Protests in Lebanon – a genuine outcry to end political sectarianism?

Lebanese protesters CC BY-NC-ND Carina Radler

Since 17 October 2019, Lebanon has both felt paralyzed and restless at the same time. Following the announcement of new taxes with relation to telecommunications services, people spontaneously took to the streets to protest. For the first time, the Lebanese people are not relating to any religious or sectarian divisions, but rather demonstrating in unison with the same goal: to set an end to the mismanagement of the government. Moreover, they are protesting the corruption they had to live with for the past thirty years. What is more, Lebanon’s fragile economy faces uncertain and precarious times. Banking restrictions are aggravating a dollar scarcity which have led to shortages in fuel and vital medical supplies. By all means, Lebanon faces massive crises in various sectors and will need a strong and wise leadership to find a way out of its misery in the near future.

The reasons why people are taking to the streets

Shortly before the government announced new taxes, their disability to extinguish the wildfires in the Chouf mountains, situated south-east of Beirut, shocked the whole country. The wildfires caused much destruction and even claimed victims. Given this situation, it encouraged even more people to go on the streets and demonstrate for a change in the system.

Lebanon’s political system is based on the Taif agreement of 1989 that was designed to end the Civil War. The Taif agreement implemented a sect-based political system, where political authority is allocated based on religious affiliation, leading to a minimal scope of change in action. For years, this system has been perceived as being exploited by the current Lebanese political class, many of whom are Lebanese Civil War-era sectarian warlords who still take up positions of power and enjoy amnesty against responsibility.

What followed since have been days of mass protests and blocked roads. The first night of protests in Beirut was slightly violent. People destroyed shop windows and streets in Downtown Beirut, which led the police to use teargas. The next days remained rather calm, with people awaiting the end of the 48 hours grace period that the Prime Minister Hariri had given himself and his government to rethink the whole situation. On 29 October 2019, Hariri handed in his resignation to President Aoun, which set the end of the current government. Hariri is now acting as a caretaker prime minister and supposed to frame a new government consisting of technocrats. Meanwhile, people were partying on the streets, supported by famous Lebanese DJs all around the country. The fear of the movement to lose its momentum did not come true, but rather the contrary happened: the protests kept their verve. After protesting on streets only, people selected key state institutions, for example the Ministry of Justice or the Lebanese Central Bank, for their demonstrations.

Uprisings without violence – a semantic contradiction?

Besides the unity in demonstrating amongst the Lebanese citizens, an exceptional feature of these protests is the absence of violence. Especially when compared to the current demonstrations in Iraq, with more than 300 casualties and almost 15,000 injured until this point in time. As a matter of fact, one man died when the army tried to open a blocked highway south of Beirut. He got shot by a soldier who immediately afterwards was detained and delivered to the judiciary. Opinions on the main forms of demonstrations, which consist of blocking roads and peaceful gatherings and marches, are sometimes mixed. One author argues that the Lebanese must continue in their refusal to be drawn into clashes, as their persistence with peaceful protests is the people’s strongest card. On another basis, street artists have taken back public space by creating myriads of graffiti all over Beirut and the whole country, expressing hopes and feelings with their creations telling vivid stories.

What happens these days

Since the beginning of the rallies, Lebanon’s economy is even more shaky, as it used to depend on robust flows of remittances from its diaspora all over the world, which have been decreasing recently. Altogether, the Lebanese Lira has weakened against the dollar, pushing up prices in shops and leading people to fear their savings could be wiped out.

In terms of a new government formation, Hizbullah, Amal Movement, and Free Patriotic Movement agreed upon a candidate named Mohamad Safadi as a possible next prime minister. Only a few days later, he resigned his candidacy as the new head of government. Safadi was the first person that governing parties proclaimed for the next government. He is not a stranger to Lebanese politics, as he acted as minister of economy and trade and subsequently minister of finance, ending his office in 2014. Nevertheless, demonstrators were very clear about him and voiced their rejection of Safadi, organizing protests outside of his residences in Tripoli and Beirut.

What can the Lebanese people expect next? – An outlook

First and foremost, it is crucial that the protests stay peaceful, and the country does not drift into a situation that Iraq is currently undergoing. Until now, encounters with the army have been nonviolent for the most part. Furthermore, their official stance is to act in favor of the people protesting and to not use force against them. Moreover, it is decisive for this country to overcome its financial crisis. The reforms Hariri declared at the very beginning of the protests need to be implemented. Due to the protests, a significant number of people did or could not attend their work, leading to job dismissals and financial losses. As the proposal of Safadi has shown, it will be a long way to find new government members who are both considered sufficient for the Lebanese people and meet their expectations, and also agreed upon by the current ruling parties.

Due to the protesting in unison, some say the current protests mark the birth of the Lebanese people. In the light of their disrupted and shaken history, to no point in time have Lebanese citizens felt closer and shown more solidarity. No matter what the caretaking government will decide on, they have to face a people that is strongly determined for change.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carina Radler holds a Master’s degree in Law with a special focus on Public International Law by the University of Graz, Austria. She currently works at an international law firm in Beirut, Lebanon and pursues graduate studies in Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.