This OpEd is 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.
Written by Karim Merhej, Researcher and Google Policy Fellow, IFI GovLab, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut.
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.
To read the full OpEd, click here.