Why Lebanese protesters are risking a return to the streets

Why We Wrote This

A defiant wave of Lebanese protests last fall sought to fundamentally change a political system seen as corrupt. Now, amid a pandemic, poverty and hunger is renewing the protesters’ willingness to take risks.

Bilal Hussein/AP
A police officer gestures to firefighters as they extinguish a police car set on fire by anti-government protesters in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, April 28, 2020. Hundreds took part in the funeral that day of a young man killed in Tripoli in riots the night before.

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Last fall it was anger against a corrupt political elite and decades of sectarian rule that sparked hundreds of thousands of Lebanese to rise up in a wave of dramatic protests that led the nation’s prime minister to resign. Citing the coronavirus pandemic, the government disbanded the last protest camps only in March.

But in recent weeks the virus lockdown has triggered additional pain: massive job losses and a falling currency that have wiped out savings, sent prices soaring, and heightened desperation. The result is that Lebanon’s legions of protesters have arrived at a breaking point, where anger at the lack of political change overcomes the fear of infection.

People “have been hungry for a while,” says Rami Khouri, a prominent journalist and a professor at the American University of Beirut. But it is the combination of wide poverty, work stoppages, and no apparent end to “dysfunctional management and corruption” that have made COVID-19 appear to be the lesser danger.

“They say, ‘Let me die from the virus, but if I have a chance to bring about a better government, and have a better life for my kids, then [let me] risk that,’” he says.

Nisrine Hammoud, a veteran Lebanese protester, could not believe what she was seeing last week in her northern city of Tripoli.

Enraged anew at a swift economic collapse that deepened both their poverty and their hunger, fellow demonstrators broke the country’s COVID-19 curfew and took to the streets.

While the anger against a corrupt political elite and decades of sectarian rule that sparked hundreds of thousands of Lebanese to rise up last October have not disappeared, the government wasted little time citing the pandemic to dismantle remaining protest camps in late March.

But in recent weeks, the virus lockdown has triggered additional pain: massive job losses and a currency in free fall have wiped out savings, caused a dollar shortage and soaring prices, and sparked new levels of desperation.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

The result is that Lebanon’s legions of protesters – furious, and more widely poor and hungry than ever before – have arrived at a breaking point, where anger at the lack of political change overcomes the fear of infection. While only the latest episode in a decade of dramatic, regime-changing unrest across the Arab world, analysts note that Lebanese protesters are the first to disregard the virus in their demand for wholesale change.

The anger spilled over first in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city in one of its poorest regions, where protesters risked infection, tear gas, and live fire from the army – which left one man dead – to burn banks, battle security forces, and declare their fresh uprising a “hunger revolution.”

“For them, it’s a lose-lose situation,” says Ms. Hammoud, a 20-something activist from Tripoli, about those who are demonstrating again. “They will tell you, ‘We’re going to die of hunger, so it’s either coronavirus or hunger.’ They don’t even care anymore. They are going to lose anyway; that’s why they are on the street.”

On top of quarantine job losses and a currency that lost 60% of its value in just weeks, there is additional stress during Ramadan. The holy month of fasting has been transformed by social distancing requirements that limit family gatherings and by high prices that cap meal size.

“The first time they did a protest [breaking the lockdown], everyone was complaining,” says Ms. Hammoud, who first spoke with the Monitor last November, a Lebanese flag draped across her shoulders, at a cluster of protest tents in Martyrs’ Square in central Beirut.

“Even we, the people that usually join the protest, were complaining, saying, ‘This is not the right time for it. There is a virus; what are you guys doing?’” says Ms. Hammoud. “But then, with time, we couldn’t complain anymore, because we knew that they are going through hell.”

Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
Demonstrators with masks depicting the Lebanese flag gesture during a Labor Day protest against growing economic hardship, in Beirut, May 1, 2020.

Lebanon’s protests have brought the country to the brink of chaos before, forcing a prime minister to resign. They’re part of a revival of Arab world anti-government protests – a so-called Arab Spring 2.0 – that began last autumn and took hold from Algeria and Sudan to Iraq and Lebanon.

Rami Khouri, the renowned journalist and a professor at the American University of Beirut, says the latest outburst in Lebanon is a “turning point” – defying a pandemic to challenge entrenched and uncaring politicians – but should be seen as part of a longer-term Arab transformation.

The greater danger

“It really is one regional wave in which government or political authorities – most of which are military-linked, or sectarian oligarchies – have steadily lost their credibility, efficacy, and legitimacy,” says Professor Khouri, who is also a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. “The citizenry, in the meantime, in tandem, has been steadily pauperized, marginalized, and treated with disdain.”

It’s not just that they are hungry, because people “have been hungry for a while,” says Professor Khouri. But it is the combination of a large majority that is now “officially poor,” work stoppages, and no apparent end to “dysfunctional management and corruption,” that have made COVID-19 appear to be the lesser danger.

“They say, ‘Let me die from the virus, but if I have a chance to bring about a better government, and have a better life for my kids, then [let me] risk that,’” he says.

“For many people, life has lost its meaning. That sounds crazy, but people don’t do what they are doing lightly,” he says. “They don’t confront armies firing at them lightly, or the virus, or the power of the sectarian militias that are unleashed on them every once in a while.

“They need to be driven by some kind of really intense, almost insane force to get them to do this,” he adds. “And that, as far as I can see, is their own sense of dehumanization.”

Indeed, even if demonstrators are not making an explicit virus-versus-bullets computation, Lebanon’s unprecedented economic crisis now overshadows all else.

“Protesters who have been arrested have spoken of being tortured in custody, beaten viciously and electrocuted by army intelligence units,” Lina Mounzer, a writer and translator in Beirut, wrote today in The New York Times. “Against these horrors and the everyday despair of no longer being able to afford the simplest things, the threat of the virus, despite 741 cases and 25 deaths in Lebanon so far, has faded into abstraction.”

Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
A demonstrator gestures near Lebanese soldiers standing guard during a Labor Day protest in Beirut, May 1, 2020.

Lebanon’s protests managed to force the resignation of one prime minister, but a long-awaited five-year economic recovery package, promised months ago and heavily dependent on winning International Monetary Fund aid, was only announced last week.

The small nation’s vital statistics are as bad as at any time since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. Lebanon shoulders more than $90 billion of debt and defaulted on sovereign debt payments for the first time in March.

Those factors, and the clear unwillingness of Lebanon’s political elite – whose sectarian rule for decades has been based on plundering national resources to benefit party clients – have made international donors wary of helping without seeing reforms first.

Kristalina Georgieva, the head of the International Monetary Fund, said Monday that Lebanon’s plan was “an important step forward,” and that talks would begin on “much needed reforms.” But Maha Yahya, head of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, wrote in an analysis days earlier that most of the obvious reforms “would undermine the vested interests of the politicians and the parties, who thus far have proven unwilling to accept the pain of adjustment.”

The renewal of street protests, despite the coronavirus, “implicitly assumes that the public has no expectation that the politicians will address the root causes of the country’s financial crisis,” writes Ms. Yahya. “What Lebanon is facing today is likely to last for years, and the chances of recovery are thin.”

Post-pandemic plans

That is the calculation anti-government activists are making, as they prepare for the next round of post-pandemic protests.

“People think that, after the lockdown, we are going to go back to universities, schools, and jobs, but we know that’s not going to happen,” says Ms. Hammoud in Tripoli. “We’re all going to hit the streets again. It’s going to be even more aggressive this time.”

In the meantime, she and her fellow activists are gathering donations for food distributions, so far to hundreds of families, to prevent them from being catered to during Ramadan by political parties that will demand support in return.

“That’s what we are afraid of, because [people] are so, so vulnerable that they can be easily controlled all over again,” she says.

Indeed, the coronavirus has been used as an excuse by the political elite not to act quickly or decisively on economic reforms, says Professor Khouri.

“That’s the danger: A lot of action happens, but no change happens,” he says. “The question then becomes: If the protesters then go back home, how long can they withstand this? We don’t know. Nobody knows the answer to that.

“What is clear is that when you get millions of people in desperate situations, they eventually do something,” says Professor Khouri. “And they’ve started to do something.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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