Since the 18th of October, protesters across Lebanon have taken to the streets to demand economic and political reforms and have brought the country to a near standstill. Lebanon is not unfamiliar with occasional unrest, but the current events are different in nature: they bring out the nation’s non-sectarian movement and unite the Lebanese from all regions, classes, and beliefs. The Lebanese system is based on the Taif agreement, which brought an end to the civil war in 1989. With this tricky and delicate balance of power, the country regularly finds itself at a deadlock in decision-making because all 18 different sects must be represented in parliament. Further complicating matters is that this system helped the solidification of a sectarian grip on the highest posts of politics: the president must always be Maronite Christian, the prime minister Sunni, and the speaker of parliament Shia. Managing such a web of differing aspirations frequently turns out impossible, and the country has been falling back in terms of public services, employment levels, economic growth, and stability in all levels from the environment to medicine. In an attempt to decrease the country’s budget deficit, the government announced a new tax on VoIP calling such as Whatsapp and Messenger, and this became the catalyst that drove hundreds of thousands of people to the streets. The movement, called Lebanon Revolts, has grappled the country for nearly 2 months now.
Why are people protesting?
An initial observation would lead to the assumption that Lebanon’s revolution is based on the objection of what is called the “Whatsapp Tax,” but the issue lies much deeper. Years of eroding democracy and government corruption, and carelessness in providing basic services to the population, has led the public to harbor deep discontent and anger towards the political class. The Whatsapp Tax was merely a tipping point in what is an underlying structure of poverty and repression. All the while, the political class maintains a ridiculously high quality of life.
The demands of the movement are not simple, but the protesters believe that they are necessary for change. They are the following:
Resignation of the Prime Minister Saad el Hariri and his government.
Resignation of the President.
Snap elections using a new electoral law that is not based on sectarianism.
Formation of a technocratic government to help with the transition into a non-sectarian system.
After nine weeks of protests, the only concession that the political class has made came from the Prime Minister. On October 29, after the protesters were attacked by Hezbollah and Amal supporters, Hariri announced his resignation. The president has still not assigned a new PM to form a technocratic government, which protesters deem as the only viable option to bring the country back to its feet. Up until now, all the governments have been created on a sectarian basis of “giving each group a piece of the cake” and not based on merit. A technocratic government would create a class of politicians who are experts in the ministries that they will head.
What is the president’s position?
President Michel Aoun, and his party the Free Patriotic Movement, currently hold the largest amount of power in parliament and government. A key leader in the FPM is his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, who has received a large share of the criticism. Their position is clear: relinquishing power now and creating a technocratic government is out of the question, as it would lead to the crumbling of the political class and their loss of power. The protesters refuse to concede either. They demand the president’s immediate resignation, which Aoun continues to turn a blind eye to.
In televised speeches, Aoun repeatedly declared his intentions to fight the state’s corruption and introduce reforms. This is too little too late, because the public has lost trust in his mandate. It does not seem that Aoun, Bassil, or their Free Patriotic Movement will make any concessions.
What is Hezbollah doing?
Lebanon’s post-war environment is based on disarmament and reintegration of ex-militants into society. One major exception is Hezbollah, who refused to disarm and continues to fight to this day, claiming it is an essential “resistance movement” to Israeli aggression and occupation. Hezbollah has received a lot of criticism for being a state within a state, and often controlling Lebanese politics and allowing Iranian influence to make the real decisions in the country. Hezbollah began by exercising caution and restraint, to a certain extent. It seems that the majority of protesters have clear disapproval of Hezbollah, and consider them a large source of government corruption. If the protesters were to ever achieve their demands, Hezbollah would not play a part in any political institution anymore. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, gave a televised speech at the beginning of the revolution, asking the public to remain calm and allow the government time to reform, while blaming previous governments for the corruption. Later, he began accusing Western embassies of funding the revolution, claiming it is part of the West’s attack against the “resistance” against Israeli occupation, which is Hezbollah’s main argument for remaining armed. Currently, clashes repeatedly take place between the protesters and Hezbollah and Amal supporters. Signs across Beirut saying “The road to Jerusalem does not pass through Beirut” have been spotted, signaling an end of Hezbollah’s ability to use the resistance as its main argument for support.
Over the past week, Hezbollah supporters attacked the protest sites nearly every night.
The security forces:
The army, Lebanon’s only non-sectarian institution, has had a tough time keeping a united strategy. At times, the army protects protestors from aggressors. Other times, it has attempted to forcefully clear roads and highways from peaceful demonstrations.
As for the internal security forces, they have received criticism from the protesters as being too brutal. Security forces have cracked down on the protesters at all instances, using tear gas and batons to fight peaceful protesters in and around Beirut. The parliament building in downtown Beirut is constantly protected, despite MPs not having convened there since the protests began. On the 16th of December, a concrete wall was erected to keep out all protesters from the Nejmeh Square, which houses the parliament. Security forces have also been accused of not protecting the protesters against Hezbollah supporters, who frequently raid the protest camps, burning tents and injuring people.
It is unclear what will happen next. Neither side seems willing to concede on any terms. As the country continues its rapid economic decline, the protests become more fueled and angry. Meanwhile, the political class bickers and offers cosmetic solutions. Suggestions have been made for the reappointment of Hariri as PM, in a political-technocratic government. The protesters consider this unacceptable on any terms, rejecting Hariri and any other candidate from the established political class, as well as claiming that a political
-technocratic government is just as bad as the previous, corrupt governments. Three months later and a government is still not formed, the country’s economy is crippled, and a financial crisis has people begging for their money at banks. It seems that the political class refuses to bring about any reform or concessions to the protesters, preferring instead to exhaust the nation and prevent any change.
Lewis, E. (2019, October 22). Streets, squares full on 6th day of protests. Retrieved from Daily Star: Streets, squares full on 6th day of protests
Dakroub, H. (2019, October 18). Protests erupt over taxes as govt races to wrap up budget . Retrieved from Daily Star: https://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2019/Oct-18/493775-protests-erupt-over-taxes-as-govt-races-to-wrap-up-budget.ashx
Azhari, T. (2019, October 18). Anger, frustration drive Beirut protesters . Retrieved from Daily Star: https://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2019/Oct-18/493788-anger-frustration-drive-beirut-protesters.ashx
Al Jadid. (2019, December 17). Lebanese army clashes with Hezbollah, Amal supporters during overnight protests in Beirut . Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y55TUXzVLGQ
Al Jazeera. (2019, October 18). Protests erupt in Lebanon over plans to impose new taxes. Retrieved from Al Jazeera: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/protests-erupt-lebanon-plans-impose-taxes-191017194856354.html
BBC News. (2019, October 18). Lebanon scraps WhatsApp tax as protests rage. Retrieved from BBC News: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50095448