Lebanese activists and journalists say they fear the Hezbollah-led Cabinet could be using the COVID-19 pandemic as justification to further consolidate its power through targeting dissent.
A state of emergency announced March 15 introduced strict restrictions on citizens. Activists deemed the step a "security plan” that lacks regard for public health. They say the government could use its expanded powers to imprison activists who were involved in organizing protests last October.
“The government activated criminal laws to arrest and charge people at a time that it did not stop flights from [coronavirus] epicenters like Iran and ignored taking necessary measures to protect the people,” Jad Yateem, an activist and founding member of LiquaaTeshrin, told VOA.
LiquaaTeshrin is a group formed by Lebanese activists who demand government reform. The group last week called on the Lebanese government to change its state of emergency in the face the spread of the virus in the country. It said the government needed more effective measures to safeguard society’s health and livelihood.
Lebanon has registered at least 333 coronavirus cases, and the number is growing, particularly in Beirut.
Since the announcement of the state of emergency, the government has shut public institutions and private businesses, closed ports and borders, and ordered its citizens to stay home unless they had an extreme need to get out. Activists see all of this as an unprecedented effort to increase the powers of the army and police without providing people with alternatives to secure their daily needs.
“There is no transparency in revealing the readiness of the health sector’s ability in Lebanon to deal with this issue, because this might uncover the amount of corruption,” Yateem said, adding that many Lebanese families are unable to obtain essential needs during the lockdown.
“Now this crisis is being used as a cover-up for former mistakes and to pass more political and economic gains by the ruling elite,” he said.
The epidemic comes as the country is facing its worst financial crisis in decades. Human Rights Watch said in a report last Tuesday that the virus spread had placed an additional strain on the deteriorating health sector marked by a scarcity of medical supplies.
The watchdog group in a separate report this month accused the government of pursuing a “spate of prosecutions” against journalists and activists critical of alleged government. The campaign was threatening free speech in the country, whose constitution says “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression,” it said.
“Lebanon’s criminal defamation laws are being instrumentalized by the powerful to silence many of the activists involved in the nationwide protest movement,” the HRW report said.
Protests in Lebanon erupted in October after the government decided to increase taxes and gasoline prices. The demands of the protesters evolved to include combating alleged corruption and mismanagement by the ruling class. The widening protests later that month forced Saad Hariri to resign as prime minister.
Many Lebanese politicians opposing the new Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, say it is made up of Hezbollah and its allies. The new government, they argue, is excluding the mainstream Sunni bloc led by Hariri’s Future Party.
Some Lebanese experts say the economic and health crises, along with a growing discontent among the population, could take the country to the brink of collapse. The country’s officials say they are doing their best to salvage the economy, but the government's US $80 billion debt and increased instability are slowing their progress.
“People don’t trust in this government and they don’t really know if they stopped the flights from Iran despite the government’s announcement that they did close the airport,” Hanin Ghaddar, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, told VOA.
Hezbollah is a Shiite radical group founded in 1982 and supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The United States considers the group a terrorist organization that aims to advance Iran’s agenda in the Middle East.
When Iran became the first country in the region to record cases of coronavirus, the Lebanese government came under intense criticism from the opposition groups who said the government was unwilling to suspend flights with Iran because of Tehran’s influence. To add to their frustrations, Lebanon’s first confirmed case of the virus was a woman who had returned from Iran.
The Hezbollah-led government initially rejected any reports about the outbreak, threatening to arrest journalists who reported on the case. Ghaddar of the Washington Institute said the government’s initial denial and attacks on freedom of speech have only deepened the mistrust of the people.
“With Hezbollah being in power today, if everything goes bad it will backlash against its government, because by the end of the day, they will be held accountable as the authority before the Lebanese people,” she added.