BEIRUT—In a country long known for its live-for-the-day parties and grinding social discontent, both have now come together to spawn Lebanon’s October Revolution. The Mediterranean air is filled with exhilaration, but also with fear.
A spiraling economic crisis that ignited spontaneous protests and clashes with riot police over corruption and the high cost of living has turned into a popular uprising against the political elite and sectarian political system.
On the heels of mass protests in Algeria, Sudan, and Iraq, Lebanon has joined a second wave of social discontent in the Arab world emerging in countries that were not transformed by the mass protests of 2011. They seem undeterred by the counter-revolutions, repression and civil war that rolled back the victories of the Arab Spring everywhere but in Tunisia. Discontent with their domestic political system’s inability to address social demands and economic crises, as in 2011, has created this new wave of mass social action attempting to transform society and bring down old leaders.
Tire-fire barricades and protesters blocking main highways and an open-ended general strike have paralyzed Lebanon. Over a million working- and middle-class people from across the sectarian divide of this state of 6 million have joined together in city squares chanting “the people want the downfall of the regime.”
“These words mean freedom, they mean changing the economy,” says 24-year-old Ali Hassan about the chant made famous during the 2011 uprisings across the region. Smoking a cigarette on a curb in downtown Beirut, he looks over at a crowd of protesters standing on the steps of the Al-Amin Mosque who are denouncing the country’s leaders as thieves.
The building, designed to emulate Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, was erected with a donation by Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister assassinated in 2005. His son, Saad Hariri, is prime minister now.
Hassan, here on the curb, hails from the Hariri stronghold of Sidon on the coast south of Beirut, where he was a supporter of the Hariri-led Future Movement. Now working in Beirut as a nurse, however, he says his salary of $800 a month can’t cover the cost of rent let alone finance his staggering student debt from four years paying the annual $40,000 university tuition.
Hassan blames Lebanon’s confessional political system left by French colonial rule as the root of the country’s problem. Based on the demography of the early 20th century, it assures the president will be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.
The result thwarts the power of the electorate by dividing government and civil service positions along sectarian lines to balance representation of the major faiths and minorities. In practice it has created a system of patronage where the parties that fought the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 use their governing positions to grant state jobs to their constituents. It has also facilitated the governing parties’ role as proxies for foreign powers.
“We want to be free from Syria, Iran, America and Saudi,” Hassan says of the countries that exert influence on the government through their support of rival political factions. So he joined the hundreds of thousands from around the city regularly converging on the downtown. Carrying Lebanese flags and condemning all the establishment leaders as corrupt and inept in equal measure, they are an unprecedented coalition of people trying to force the collapse of a government made up of faces that have ruled since the civil war.
The country is mired in an economic spiral, carrying one of the largest per capita national debts in the world, over $71 billion in total, and facing a shortage of the dollar to which the Lebanese Lira is pegged. Daily power cuts and non-potable tap water have been long-term problems resulting from government infrastructure neglect dating back almost 30 years, when the Hariris’ construction company led the reconstruction that followed the civil war.
According to Sami Nader, the director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, 37-percent youth unemployment and private currency traders increasingly abandoning the official Lebanese exchange rate are signs the country is heading toward a debt crisis like Argentina in 2001 or Greece in 2008. As a result, he says, people now feel they don’t have anything left to lose.
The protests were sparked by unpopular austerity measures and tax increases in a country with few public services and the government has been back peddling, scrambling to cling to power, since they erupted. First the government scrapped a proposed tax on WhatsApp. Used across Lebanon to avoid paying for calls and texts in a country with high mobile phone costs, the tax became the final straw that pushed people from economic despair to political rage. Then, as rival parties blamed each other, police cracked down on the streets with tear gas and water cannons.
The protests only grew, forcing Hariri and President Michel Aoun to address the country in speeches promising economic reforms, vowing to fix long term infrastructure problems, and to take anti-corruption measures–but refusing to resign. Hassan Nasrallah, general secretary of Hezbollah (the Party of God) has also spoken to the country, stating clearly that his party will not accept the toppling of the presidency or resignation of the government.
Hezbollah’s Iranian-backed “militia” is the largest armed force in the country and it leverages this power to shape the government to serve its interests. Nasrallah has warned that if his party brings its supporters into the streets, it will “change the equation.” However, the government’s refusal to relinquish power has only boosted the movement.
“This is no longer about the reforms, it’s about the people making the reforms,” says Nader. “This is a real social and economic revolution.”
In Beirut protesters have shut down highways that connect the capital with much of the rest of the country. The army is deployed along the main traffic arteries, watching protesters block them while sporadic barricades around the city have left streets, normally jammed to the point of gridlock, now virtually devoid of traffic.
In Dahieh, the mostly Shia majority working class suburb of southern Beirut that has been a support base for Hezbollah, what normally are bustling alleys are now quiet, with shops shuttered. In the Sunni majority upscale neighborhood of Hamra, a key constituency of Prime Minister Saad Hariri in the city’s west, banking towers are closed and protesters on the streets lined with bars and cafés blame their PM for making life in the city unaffordable.
It is as quiet as Easter Sunday in the middle-class eastern Christian district of Ashrafieh, where the right-wing Lebanese Forces party and President Michel Aoun’s Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement have battled for support. The usually booming music emanating from the boisterous nightlife in the district’s neighborhoods of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze is overpowered by the echoing chants of protesters returning from the mass rallies.
However, it is in the city’s downtown that hundreds of thousands come together in an often festive atmosphere to curse their leaders, chanting “all of them means all of them” in a call for them to go. Rebuilt after the civil war into a French-influenced, manicured Mediterranean promenade filled with foreign-owned investment properties, luxury shops, banks and embassies, Beirut’s central business district is now controlled by protesters.
Standing in the streets outside Parliament amid throngs of young people chanting “Revolution! Revolution!” 71-year-old Sukaina Salameh is overjoyed. The crowd is filled with contemporary anti-establishment references. Some protesters don the Guy Fawkes masks of the Anonymous movement while others prefer the Salvador Dali masks from the Spanish Bank Heist series La Casa de Papel. There are Joker face-painting stations. But the aged Salameh is perfectly easy with all that. “I feel like I’m still young and I’m still fighting,” she says.
Salameh is director of NAVTSS, a Palestinian-Lebanese non-governmental organization that provides educational services in Palestinian and Syrian Refugee camps and to poor Lebanese communities. Lack of opportunities for poor and marginalized people in the country has demoralized people, she says, creating a drop in enrolment in her organization’s education and training programs.
A Lebanese of Palestinian descent, Salameh has been an activist all her life on multiple sides of Lebanon’s divides. She was involved in left-wing Palestinian and pan-Arabist struggles in the 1970s and sees some parallels with the mass protests against the political establishment then.
“In the details we were fighting for something different when I was younger, but in the bigger picture we are still fighting for dignity and a better life,” she says.
In the mid-1970s, Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party led the struggle against Lebanon’s sectarian system. Now his son Walid, who took over after his father’s assassination in the civil war, heads the party. He is seen as a kingmaker in Lebanese politics and has resisted the calls for the government to quit.
Salameh does not sympathize. “I want the old guard of the civil war to go and bring in people with new ideas,” she says, admiring the younger generation’s willingness to criticize the old leaders.
For a woman who saw the civil war from some of its worst front lines, it is the cross-confessional political unity that has inspired her the most. “This is the first time in which poor people in every sect are speaking together and making the same demands,” she says.
The scenes in Beirut are being replicated across the country. In southern Lebanon, in which Hezbollah fought and defeated Israeli occupation, Shia majority protests have condemned both the Party of God and its tenuous ally, Amal, which has been led since the civil war by Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri. Hariri is facing rejection by his own constituents as they rally in the northern city of Tripoli. And Christian communities from Mount Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley are saying time is up for President Aoun, Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.
Both Aoun and Geagea have gone from civil war strongmen to leading establishment politicians. Geagea was one of the few civil war leaders to be convicted and jailed in Lebanon for crimes committed during the civil war that raged from 1975-1990.
Amid a new optimism there is also looming fear. Early in the protests, when rioting broke out in Beirut, two people were killed in fires. The following day, the bodyguard of a former member of parliament opened fire on a crowd in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, killing two people and injuring two others. Amal members have attacked protesters in the south of the country and Hezbollah supporters have fought with protesters in Beirut, prompting Nasrallah to call on Hezbollah supporters to leave the scenes of protest and warning that continued unrest could lead to civil war. Protesters worry aloud about the potential for mass violence if the governing parties call their loyalists into the streets.
Lebanon’s political establishment is digging in as a new vision for the country comes together in the streets. What has become a protracted battle over turning the page on the political system that lead the country into and out of civil war is now transforming how people see their future and each other.