problematic measures have been passed in record time.
The military court dropped charges waged against the Butcher of Khiam, on whose hands thousands of inmates were tortured during the civil war in the notorious Khiam prison. The much-maligned practice of muhasasa – distributing senior positions in the public sector based on the appointees’ political alignment and sect rather than on their qualifications – manifested itself in senior appointments in the Central Bank and the Ministry of Economy and Trade. Tents in Martyrs Square, in place since October and which were the de facto homes of many vulnerable and needy individuals, were destroyed by the security apparatus under the guise of enforcing the coronavirus curfew. A State Prosecutor even tasked law enforcement authorities to investigate public posts on social media outlets to identify individuals who criticize and denigrate the presidency.
“The shrinking space for free expression has not been confined solely to the Internet. Alongside the excessive force used by the security forces, many protesters were arbitrarily arrested and subjected to humiliating and harsh treatment”
Even though it is relatively easy to identify the thugs who attacked peaceful protesters as numerous photos and videos documenting their actions exist, no action was taken by the state security apparatus towards holding them accountable. Similarly, security officials who shot rubber bullets and led to several protesters losing an eye have not been reprimanded.
The Lebanese state has been rendered deliberately dysfunctional by the ruling political class throughout the years. Yet, this same political class has ensured that the state is capable of targeting the weak and powerless, while deliberately turning a blind eye to the crimes committed by the powerful and special interest groups (from banks to the political establishment, their allied crony capitalists and their thugs) who remain above the law. In times of dramatic socioeconomic turmoil and the coronavirus pandemic, Raymond Edde’s fears of Lebanon becoming a police state are becoming more and more valid. As the economic meltdown will only worsen in the upcoming months, a meltdown brought about by the mismanagement, corruption and cronyism of the ruling political establishment, we should not turn a blind eye to the fact that our civil liberties are rapidly being eroded, and actively fight to preserve them. Lebanon’s political elites have already taken away so much from us – the last thing we should allow them to do is to take away our voices as well.
“The Lebanese state has been rendered deliberately dysfunctional by the ruling political class throughout the years. Yet, this same political class has ensured that the state is capable of targeting the weak and powerless”
Arabic ||| العربية
Karim Merhej, Researcher and Google Policy Fellow, IFI GovLab, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut.
part of a new series launched by the AUB Issam Fares Institute to reflect on the impact of the #COVID-19 pandemic on various levels: the economy (global, and national), globalization, multilateralism, international cooperation, public health systems, educational system, refugee response, among other topics.