Beirut protest by Walid Khoury

The protests in Lebanon: a united vibrant civil society emerges in the face of corruption and divisive sectarianism

Jennifer Romanos

Jennifer Romanos

Jennifer grew up in Edde Jbeil, a small coastal town in Lebanon. She did her Bachelor studies in Life and Earth Sciences at the Lebanese University in Beirut, and her Masters at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Lyon, France. She worked at the Harvard Medical School and at the Neuroscience Center in Lyon. She later joined the Neuropharmacology Lab at the University of Zürich and obtained her PhD. Other than science, Jennifer enjoys oriental dancing, traveling, music and discussing political, environmental and social issues, especially those related to Lebanon. She loves eggplant-based food and her favorite podcast is “Intelligence Squared”.

The past two weeks have been anything but calm in Lebanon. More than a million people spontaneously took to the streets across the country and in the rest of the world to protest against corruption. Anger has united Lebanese of all social, economic and confessional backgrounds against the corrupt political class. This unprecedented revolution finally broke the sectarian barriers that have long separated people, and ignited a spark of hope for the country’s future.

In the last weeks Lebanon has been swept by major anti-corruption protests in the capital city Beirut, as well as in Tripoli, Tyr, Byblos, Baalbeck and many other cities, towns and villages across the country. The protests erupted shortly after the government announced its plan to charge 6 USD/month for Internet-based phone calls, including WhatsApp calls. The term “WhatsApp tax” coined by the major international media to define the trigger for the protests immensely diminishes the magnitude and significance of this movement.
It is not because of WhatsApp that at least a million Lebanese have left their work, schools, universities and homes to take to the streets for fourteen days in a row. It is not the reason why thousands of Lebanese living abroad have protested and stood in support of their family and friends on every continent in the world. The following idiom accurately describes it: the “WhatsApp tax” was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Before analyzing the current protests, a little background to the country’s current political and socio-economic situation is needed.

Lebanon is a democratic confessional parliamentary republic on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, with an area four times smaller than Switzerland, a population of approximately 6 million people (including 1.5 million refugees) and more than 18 religious groups. This confessional and cultural diversity has been both Lebanon’s blessing and curse. Since the end of the religious civil war that destroyed the country (1975 – 1990), sectarian and divided governments have failed to improve the country’s living conditions. In fact, corruption and decades of mismanagement have led to an ongoing financial, social and environmental crisis. One-third of Lebanese people live in poverty on less than 4 USD/day and the overall unemployment rate stands at 25%, with unemployment among youth under 25 at 37%. The emigration of its youth is still on the rise and both public and private education is getting more expensive. The majority of people do not have access to full-time electricity and water and the 2015 trash crisis has left the country in filth and desperation, with no serious and sustainable measures taken to put an end to the situation.
Throughout the decades, the corruption and incompetence of the political elites has become a sadly accepted reality in Lebanese society. While the politicians, most of whom were warlords in the civil war, became millionaires (even billionaires), the country and its people face major financial distress.

Beirut protest by Walid Khoury
Picture taken by Walid Khoury (copyright) for Culturico.

But why now?

The anger of the Lebanese has been gradually building up for a long time. In the last few months, the current government, which is composed of a coalition between the major sectarian parties from all religions, has been trying to plan a financial budget for 2020.
In this budget plan, they have proposed tax increases on gasoline, bread, tobacco and free Internet-based phone services (WhatsApp, Skype, Telegram, etc.), while they have ignored proposals to increase taxes on luxury items and big companies.
In addition, the government decreased the retirement pension of the army and policemen/women, while they ignored proposals to decrease the salaries of the president, the ministers and MPs (which are some of the highest in the world).
As a result, the last few weeks have been everything but calm: gas stations have closed throughout the country because the banks stopped supplying them with USD to pay importers and suppliers and a warning of a bakers’ strike and bread shortage led to nationwide panic. To top it all, on Monday October 14th, the country was swept by an immense ecological catastrophe. More than 100 wildfires broke out and destroyed around 1500 hectares of forest across the country over 48 hours, according to Georges Mitri, director of the land and natural resources program at the University of Balamand. The wildfires were extinguished after Cyprus, Greece, Jordan and Italy sent help and firefighting aircraft. The inability of the Lebanese government to deal with this environmental catastrophe further triggered the anger of the people. In fact, back in 2009, three firefighting Sikorsky S-70 helicopters were donated by private donors to the Lebanese government. These could not be mobilized two weeks ago because the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities decided to stop funding their maintenance back in 2013. All of this has left people furious, angry and in a state of agitation towards the ruling politicians.

Why are these protests unprecedented and historical?

For decades, the sectarian system and its political parties have succeeded in segregating the Lebanese according to their religious identity, from pro-Iran to pro-Saudi, from poor to rich. They prospered for a long time due to the fear and hatred they instilled between people.
Today, for the first time in Lebanon’s recent history, the protests were not called for by any party, by any politician, or by any religious leader. This spontaneous, leaderless movement genuinely started out of the anger and misery of the people. For the first time, Lebanese of all confessions, regions, ages and socio-cultural backgrounds took to the streets together to protest against this corrupt system and its leaders. For the first time, some people who, less than a year ago, were members of the sectarian parties, are now demanding for all of the political class to step down, chanting “Enough is enough, all means all”. Today, for the first time, even after several political leaders tried to claim this revolution as their own by pointing fingers at others, the people still did not spare any leader – be it Christian or Muslim – in their chants. Today, for the first time, people identify as Lebanese before their religious and partisan attachments. Today, the taboo and fear of protesting against Hezbollah and the Amal Movement in Baalbeck, Nabatieh and other southern towns is broken. Today, women are on the frontline of this revolution in a country that ranks 140th out of 149 in the global gender gap report. Today, the northern city of Tripoli, which has been the battleground of Islamists and extremists for long periods, is now revolting against poverty and oppression: the main square became the people’s stage to demand their rights to a decent life, to refuse corruption and to bring back life and happiness to their city by dancing and chanting in the streets.

What are the demands?

For all of the above reasons and more, the Lebanese people have endless demands. Yet, the consistent, unified and most urgent demands are made up of the following:

  • The government’s resignation due to its long history of corruption
  • The formation of a small temporary technocrat government of independent people from civil secular society
  • Early parliamentary elections
  • Full transparency of politicians’ bank accounts in Lebanon and abroad
  • The return of the billions of dollars in stolen public money by the politicians
  • Justice and punishment of all corrupt politicians


How are the politicians reacting?

After remaining silent for eight days, President Michel Aoun finally addressed Lebanon for the first time since the start of the protests through a televised speech on Thursday, 24th October. He promised to put an end to corruption through several reforms and stated that the streets are not the place to bring down the government. His speech was followed by popular anger and rejection. In addition, the leader of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah publicly announced that they do not back the protests and asked the protesters to give the government a chance, stating that this is not a good time to take down the government and lead the country into chaos. On the other hand, on Saturday evening the Lebanese Forces (a Christian party, led by former warlord Samir Geagea) resigned its four ministers from the government and tried to claim and support this anti-government revolution, a move that was heavily opposed by protesters, who consider them part of the problem. Similarly, other politicians gave statements of empathy with the people, blamed their political opponents for the situation and tried to claim the protests. In spite of this, protestors still demanded all of them to be gone. Two days after the start of the protests, the prime minister Saad Hariri, demanded in his speech a period of 72 hours to make things right in the hope of gaining time and calm on the streets. After the end of the 72 hours he announced the planned reforms that were approved and signed by the cabinet. In absolute terms, these proposed reforms seem promising and include the following:

However, instead of calming the streets, his announcement erupted a new wave of agitation. Protestors clearly stated that they have lost their trust in this political class that has continuously disappointed them in the past 30 years, and that a document full of promises drafted in 72 hours will not save the country.

Update: On Tuesday 29th of October, the Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced the government’s resignation, marking the first big achievement of this revolution.

What’s next?

Several possible scenarios could unfold. The protests could have a beneficial outcome that takes the country out of this corrupt and miserable sectarian limbo. Alternatively, they could be harmful by causing further instability and chaos, and take the country into a major financial crisis, or they could have no effect at all if the government succeeds in putting an end to the protests. Nothing is certain: the revolution could end in a couple of days or take years to do so. The concern and fear that this could lead to chaos is plausible and shared by many Lebanese. Yet, hope remains due to the presence of new political alternatives that first made a minor appearance in the 2018 parliamentary elections. For the first time, independent candidates formed secular coalitions from civil society and from all confessions with clear economic, social and environmental reforms and plans. These small secular movements have been gaining more and more support from the Lebanese population, which is demanding new and competent people with clean backgrounds to serve their country. These secular movements such as Libaladi, Beirut Madinati, Koullouna Watani and Lihaqqi have been trying to enter this messy political scene and to assure people that better alternatives to this sectarian corrupt system exist. However, there is still a long way to go for these independent movements as they still lack unity, exposure, funding and representative figures to lead them into a new era of success.

In the end, even if the system remains as it is, the October revolution has already accomplished what many thought was impossible. The Lebanese people have finally broken out of their sectarian bubble and freed themselves from the fear put upon them by the ruling system. The corrupt political elite’s thrones were shaken to the core by the screams and the power of the people. This historical moment will be remembered as the time when the Lebanese people finally united against sectarianism and corruption. They finally overcame the haunting feeling of helplessness that has been eating everyone from the inside out for decades, and reclaimed the power to decide their own destiny and future. The revolution has been filled with cultural events, parties, dancing, and singing. These festivities do not diminish in any way the seriousness and urgency of the people’s demands. They rather mirror this new joyful sense of belonging to a strong community that overcomes confessional and socio-economic barriers. This indeed is a joyful revolution that celebrates the resilient unity, the love for life, freedom and hope that have been ignited in the past few weeks.
The Lebanese people are celebrating because to them, the civil war did not end in 1990. It is now, in 2019, that this vibrant revolution draws the final curtain on the Lebanese civil war.

 

Jennifer Romanos

 

Received: 23.10.19, Ready: 28.10.19, Editors: FG, AFB.

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