In Lebanon, Unexpected Protests Bring Hope to a Country Plagued by Crisis and Corruption
On 27 October 2019, day 11 of anti-government protests, tens of thousands of Lebanese men, women and children formed a human chain of 107 kilometres, from the northern city of Tripoli through the capital Beirut to the southern city of Tyre. The goal was to show national unity in a country often divided along sectarian lines and to underline that the mobilization has not weakened yet. Two days later, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned.
Many never believed it would happen, as the Lebanese fear of another civil war if they let go of their political leaders – who were often warlords during the war and now act as community protectors – has largely kept people from taking to the streets. But on 17 October, large-scale protests erupted after a series of measures and incidents that suggested their government cares little for their wellbeing.
The protest movement achieved a major victory with the resignation of the prime minister, who said during a televised speech that he intended to make a “positive shock” by stepping down, claiming that doing so served “the country’s dignity and safety”.
Lebanon is facing a currency crisis that is threatening to send the country, which is already on shaky economic ground, into complete bankruptcy. For over 20 years, the Lebanese lira has been pegged to the dollar to prevent hyperinflation and economic collapse following the end of the civil war in 1990, and $1 corresponded to a fixed rate of 1,500 lira. In recent weeks, the lira peg has slipped and banks are trying to keep whatever supply of dollars they have, as Lebanese nationals and residents try to withdraw the currency from their accounts.
The economic situation provoked widespread anger, but no major action was taken until wildfires broke out across the country. The government failed to respond to the fires, which raged for three days from 14 to 16 October, until providential rain put an end to them.
The following day, the government announced a new tax on top of existing austerity measures, this one affecting many people’s means of communication. As phone credit is expensive, people generally communicate via phone applications such as WhatsApp and Viber that use the internet and allow free messages and calls. The government planned to impose a tax of $6 a month on the use of these apps as well as introducing new taxes on tobacco and gasoline.
Anger over these plans drove hundreds of thousands of protestors onto the streets on 17 October with the call for thawra (revolution). The movement has only grown since then, reaching over a million participants or a quarter of the population.
“This has been an anticipated movement for years, but Lebanese people needed a push even though they always had a good motive: the corrupt political system that is handling every aspect of our government and economy,” Luna Safwan, a journalist for Vice Arabia, told Fanack.
“Knowing that this time is different because Lebanon is on the edge of a real economical breakdown, indicators were many in the past few months like the increase of taxes and prices, so this movement is what some people are calling ‘the last straw of hope’. It’s also super important because it is decentralized and entities of different sects and political background are participating in the protests in different areas.”
In short, protestors are united for a better leadership and life, which none of their sectarian leaders have ever given them. An attempt by Shiite parties allied with Hezbollah and Amal’s followers was made to disrupt the protests on 24 October, although both parties denied any involvement, with scuffles between supporters and protestors in the south of the country and Beirut, leading the police to intervene.
“Honestly, when we were in the streets and these events started taking place, I was not very surprised, but I was worried that it might bring people down and it might remind people that there are political parties to fear because they might hurt you if you dare to disagree,” Safwan said. “I had to wait and see how the turn-out would be the next day. The next day was a complete surprise as the protestors not only doubled, but they even dared to block a highway, which is very close to a critical sensitive area that hosts many Amal and Hezbollah supporters, and the protestors were not backing off. This also proved to me that this movement is here to make some serious changes, even if this means sacrificing time and energy and taking risks.”
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made a televised speech on 25 October, warning that nationwide protests calling for the overthrow of the government could lead to chaos and civil war. He praised the protesters for achieving “unprecedented” economic reforms but also suggested foreign intervention played a role in the demonstrations.
Back on the streets, people seemed to have heard enough of these speeches to feel genuinely scared. “All of them means all of them,” they chanted, in reference to the demand for the country’s entire cabinet to be replaced, including Hezbollah.
However, Amal and Hezbollah supporters made their presence known again on 29 October, with large groups of youths overrunning protest sites in central Beirut. They ransacked tents and stalls set up by protestors, an act that forced the police to intervene but elicited no political action.
The government has, so far, responded only once to protestors’ demands for an emergency reform package, which failed to defuse the anger. On 21 October, Hariri presented the reforms as a “financial coup”, saying that the salaries of top officials, including legislators and members of parliament, will be cut in half.
He added that the country’s central bank and the banking sector, which are flush with cash, will help in reducing the deficit by about $3.4 billion in 2020. The cabinet also approved the abolition of several state institutions, including the Ministry of Information, and cutting by 70 per cent the budget of other state agencies such as the one in charge of development and construction, while distributing millions of dollars to families living in poverty and extending $160 million in housing loans in an attempt to revive the struggling construction sector.
The plan is unrealistic, according to Safwan. “They [the political leaders] are already hearing the streets, but I think that the reform paper they suggested to try and please people is not realistic. So, the short answer is they are hearing what they wish to hear, and they think that people will get bored and eventually give up if they give us a couple of solutions, even if they are not attainable. I suppose that what is needed now is to put more pressure on the government so they start listening actively. People don’t want momentary solutions anymore; they want long-term ones, and this starts once the cabinet resigns and the parliament dissolves and then prepares early elections.”
Hariri’s resignation could signal the start of a wave of resignations, if other leaders realize the time has come for them to pass the political baton to more qualified candidates.
Beyond the historical moment Lebanon is experiencing now, the overriding feeling is one of renewed hope. “I was abroad for work, and the moment the streets became real and the protests started getting bigger, I booked a flight back because I had a feeling that this was something not to be missed,” Safwan said. “I’ve been participating in almost every major protest since 2005 in Lebanon, and this is by far the most inclusive movement and the strongest one because it’s [not aligned with a particular] political party. Being in the streets daily for the past days made me feel hopeful, in a time in which I had almost completely lost hope in this country. It also made me feel more responsible, and I have a feeling that this time Lebanon will pay me back for whatever sacrifices I make.”
Many have also noted the humour around the events and the general sense of celebration. For example, an article in The National lists the best moments from the protests, such as crowds singing the ‘‘Baby shark’ song to a scared toddler, coming up with an insulting song for Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil, getting married during the protests, clubbing in the streets or just chilling in a plastic pool amid the chaos.
Women have been conspicuously present during the protests, making sure they are heard and respected, and Lebanese living abroad have come home to lend their support. On day 12 of the protests, people came up with original ways of blocking the roads, such as organizing highway yoga sessions.
Despite the fun and hope, many of the issues that sparked the protests have yet to be resolved. What is clear is that Lebanon deserves better, and the protestors believe they have a chance of making a better Lebanon a reality.
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Yahya ibn Abi Kathir (769-848)