Middle East, World in Revolt

Feature article • Protests in Lebanon target “all of them”

The second instalment in our World in Revolt series, M. N. Dahan looks at the electrifying uprising in Lebanon that threatens to undo decades of sectarian and corrupt leadership.

“All of them means all of them” chanted the demonstrators assembled in the squares in Beirut, Lebanon — “all” meaning the entire political class. This was swiftly picked up in other towns and cities across the country. They chanted: “the people are one” and “the people are united against the political elite.” Remembering the popular slogan of the 2011 Arab Spring, they chanted: “the people want the fall of the regime.” And when the government tried to appease them with meager reforms, they chanted “we’re remaining in the streets! We don’t believe a single word.” And if their resolve wasn’t clear enough, they chanted: “revolution! Revolution!” The atmosphere was festive as the protests grew around the country, with mothers and children joining in, turning the city squares into makeshift playgrounds and lively debate grounds. Protestors shared home-cooked food, made art and held debates seemingly round the clock. To an American viewer, this felt like a throwback to the days of Occupy Wall Street, but amplified to the power of 10. 

The crowds kept swelling the squares — even in Tripoli, a city that had been known as an ISIS stronghold. And in the squares, people of all ages and persuasions gathered. Classes were held there, even including a few kindergartens. Students from public, private and parochial schools marched out of class and shut down the whole school system for several days in October, while university faculty members announced that classes would be held in the squares, since “the street is a classroom and the classroom is in the streets.”

On November 3, thousands of women organized a Women’s March that joined the protests. They chanted demands for freedom for women in public and against sexual harassment. They called for the end of homophobia and for women’s equality, all the while keeping a focus on class politics. They also want to see drastic change to a political system dominated by the same figures and families since the end of the civil war.

The protesters showed creativity and imagination, not just around the squares but in the tactics they pursued. For example, they called for strikes to paralyze the country and they largely succeeded. However, because the labor movement had been severely weakened over the years by repression and cooptation, many workers feared harassment and firings. Instead, protesters blocked roads which made getting to work virtually impossible, thereby having de-facto strikes. This did work in the short run, but eventually would become untenable. 

Decades of Corruption 

The revolt seemingly began when the government introduced the most and ludicrous proposal: a very small tax on the use of WhatsApp and other free phone messaging apps. To regular Lebanese people, this felt like a slap in the face by a ruling elite that had no idea how the other half lived (to be more accurate: how the 99% lived, since 25% of national wealth goes to the 1%). The WhatsApp tax was just an afterthought to the proposed budget for 2020 — and an ill-advised one to be sure. For the Lebanese, WhatsApp is the favored form of communication because it bypasses the telecom companies that charge exorbitant prices while offering poor service. But the Prime Minister, billionaire playboy Saad Hariri, had promised the country a “painful austerity budget” to satisfy the demands of international lenders to release $11 billion loan. 

Just before the budget was announced, wildfires of “biblical proportions” had broken out all over the country, decimating precious old forests. Because of the years of neglect and corruption, the fire department helicopters and equipment were unusable, forcing the government to appeal to nearby countries to help put out the fires. 

The Lebanese people have suffered many years of such indignities. Upon visiting Lebanon in the spring of 2019, we heard story after story about the disgust people felt over the unfathomable way the country was being picked clean by the vultures in government. In fact, the year 2015 saw mass protests directed at the depths of corruption around garbage collection and disposal. This was in a real sense a harbinger of the present revolt. A New York Times article titled To Make Sense of Lebanon’s Protests, Follow the Garbage, details “how the refuse crisis is just one example of the government’s corruption and dysfunction that have brought protesters into the streets.”  For years, contracts for basic services have been doled out to politicians and their cronies who use them to enrich themselves. Instead of building recycling plants, they incinerate the garbage or allow it to run into the sea. Golden sandy beaches are lined with plastic bottles and become open dumps, as the Mediterranean fills up with toxic runoff. “Garbage,” in the words of an independent member of Parliament, “is like a gold mine for the political caste.” Or in the more down-to-earth words of a fisherman who finds himself having to push further out at sea to fish in clean water: “We live in a trash can.” 

The supply of electricity has followed a similar pattern. Blackouts are part of daily life, and those that can afford it pay for private generators. And yet, the Lebanese are fully aware that the reasons for such outages lay not in scarcity but in the powerful interests that keep a chokehold on electric production. These include the generator and diesel industries, good money makers if you have no choice but to rely on them. It also includes the extremely richly lucrative handouts to politicians, often in the form of bribes or no-bid contracts. For example, the President’s son-in-law, a figure universally despised in the whole of Lebanon, has pushed to buy electricity from barges rented out from Turkey, renewed five years later at the cost of $1.9 billion. 

The same story gets repeated right across the board. Every aspect of life, “hospitals, roads, schools and multiple projects are distributed according to sectarian quotas that ensure every group benefits, regardless of necessity.” This was based on a system of power sharing known as the Taif Accords of 1989, that emerged after the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). This was in turn modeled on the National Pact of 1943, a power-sharing agreement reached between Muslim and Christian leaders that enabled independence. The country has 18 recognized religious sects, with each doling out government jobs, contracts, favors and social services. For years, the heads of the various sects handed down the spoils of lucrative contracts to their followers, thereby ensuring their loyalty. In effect, a system supposedly meant to foster peaceful existence only reinforced sectarian divisions. And in so doing, it institutionalized corruption, enriching the political elite and immiserating the rest of the country. This entrenched sectarianism, however, served the ruling elites perfectly well rather than the communities they represent. It would perhaps be more accurate to speak of cross-sectarian alliances rather than conventional sectarianism. 

In this context, the chant “all of them means all of them” is extremely radical, because it shakes the power structure that has existed in Lebanon for three decades. None of the sects are immune from protesters’ rage. For example, in 2006, the Shia Islamist group Hezbollah earned itself the reputation of the savior of Lebanon by repelling the Israeli invasion. But after they won seats in government, they became outright participants in the austerity imposed by the regime. They had already started to show their true colors during the Arab Spring when they sent troops to destroy the revolution in the south of the country. Now both Hezbollah and Amal (another majority Shia group in parliamentary coalition with Hezbollah) have repeatedly sent their thuggish enforcers to attack the protests repeatedly in Beirut and the rest of the country, the most recent attack taking place in mid December.  

Economic Crisis and Austerity

Lebanon was not immune to the ravages of the Great Recession of 2008 and of the neoliberal policies imposed around the world. Today the Arab region as a whole has the world’s highest percentage of youth unemployment — as high as 25% among Lebanese youth. Many of the young have gone abroad to seek work, causing serious shortages of trained people in the country. But wages are low, the cost of living is high, with bread and fuel prices eating into a family’s budget. People can’t get the things they need for daily life.

The national debt is the third highest per capita in the world, meaning the country is facing high budget deficits because of the burden of servicing the debt. The economy is in serious trouble, with foreign reserves almost completely depleted. The banks have now stopped all withdrawals of US dollars and the black market is offering a 25% mark-up on the dollar. This is a bad omen for the economy and will lead to major shortages, since most of Lebanon’s consumption is imported and paid for with dollars.

Compounding the daily misery felt by people is the extreme inequality between rich and poor. A full 25% of national income goes to the richest 1%, 20% of all bank deposits are owned by the 0.1% at the top, who also earn as much as the bottom 50% combined. Social and economic inequality is reinforced by legal and political systems that entrench the power and privilege of a minority. 

And so, when the Prime Minister announced his 2020 austerity budget, it was clear that the burden of tax raises was going to fall on the backs of the working class. The government was refusing to tax the rich and the politically connected, proof of the regime’s inability to see the depth of people’s rage.

To get a sense of the deep-seated anger the Lebanese have toward their government, one only needs to look at the results of a 2018 Gallup poll. Only 16% of the population was said to be thriving, and perhaps the 15% who had any confidence in the honesty of elections were the same ones who were doing well, while 95% believed there was widespread government corruption. These must be some of the most damning expressions of popular discontent, making the protests that erupted in mid-October all but inevitable.

Protesters Burst Onto The Streets

Finally, on the night of October 17, the many years of pent-up anger and resentment exploded into the open. It was the final indignity of the 20 cent a day tax on WhatsApp that brought protesters onto the streets. By week’s end, over a million people had joined the protests and they swelled to as many as 2 million by some counts (and this, out of a total population of 6 million!)

These protests brought out all the creativity and imagination people unleash when they begin to question their world. People of all ages, tired of sectarian politics, came together in a show of camaraderie and solidarity across the political and religious spectrums. At last, they felt they were speaking with one voice against the class that had brought them such daily misery. 

Their demands were many. Besides calling for “the fall of the regime” and for early elections, the protesters presented a combination of demands of the political and economic spheres. They called for a 50% reduction in the salaries of the President, ministers and law-makers. They also demanded to pass laws against corruption led by anti-corruption committees. They called for regulatory bodies to oversee the power, telecommunication and civil aviation sectors. Many of their demands were aimed at corruption. To that end, many called for a government to be chosen “for their competencies and expertise, not political loyalties,” one that is a “technocratic” government and independent judiciary.

Taxes were also a big issue. They called for increasing taxes on bank profits while demanding that no new taxes would be levied on the people in 2020. Poor families would get an extra $13.3 million and another $160 million for housing needs. New investment projects were to be started around the country.

The protests targeted some of the most egregious players in the country. The Presidential Palace and the Ministries of Education and Information were prime targets, but so were the Central and private banks. The power company Electricite du Liban was a despised villain. And they even protested the privatization of beaches which required an entrance fee, perhaps a more trivial grievance, but nonetheless one that stuck in the craw of many poor people in this Mediterranean nation.

These were not the first protests to have rocked the country in recent history. In 2005, the so-called Cedar Revolution demanded for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, after a powerful car bomb attributed to the Syrians, killed the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (father of the recently deposed Prime Minister Saad Hariri) and 21 people, including 13 bystanders. Mass protests that lasted several weeks were able to force the Syrian troops to withdraw, though sectarian divisions were reinforced, with half the country looking to the West and the other half toward Iran and Syria.

And then came the Arab Spring in 2011. Though Lebanon was not at the forefront of these protests that shook the Arab world, important lessons were learned, marking a turning point in the struggle. The protests targeted the confessionalism of Lebanese politics, “challenging the powerfully entrenched fiefs of sectarian politics.”  (which as of last count numbered 18 sects and their representatives!) As a protester made clear: people are kept divided because “they have an interest in controlling us, in controlling the country.” The Arab Spring popularized the idea that the various ruling parties were partners in crime. This marked an important step forward and went a long way in challenging the status quo that had gone on uninterrupted since the end of the French Mandate and the beginning of Lebanese independence in 1943.

However, the hopes and promises of a better world heralded by the Arab Spring were crushed to varying degrees, most viciously in Egypt. The jubilation after the fall of the long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak led to a short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government, but this was soon overthrown by the present regime of the brutal military dictator Abdel-Fatah el-Sisi. 

Nonetheless, the Arab Spring had left its mark throughout the region and provided an important lesson for the people protesting in Lebanon today. When protests erupted again in 2015, the ire of the protesters was directed this time at the endemic corruption of all the various sects. This was the infamous You Stink! protest against the Lebanese government’s inability to deal with the garbage crisis. It was well understood that the reason for it was the deep-seated corruption at every level of government. The demands for a civil society, as opposed to a government based on nepotism and favoritism, were finally the order of the day. 

What Next for the Movement?

The protests have lasted over two months and are still going on at the time of writing. Even though the protesters had an early success in forcing the resignation of the Prime Minister Saad Hariri, they have not been able to bring down the regime or to win any substantial demands. Parliament has just approved a new Prime Minister, who by law has to be a Sunni Muslim, after intense pressure from foreign lenders. Although the protesters immediately opposed him, calling him part of the old ruling class that they reject, he has been confirmed by Parliament, with the odd twist that he had the backing of both the Christians and the Shiite Muslims in Parliament (but not the Sunni Muslims.) It is undoubtedly hard to believe that a technocrat in government, following the dictates of the IMF and other lenders, would bring about the relief that the working class and the poor in Lebanon so badly need. 

Unfortunately, the protesters have also lost a lot of steam, quite understandably so. If the government’s strategy was to wait it out, it seems to have succeeded to a great extent. Being at a standstill is never favorable to a protest for the simple reason that people have to attend to daily life, including work and family. True, the police were deployed on the very first night, violently and indiscriminately attacking the protesters, but it did not move the resolve of people to keep coming back to the squares. Because the protesters were able to appeal to the soldiers, reminding them that they too were brothers in the struggle, the government could not rely on the army. Instead, thugs from various militias have taken over the job of trying to repress the protests. Tension is growing as the Hezbollah and Amal militias are violently forcing their way into the encampments, most famously at Martyrs’ Square, the most important gathering place in Beirut. This is a disturbing and dangerous development, as the attacks are aimed at precisely the most radical aspect of the protests: unity over sectarian division. 

However, for the protests to win, they have to move on to a different phase, where the real power lies. Right at the center of the protests is now a seemingly unshakeable tenet that “all means all.” The artificial divisions foisted upon the Lebanese people from colonial times and used to further the ends of the ruling class are finally breaking down. And in their place, a class struggle can start to rise up. This is probably one of the biggest achievements of the people who went out night after night to reclaim their place in the history of their country. 

Many of the questions the Lebanese protests face have also been raised in the revolts that have erupted around the world. Although the issues seem different on the face of it, the root causes are very similar: immiseration of the people as the ruling classes enriched themselves to an obscene degree. Decades of neoliberal policies, which translated into cuts in wages and living standards, with basic services cut to the bone, have led to huge upsurges of working class revolts. Added to all these grievances, for Lebanon as in Iraq, the question of corruption has been central to the anger felt on the street. And yet, the answers eventually will have to come from where the working class is at its strongest.

The weaknesses and divisions in the Lebanese labor movement meant that the streets were the focal point. The leaderless character of it initially helped to move beyond the limits pre-set by reformist parties and the union bureaucracy. Can the energy seen on the streets now lead to long-term organizing in the workplace? This will entail a shake-up of the class differences in the movement while also striving to retain broad unity. The revolt in the squares has been a resounding opening salvo, but to win the big battles ahead, the struggle will have to move to the workplace, where the real power of the working class lies.

M. N. Dahan