The lasting change from Lebanon’s mass protests

Spring in Autumn

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  • A proposed levy on WhatsApp might have been the trigger for the October protests, but its backdrop was years of mismanagement and corruption that have brought the Lebanese economy to the brink.
  • The outburst of popular protests occurred throughout the country, unifying Lebanese from across socioeconomic divides. Unseen in previous protests was the breakdown of the barrier of fear, from Tripoli to Sour, protesters chanted out against their own political leaders with kullon ya’ni kullon (all of them means all of them) the rallying cry of the protests.
  • The October protests saw the wide participation and leadership of women and youth.
  • No matter the economic or political outcomes of the protests, a cultural and social shift has been unleashed within Lebanon.

Nour Square in Tripoli overflowing with protesters chanting in unison for the fall of the system and dancing to music spun by a live DJ. Men and women across the country have broken free of sectarian shackles, calling out the political class en masse. Street vendors selling kaak and corn on the cob in the streets of Downtown Beirut previously inaccessible to them in favor of high-end cafes and shops. Crowds of people dancing, chanting “hela hela,” “kullon yani kullon,” and the famous Arab Spring slogan of “ash-sha’ab yurid iskat an-nizam,” among others, or participating in public debates in “the Egg” and other reclaimed public spaces in Downtown Beirut. Countless Lebanese of all ages and backgrounds, and in regions all across the country fill up city squares and go on live television to voice their frustration and anger with an economic reality that was brought about by deep-rooted corruption and the entrenchment of the sectarian political order. Protesters across the country began setting up roadblocks that were at times removed by the authorities only to be reformed, sometimes multiple times per day. The most striking example of which was the roadblock on the Fouad Chehab bridge, known as the ring, which connects east and west Beirut, where protesters got creative, bringing sofas and fridges to block off the highway and on the 11th day of the protests posting the area on AirBnB as “Beit el-sha’ab,” which translates to “the people’s home.”

Those participating in mass protests have been united in their calls for a technocratic government and new elections under a new law.

These are just some moments of the October uprising in Lebanon, at the time of writing in its 13th day, which is being described as the tipping point and a game changer for the country. Those protesting—at one point media estimates put numbers at a quarter of the Lebanese population—succeeded in shutting down the country through blocking roads and organizing a general strike. Banks and schools have remained closed since the second day of the protests, despite some attempts to open the latter. A leaderless movement—an initial strength but as time goes on increasingly perceived as a weakness—those participating in mass protests have been united in their calls for the resignation of the government, a technocratic government put in its place to address immediate economic concerns, the calling of new elections, a more proportional electoral law, and the overthrowing of the post-war sectarian system. Their first victory came just three days into the protests, with the resignation of the four Lebanese Forces ministers from the government. Ten days later, on the 13th day of protests, one marred by violence against protesters from Amal and Hezbollah supporters, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation, and by extension, the resignation of his unity government. In the streets, the crowds chased away by the earlier violence returned and celebrated their victory, however, to these protesters the prime minister’s resignation was just one important step on a long path toward much needed reforms and fundamental change in Lebanon.

When enough became enough

Initial protests were sparked by local media reports on a series of proposed taxes that cabinet discussed in line with the 2020 budget. When it emerged that cabinet had agreed to impose a tax on Voice over Internet Protocol services, which would have resulted in a charge on the use of WhatsApp calls up to $6 per month on top of by regional standards high phone bills (two to three times those of regional peers), this was seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was not, however, the underlying cause of this October uprising, as was initially naively reported in both local and international media.   

Photo by Greg Demarque | Executive

Our own coverage of the Lebanon economy over the past 20 years has shown time and again what needed to be addressed to prevent a looming economic crisis (see Executive’s 2019 Economic Roadmap). As we entered into this October, Lebanese had faced multiple gas station strikes and strikes from bakeries over difficulties that gas distributors and wheat importers had in securing dollars at the official rate to pay for imports. Fear over the potential dollar shortage was stoked by residents facing issues withdrawing dollars from ATMs and banks, trouble depositing Lebanese lira in dollar accounts, and increasingly higher unofficial exchange rates.

In the days leading up to the protest, Lebanese literally watched in horror as some of the worst wildfires in over a decade spread across the country aided by a heatwave and high winds, with the Chouf and Metn areas particularly hard hit. Over two days, Lebanon lost at least 1,200 hectares of forest according to George Mitri, director of the land and natural resources program at the University of Balamand, who was cited in several media reports. Added to the 1,300 hectares already lost this year, the annual average due to wildfires, Lebanon doubled its annual losses in the span of 48 hours. And while the Lebanese banded together to provide aid to those displaced, and food and water for the unpaid civil defense teams who fought the fires, it emerged that the country was in possession of three firefighting helicopters—donated by citizens who had raised millions of dollars for their purchase back in 2009—that the government had failed to maintain. To add insult to injury, Free Patriotic Movement MP Mario Aoun came on a local TV station to question why these fires were targeting Christian areas—a statement as categorically untrue as it was moronic. It is against this backdrop that when it was announced that the cabinet had decided on regressive tax measures, including the tax on WhatsApp, hundreds of people took to the streets. Across the country, the common call was for the downfall of the corrupt and inept regime. The Lebanese revolt had begun.

The times they are a changin’

The first line in the Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasm al-Shabbi’s “The Will of Life” translates into, “If one day a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call.” With the October uprising, it seems that the Lebanese people have loudly and clearly chosen life. Regardless of whether fate will answer their call or not, their desire to live has manifested itself in ways that cannot be taken away from them.  

The most powerful outcome of the October protests is the breakdown of the barrier of fear across Lebanon that had prevented the people of Lebanon’s various sects from openly questioning leaders. For the first time in recent memory, Lebanese from Tripoli to Sour—through Nabatieh, Saida, Batroun, Beirut, and others—were publicly criticizing and cursing those in the government from Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil to Speaker Nabih Berri to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and, following his first speech on the third day of protests where he backed the current government, even Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah.

Across the country, the common call was for the downfall of the corrupt and inept regime. The Lebanese revolt had begun. 

While protesters in Nabatieh and Sour were met with aggression by supporters of Amal and Hezbollah, the majority still persisted in their critiques and demands that the government resign. The economic reality of the majority of Lebanese—the bottom 50 percent receive just 10 percent of the national income—has led to an unprecedented breakdown in the current sectarian order. Across the country, and particularly outside the capital, Lebanese citizens decided that is was no longer acceptable for them to struggle to find work to support themselves and their families, while the politician they had blindly supported grew richer at their expense. Lebanese realized their roles in keeping these politicians in their chairs and entrusting them with the job of securing their basic rights as citizens. If the government does not deliver, then they, the people, have the power to hold them accountable—and so they did. 

Photo by Greg Demarque | Executive

The resignation of Hariri’s government affirmed Lebanese people’s new-found faith in their power to effect change in their country, and there is no turning back now. Even if the protesters do end up leaving the streets and opening roads, they now know they can go back down again and demand change when needed. The anger and the power that has been released cannot be easily bottled up again.   

Another rarely seen before outcome of the protests is the spontaneous unity among Lebanese across sects and social classes. The fact that an estimated 1 million people gathered across Lebanon on October 20, without any call from a political party or sect leader to do so, is truly heartwarming. Reciting both the Fatihah and the Rosary in Jal el-Dib is unprecedented. Public space has been reclaimed as a long soulless Downtown Beirut becomes the balad again, alive with street vendors, town hall-style debates—a place for all people to gather. In Martyr’s Square and Riad el-Solh, university students and intellectuals can be found alongside moped riders, coordinating on roadblocks.

The resignation of Hariri’s government affirmed Lebanese people’s new-found faith in their power to effect change.

And while accusations that the protests have, over time, become more middle class are valid, there have still been important steps toward breaking down class barriers and shifting to more horizontal alliances. That sense of caution and fear that many Lebanese have of “the other”—whether that other is from a different sect or a different social background—has also been broken as the realization that we are all suffering from the same economic strains under the corrupt system becomes clearer. In Tripoli, long seen as a bastion of Sunni extremism, they chanted in solidarity with the protesters of Sour. 

Breakdown of a protest

While Lebanese of all ages are participating in the protests, they are largely sustained by the youth who did not live through the civil war and are thus less cautious and more optimistic than their parents’ generation that change can be achieved without a descent into violence.  

The role of women in October’s uprising also needs to be highlighted. One of the most iconic images, taken on the first day of the protests, was of protester Malak Alaywe kicking one of Education Minister Akram Chehayeb’s armed bodyguards in the groin. After the first two days, when protesters were met with tear gas and rubber bullets by the riot police in response to mild provocations from the crowd, day three saw women standing on the frontlines, creating a barrier between security forces and the male protesters to prevent the escalation of violence. Tripoli’s Jana Jammal became another icon of the revolution when she spoke about being a university graduate unable to find a job without wasta and about her mother’s healthcare issues. Across social media, other examples emerged. In Riad el-Solh and the public gardens in its vicinity, women are leading debates on public spaces, anti-sectarianism, and the way forward after the
protests.

The protests have affirmed that women and youth, both of whom are traditionally marginalized in Lebanon’s patriarchal political system, are capable leaders.

When they try to fight back

Mahatma Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Lebanon’s revolt has passed through these three stages and has secured its first major victory with the resignation of Hariri. What was striking throughout the past 13 days was the protesters’ persistence and their insistence to persevere with their peaceful approach despite security forces forcing open roads and counter-revolutionary forces attacking them.

The political elite’s response to these protests—until Hariri’s resignation—was lacking. Hariri addressed the protesters on the second day, announcing a 72-hour deadline for the cabinet to agree on reforms. When these reforms were announced, they were met with general distrust from protesters. It took over a week for the president of the republic to address the crisis, doing so in a prerecorded and short statement that also failed to address demands. After an initial speech on day two, backing the government, Bassil—the subject of a lot of the protesters’ ire—had stayed silent until after the 13 days. Most notably, after this first speech failed to have any impact on the streets, Nasrallah spoke again on the ninth day of the protests, alleging that what began as a spontaneous revolt was now being influenced by foreign embassies and local political parties, calling on the protesters to disclose their funders and for his own supporters to leave the streets. Social media posts declaring themselves the funders of the protests began to appear, along with jokes of sandwiches supplied by different embassies.

Photo by Greg Demarque | Executive

In Sour and Nabatieh, protesters have been facing violence from the second day of the uprising. The protesters in Beirut were met with violence three times—the most recent of which was at the ring when thugs attacked protesters and journalists while chanting pro-Hezbollah and pro-Amal chants before the army was deployed to separate them. The same group headed to Downtown Beirut where in a matter of minutes they tore down the tents and infrastructure the protesters had built over days. Protesters did not take the bait. They persisted with their peaceful protesting, and once the security services had cleared the thugs out of Downtown began to rebuild their tents. 

On roadblocks, protesters proved persistent and determined. When security forces would open one road, protesters would simply close it again. When rumors spread that security forces would reopen the streets at dawn, protesters slept on the streets to prevent that from happening, or abandoned their cars to block off highways. Road closures became a power struggle between the government and the people, one that the people seemed determined to win.

Corruption is so deeply entrenched in Lebanon that it is difficult to erode.

Corruption is so deeply entrenched in Lebanon—starting from the public sector employee who asks for a bribe to complete a simple procedure to elected MPs stealing the people’s money—that it is difficult to erode in a few months or even years. So while there may be short-term political gains from these protests, manifested in the formation of a technocrat government and early parliamentary elections, a complete system overhaul is required—and when or whether that happens is uncertain.

Some economic changes may be immediately apparent following the protests, but real economic reform will take years. What can be said with certainty is that October’s uprising has irreversibly changed Lebanese people’s relation to themselves. It has led them to fall in love with their country again, and to know that they have the power to fight for it. This has regional implications that could be the start of a real spring. And that is something beautiful.   

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