For the past five days, one of the most diverse nations in the Middle East, Lebanon, has been convulsed by nationwide protests. While the trigger was a proposed tax on WhatsApp and other popular internet call systems, the protesters are demanding the resignation of top leaders and an end to a corrupt system that has caused mass hardship.
Yet look deeper and it is easy to detect another goal, one that applies to many countries: the end of fearmongering by politicians who pit different groups against each other to stay in power and divide up the nation’s wealth.
Identity politics is cooked into Lebanon’s government structure: The president must be Christian, the Parliament speaker a Shiite, and the prime minister a Sunni. During these largely leaderless protests, however, such distinctions melted away as Lebanese of all stripes rose up as citizens by the hundreds of thousands.
They united under the national flag, a sharp contrast to protests in 2015 that saw the use of flags by sects and parties. And within each religious group, protesters turned on their own leaders, accusing them of patronage and nepotism, a major reason for Lebanon’s economic dysfunction.
Instead of living in the manufactured fear of “the other” and being told how to vote, protesters rallied around shared ideals of good governance. In uniting Lebanon’s diverse population of 4.5 million people, they also embraced individual equality, a key concept for any democratic society.
One protester told The Guardian that politicians can no longer claim that a “hidden hand” is harming their particular group’s interests. “The hidden hand ... is actually just our dignity that woke up. We’ve been silent and sedated for so long, we’ve now awakened. They are not used to us, the people, having pride. But we’ll show them,” he said.
Despite its small size, Lebanon has now set a marker for the Middle East on how to escape the manipulated fear of sectarian identities. Passive acceptance of such politics has only led to lost jobs, broken highways, electricity blackouts, and a huge national debt.
“They [politicians] are not giving us anything, they took everything, and we don’t have anything here,” one protester told Al Jazeera. “The people are one – Shia, Sunni, Christian, they’re all one here.”