Ibrahim Taha | Middle East & North Africa Fellow
The Lebanese people have taken to the streets to oppose corruption, sectarianism and austerity measures. The last two months of protests have been described by analysts as ‘the most comprehensive anti-government protests’ since the end of the civil war in 1990. Thousands of ordinary Lebanese citizens are calling for ‘revolution’ (thowra) and demanding the removal of the government, in a display of remarkable unity for a country marred by sectarianism in recent decades.
After a month of public demonstrations, singing on the streets and forming a human chain, it appears the demands of the demonstrators are not any closer to being achieved, as the current 84-year-old President Michel Aoun instructed protestors to remain home or risk catastrophe. However, Lebanon's undercurrent of sectarianism may escalate as clashes have been reported between protestors and Hezbollah supporters – an Iranian-backed Shia militia group in Lebanon. While the fears of sectarian conflict intensify, the protestors are fervently committed to nonviolent resistance.
What sparked the protests?
A handful of protestors took to the streets on October 17 in downtown Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, which quickly swelled into a movement of protests by the following day. By October 29, there was a glimpse of hope as Prime Minister Hariri stood aside.
There are several factors leading up to October 17, the immediate spark was in response to a regressive tax policy that would charge WhatsApp users in Lebanon $6 per month. This infuriated locals who have experienced a stagnant economy with almost negative growth. The Lebanese Government’s failure to effectively handle the 100 forest fires earlier in October received heavy criticism from citizens. The Government purchased three emergency helicopters in the event of wildfires, however, they were not deployed due to ‘excessive maintenance costs’. Instead, the Lebanese Government relied on neighbouring Jordan, Greece and Cyprus to render assistance in tackling domestic fires.
While the Lebanese Government was ill-prepared with the wildfires, there is an adequate supply of equipment to respond to democratic and peaceful protestors. This highlights the more significant cause of the demonstrations; economic decline fuelled by corruption.
Lebanon has the third-highest debt-to-GDP in the world, accumulating to $86 billion, which is projected to be 155 per cent of GDP representing one of the highest levels. Economists believe the accumulation of high public debt is attributed to not just the 15-year long civil war that severed Lebanon along sectarian lines, but waste, inefficiency and corruption. While the average annual salary of Lebanese people amounts to less than $1,000, it was recently reported that former Prime Minister Hariri, transferred over $15 million to a bank account linked to a South African model, marking a turning point in public sentiment against government officials.
Lebanon’s sectarian system
The slogan of the Lebanese revolution has been ‘all of them means all of them’, as a new generation of activists reject the traditional sectarian electoral system. After gaining independence from France, Lebanon adopted a constitutional arrangement that divides seats in Parliament according to Lebanese religious groups – Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Druze.
The Lebanese President must be a Christian, the Prime Minister is a Sunni, and the Speaker of Parliament, a Shia. The outdated system has become a powerful tool for elites to monopolise the economy and exploit sectarian division, causing a civil war that resulted in 200,000 people.
Perhaps the most interesting observation of the protests has been the response of Hasan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah who expressed sympathy with the protestors while drawing a clear line for the survival of the government. Ordinary Lebanese Shias have joined in the streets, which raises serious concerns for the elites of Hezbollah who are at odds with their local community. This may threaten Hezbollah’s legitimacy and integrity in Lebanon, which was strengthened during the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese War. While Hezbollah has been portrayed as a resistance movement in Lebanon, it has transformed into the elite swamp that Lebanese are rejecting.
These protests represent a dawn of a new era in Lebanon, as the Lebanese unite around one flag, singing to the tunes of one national anthem, declaring an end to the government and a broken political system.
New Arab Spring?
The protests in Lebanon share the same grievances expressed by millions across the Middle East, as recent protests erupt in Iraq, Egypt and Alegria. While the protestors in Lebanon have experienced a restrained response from the Government, Iraqis who took to the streets have been met with live fire, killing a total of 400 anti-government demonstrators.
Similarly, the interim Algerian government is preparing for an election, in which majority of civilians and community organisations have refused to endorse the official five candidates. It may result in an election with no votes. Likewise, the Sisi regime in Egypt has been criticised by international human rights organisations for state repression of legitimate political activities, as 2,300 protestors have been arrested in September.
The Arab Spring in 2011 did not bring the freedom aspired by people against tyrannical rule, however, the consequences of the social and political upheaval are reverberating across the Middle East, the future of which remains unclear. What does remain obvious is the protests will not go away until civilians are treated with the dignity and decency they rightfully demand.
Ibrahim Taha is the Middle East and North African Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.