In Lebanon’s protests, a radical surge toward unity

Why We Wrote This

For good and for bad, Lebanon has been a model of sectarianism. For years its formula kept a fragile balance, and the peace. But demands for political and economic reforms are crossing barriers.

Alkis Konstantinidis/reuters
Demonstrators take part in anti-government protests in Beirut Oct. 23, 2019. In a departure, protesters are flying the Lebanese flag, not those of individual political movements.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

The protests roiling Lebanon for more than a week began ostensibly over government decisions to impose a tax on WhatsApp and raise the national value-added tax to 15%. But behind the broad demands for reforms was building anger over failed economic policies and rampant corruption that had pushed the Lebanese economy into a downward spiral of debt, unemployment, and income inequality.

In the diverse but tiny country, where scars from its 15-year civil war and sectarian lines have defined both its political and economic life since 1991, young people are rallying around a common cause: ousting their postwar political leaders, all of them.

Lebanon has seen protests before. But this time, in Beirut, Shiites, Christians, Sunnis, and Druze are protesting side by side. And protesters are waving only the red and white Lebanese flag and none of the multicolor banners of the political movements and sects that dominated previous rallies.

Kareem Chehayeb, a Lebanese journalist and analyst, is reporting on the nightly protests in Beirut. “People are proud of this new anti-sectarian nationalism,” he says, “because by binding together, we know the political elites can’t stop us.”

In Lebanon’s northern port of Tripoli, predominantly Sunni crowds tore down posters of Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri. In the largely Shiite towns in the south, protesters ripped down banners of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

In Beirut, Shiites, Christians, Sunnis, and Druze are protesting side by side.

As the protests bringing Lebanon to a standstill enter their ninth day, something is emerging even more powerful than the anger over economic malaise and political corruption that ignited them: national unity.

In the diverse but tiny country, where scars from its 15-year civil war and sectarian lines have defined both its political and economic life since 1991, young people are rallying around a common cause: ousting their postwar political leaders, all of them.

The protests began Oct. 17 ostensibly over government decisions to impose a $6 per month tax on the free messaging app WhatsApp and raise the national value-added tax from 11% to 15% within three years.

But behind them was building anger over a series of failed economic policies and rampant corruption that have ground the Lebanese economy into a downward spiral: Public debt is 150% of gross domestic product, the highest ratio in the world; some 37% of Lebanese under the age of 35 are unemployed; and the richest one-tenth of 1%, mainly political elites, account for 10% of income, the same portion earned by the bottom half combined.

To a degree, Lebanon’s demonstrations have mirrored the young, leaderless protest movements sparked by failed policies, corruption, and mismanagement in other Arab states.

And the protests have shared the hallmarks of civility in other peaceful Arab protest movements of the past decade: lawyers opening stands to offer free legal defense for arrested or injured protesters, medical clinics, and volunteer street cleanup campaigns each morning.

Other features are more distinctively Lebanese: DJs holding outdoor protest concerts in Tripoli and Beirut, yoga sit-ins, and the chanting of crude limericks to denigrate the prime minister.

Solidarity

But what is new for Lebanon is the universal frustration uniting the protesters. Protesters are waving only the red-and-white Lebanese flag and none of the multicolored banners of the various political movements and sects that dominated previous rallies.

In Sunni Tripoli, protesters sent messages of greetings to fellow protesters in the Shiite towns of Sidon and Tyre, urging them to “move, move, we want to bring down the government.”

Demonstrators in the predominantly Christian town of Jal el Dib made an impassioned plea to Hezbollah leader Nasrallah to stand with them and push for reforms.

A common cry among protesters has been “All of them means all of them,” underlining that their demand is that the entirety of the country’s political class – no matter their sect or affiliation – must step down.

Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters
A demonstrator has her face painted in the colors of the Lebanese flag during an anti-government protest in Beirut, Oct. 22, 2019.

“People are proud of this new anti-sectarian nationalism because by binding together, we know the political elites can’t stop us,” says Kareem Chehayeb, a Lebanese journalist and analyst who is reporting on the nightly protests in Beirut.

Perhaps the sentiment is best summed up by a common image and banner held by protesters and shared online – a tombstone with the epitaph, “Lebanese civil war: 1975-2019.”

Divide and conquer

Lebanon’s 1990 Taif accords that helped end its civil war codified a fragile sectarian power-sharing system that has been intact until today, granting various groups and faiths certain positions: a Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, a Shiite speaker of Parliament.

Unofficially, various political groups and former militias played influential roles in different economic sectors, monopolizing state contracts or taking over the privatization of various industries. Along with their political dominance at both the national and municipal levels, this has made them the sole access point for many public services.

The result has been a mechanism to keep a nation divided and largely dependent on patronage networks.

“In other Arab countries, they have one dictatorship; in Lebanon we have 12,” says Mr. Chehayeb.

But hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign funds, from increasingly cash-strapped Iran and Saudi Arabia, that propped up these rival leaders and their patronage networks are drying up.

“Part of the problem for these officials in power is that they can no longer afford to sustain their cronies or distribute these perks to their followers,” says Muhanad Hage Ali, fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “But at the same time, they have not stopped their lavish spending or flaunting their wealth.”

“Now you are seeing even hardcore loyalists coming out to the streets saying, ‘I supported these guys for decades, but I have given up on them,’” says Mr. Chehayeb.

Economic crisis

In 2018, Lebanon was granted $10.2 billion in loans from the World Bank, Gulf countries, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development on the condition it enact austerity measures. Those led to both service cuts and raised taxes.

Mismanagement has led to trash piling up across the capital chronically over the past four years, sparking smaller protests; this month, a lack of preparedness led to the worst wildfires the country has seen in decades.

With the government relying on foreign exchanges to keep the currency afloat, inflation is hitting local markets.

This comes as Lebanese learn day after day of multimillion-dollar corruption scandals, without an independent judiciary or laws needed to truly hold officials to account. 

The WhatsApp tax was, quite simply, “the tax that broke the people’s back.”

“When you are living in this country and making ends meet with a few thousand dollars a month and see an official with supposedly the same salary hold million-dollar weddings or drive in convoys, you demand to know who is really paying for it,” says Mr. Hage Ali of Carnegie.

But what began as a protest over austerity measures has quickly become a rejection of postwar leadership’s stewardship of the country.

“They have run Lebanon as their personal bank, and left us paying the debts,” says Mariam Ali, a protester in Beirut, via social media. “Now we are saying no more – you all got to go.”

Way forward

Lebanon’s ruling class is struggling to respond.

Proposed economic reforms that Mr. Hariri announced on Monday, including halving salaries of members of Parliament and ministers and obliging banks to pay $3 billion into the national budget, fell flat – as did a speech by Christian President Michel Aoun Thursday in which he invited protesters to a dialogue, saying, “We are waiting for you.”

In a televised message on Friday, Mr. Nasrallah recognized Lebanese citizens’ right to protest, but rejected calls for the government’s resignation and early elections, saying the move would lead to “chaos.”

Lebanon’s protesters have yet to articulate clear proposals. Some demand a nonpolitical technocrat government to steer Lebanon out of its current economic crisis; others call for a populist upheaval of the political system and a socialist redistribution of wealth.

A majority are beginning to demand early elections – the current Parliament’s mandate runs to 2022 – and a strengthened judiciary to clean up corruption.

Yet they all have rallied around one common cause: an end to sectarianism.

“We just want people in power in government based simply because of their skills and merit, not because they belong to a certain group,” Mr. Chehayeb says.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.