Foreign workers subjected to the kafala system, which deprives them of their basic civil and human rights, also saw their conditions deteriorate considerably. The majority of these workers are women from African and Southeast Asian countries. Their demands for repatriation have recently increased, especially after hundreds of them were recently abandoned by their employers and dumped in front of their consulates, often without money, food, or even their official documents. A number of obstacles prevent many people from leaving, including the cost of airfare, unpaid wages, and the failure of employers to return passports to many migrant workers.
Similarly, Syrian refugees have continued to suffer impoverishment and forms of abuses. Nearly 91% of them live on less than USD 3.80 a day. Out of every ten Syrian refugee families, nine have reached levels of extreme poverty, compared to only 55% last year, according to Unicef. At the same time, they continue to be pressured by the state and some political actors to return to Syria, despite the continuous violations of human rights by the Syrian dictatorship.3In mid-September, Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi, for instance, claimed that Syrian refugees do not want to go back to Syria and that they prefer to stay in Lebanon, despite the fact that their country is now safe according to him. This would mean that their return should not be voluntary, and that the Lebanese state should enforce it. In addition, Patriarch al-Rahi sent a letter to the Pope asking him to change his position on refugees, claiming that Syrian refugees in Lebanon are Sunni Muslims, which puts the country’s defining features at risk. Amnesty International issued a report on September 7, 2021 in which it documented cases of torture, enforced disappearance, sexual violence, and death, targeting returnees to Syria over the last four years. The report concluded that “no part of Syria is safe to return to.” See: https://www.facebook.com/MegaphoneNews/posts/2958351731049288”
Meanwhile, the repression against the protest movement increased over the course of 2020 and 2021. The Internal Security Forces and Parliament Police did not hesitate to use excessive force—including live ammunition, rubber pellets, and tear gas—against peaceful protesters on several occasions, while failing to protect them from armed supporters of neoliberal sectarian political parties. Lebanese authorities also harassed journalists and activists, including through the use of defamation laws and the undue restriction of people’s right to exercise their freedom of expression. Between October 2019 and June 2020, security and military agencies interrogated seventy-five individuals, including twenty journalists, in relation to spurious charges of defamation—but all they had done was to criticize authorities in social media posts. But none of these agencies are mandated with investigating issues of free speech!
Neoliberal Sectarian Parties Trying to Consolidate Their Power
The COVID-19’s pandemic and economic crises represented an opportunity for neoliberal sectarian parties to consolidate and/or maintain their popular basis, after increasing criticisms following the October 2019 Lebanese uprising. Dominant neoliberal sectarian parties engaged in various campaigns such as sanitizing public spaces, distributing food to the needy, and raising awareness in an attempt to restore their image, but without the same financial capacities and reach.
The Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea, for instance, provided bread and petrol vouchers to its members and supporters, alongside a health support system in various regions, such as Zahle and Bcharre, where they distributed medicines for free and guaranteed other forms of drugs at a reduced price. Ziad Hawat, a businessman and MP of the party, also funded a form of public transport network in the region of Jbeil. Meanwhile, the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) headed by Walid Jumblatt4In a study conducted by Gherbal platform published in 2021, the data collected at this period placed the leader of the PSP, Walid Joumblatt, at the top of the podium of politicians owning properties in Lebanon, with 505 properties in his name, mostly in the Chouf. His father, Kamal Jumblatt established the PSP in 1949. also delivered food boxes, fuel, and aid in the Chouf region. The allotment of anti-COVID vaccines was also employed as a form of political clientelism. The Qubayyat town council, in the northern region of Akkar, announced in late March 2021, for example, that it would vaccinate some of its residents with Chinese vaccines secured thanks to a donation from Saad Hariri’s family, who heads the Future Movement.5Saad Hariri is the leader of the Future Movement and son of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri assassinated in an explosion in 2005. Rafic Hariri had deep connections with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and had amassed a large fortune in the Saudi construction and public works sector. In Lebanon itself, he established an independent network of services and charitable activities, including the provision of education, healthcare, jobs, food and financial aid, targeting mainly Sunni but benefiting other communities as well. This business network gave him an important social base in the country’s predominantly clientelist system. The Hariri family in Lebanon is the wealthiest family, with the Miqati, in Lebanon.
In this context, Hezbollah has been one of the main actors benefiting from the financial crisis, largely due to its extensive networks of institutions and resources, which have expanded continuously since the late 1980s. With the deepening economic crisis in Lebanon since October 2019, Hezbollah also launched or supported several charitable initiatives targeting low-income households throughout 2020 and 2021. These include cooperative grocery shops known as Makahzen Nour, which are only accessible to customers holding discount cards provided by the party (and their guests), and an expanded number of loans from the institution al-Qard al-Hassan, which became the largest microcredit organization in the country in the aftermath of the October 2019 financial crisis. This institution now employs nearly five hundred people and has around thirty branches throughout the country, almost all of them in predominantly Shi’a areas. The association had more than 400,000 contributors and allocated over 200,000 microloans in 2019 alone, totaling USD 500 million.