Hanna Leonardsson | 24 October 2019
As of last week, Lebanon is no longer a bystander to the revolutions in the Middle East. Ignited by a government decision to introduce a “WhatsApp tax,” people all over Lebanon recently took to the streets to protest elite rule under the guise of democracy. But how did the people of Lebanon arrive at this point and why now? Surveying the past 30 years in Lebanon, there are a few key events that help to explain the Lebanese protests.
As the Lebanese civil war came to an end in 1989, the Taif peace agreement divided the state’s power between the diverse sectarian groups that make up Lebanon. In addition, it was stipulated in the treaty that the president of the Lebanese Republic must be a Christian Maronite, the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament must be a Shia Muslim. In this way, power was shared between the former warring parties, and prominent posts were guaranteed to the three largest sects. Without going into details of the many political arguments and periods of stalemate that Lebanon has experienced since then, this formula seemed to do its job in keeping a sectarian balance and peace among the political elites.
Fast-forwarding to 2015, things had changed. In the heat of the summer months, the inhabitants of Beirut and its surrounding municipalities saw garbage piling up in the streets in what became known as the “Waste crisis”. As the nuisance of smelly and burning trash became unbearable, people started protesting in front of parliament. The “You Stink” movement emerged, referring to the political elite’s inability to provide basic services and lack of accountability. Eventually, temporary solutions were implemented, and the protests ebbed out, but conversations about the lack of basic services did not.
As conversations continued in homes, on the streets, in civil society organisations and the media, some activists took the political arena and, in 2016, the local political party Beirut Mediniati (Beirut My City) entered the local elections in the municipality of Beirut. In the Lebanese majoritarian electoral system, they just about lost. With 40 percent of Beiruti votes, they were narrowly outnumbered by a coalition that gathered all other parties previously on opposing sides in municipal as well as national politics. As these former adversaries won municipal power, it showed the Lebanese people how far the political elites were willing to go to stay in power. Jumping to the national elections in 2018, civil society groups organised as under the party Kollouna Watani (We Are All for the Nation) and competed for seats in Parliament. Although the 2018 national elections were a great win for the established political players, Paula Yacoubian took one seat for the movement. At this point, not much had changed in Lebanese politics, but maybe slow and steady could win the race?
Last week, devastating fires erupted in Lebanon. While people were mobilising to fight the fires, the lack of state support to the civil defence unit and lack of maintenance of existing firefighting equipment became another slap in the face of the Lebanese people who interpreted the government’s inability to fund and implement policies that actually matter to people on the ground as yet another example of a political elite only interested in personal gains. As usual, Lebanese society reacted on a massive scale. Volunteer centres were set up to distribute food and supplies to Lebanese and Palestinian (from the Palestinian camps in Lebanon) fire-fighting volunteers, mostly organised through WhatsApp groups. As the fires came under control, the Lebanese people were in for another shock. On Thursday, the Lebanese government announced that they would introduce a tax on social media communication, provided by apps such as WhatsApp, to cover the budget deficit. Introducing such a tax in the Middle Eastern country with the highest prices for mobile phone calls and texts directly targeted the poorest segments of society.
Just hours later, Lebanon was on fire again, but in a different sense of the word. And protests grew quickly. As of Friday last week (18/10), people were protesting in more than 60 places around the country, from Tripoli in the North to Tyre in the south, Baalbek in the East, and Saida in the west. And, of course, in Beirut. As of Sunday (20/10), some reports claimed that a staggering 1,2 million Lebanese people, more than 25 percent of the population, were out protesting. Other reports estimate that numbers are even higher as people come and go in 24-hour a day demonstrations.
A lot can be said about these demonstrations. They are truly a popular movement with people of all sects taking to the streets and demanding the same things: basic services, work and to be able to live in a country they love. Protesters are united call in their for the the resignation of a political elite that has failed to provide any of this for the last 30 years. Joy is also being expressed in these mostly calm manifestations, and there is solidarity across sects in response to violent incidents. Women have taken an important role in these protests as symbols of cross-sectarian acceptance, as a barrier between riot police and protestors to inhibit confrontations, standing up against armed men. There’s a lot to be said about the age of protestors who are young and old as well as the ways that protestors are not only reclaiming public spaces but taking responsibility for these spaces by cleaning up and even sorting their waste. There’s a lot to be said about the denunciation of Taif and claims that this is the real end of the civil war. And, the unanimous rejection of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s suggested reforms, as there is no trust that the same political elites will implement it.
At the time of writing, protests are commencing their 8th day, and more and more questions are being asked about how this leaderless movement will move forward. Despite the uncertainty, one thing is clear: whether the protests will become a small or big step towards political change, it is surely shaking the Lebanese political system to its core.
The following links provide additional, in depth analysis on various topics related to the protests:
For a more comprehensive take on the events in the past two weeks, please listen to the Lebanese politics podcast.
To learn more about Lebanese sectarianism, please listen to Bassel Salloukh being interviewed on the SEPAD pod.
Long-term frustration against the political elite
The protesters’ reactions to the Hariri reforms.
Or check out Mustapha Hamoui’s tweet (@beirutspring) collecting articles on the events.
Hanna Leonardsson is a research assistant at the School of Global Studies. She defended her dissertation titled, “Navigating ‘the Local’: Municipal Engagement in Lebanese Local Peacebuilding” in 2019.