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The last­ing change from Le­banon’s mass protests

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The last­ing change from Le­banon’s mass protests

Nour Square in Tripoli over­flow­ing with pro­test­ers chant­ing in uni­son for the fall of the sys­tem and danc­ing to mu­sic spun by a live DJ. Men and women across the coun­try have bro­ken free of sec­tar­ian shack­les, call­ing out the po­lit­i­cal class en masse. Street ven­dors sell­ing kaak and corn on the cob in the streets of Down­town Beirut pre­vi­ously in­ac­ces­si­ble to them in fa­vor of high-end cafes and shops. Crowds of peo­ple danc­ing, chant­ing “hela hela,” “kul­lon yani kul­lon,” and the fa­mous Arab Spring slo­gan of “ash-sha’ab yurid iskat an-nizam,” among oth­ers, or par­tic­i­pat­ing in pub­lic de­bates in “the Egg” and other re­claimed pub­lic spa­ces in Down­town Beirut. Count­less Le­banese of all ages and back­grounds, and in re­gions all across the coun­try fill up city squares and go on live tele­vi­sion to voice their frus­tra­tion and anger with an eco­nomic re­al­ity that was brought about by deep-rooted cor­rup­tion and the en­trench­ment of the sec­tar­ian po­lit­i­cal or­der (see com­ment page 44). Pro­test­ers across the coun­try be­gan set­ting up road­blocks that were at times re­moved by the au­thor­i­ties only to be re­formed, some­times mul­ti­ple times per day. The most strik­ing ex­am­ple of which was the road­block on the

Fouad Che­hab bridge, known as the ring, which con­nects east and west Beirut, where pro­test­ers got cre­ative, bring­ing so­fas and fridges to block off the high­way and on the 11th day of the protests post­ing the area on AirBnB as “Beit el-sha’ab,” which trans­lates to “the peo­ple’s home.”

These are just some mo­ments of the Oc­to­ber up­ris­ing in Le­banon, at the time of writ­ing in its 13th day, which is be­ing de­scribed as the tip­ping point and a game changer for the coun­try (see time­line of the first 13 days start­ing page 18). Those protest­ing—at one point me­dia es­ti­mates put num­bers at a quar­ter of the Le­banese pop­u­la­tion—suc­ceeded in shut­ting down the coun­try through block­ing roads and or­ga­niz­ing a gen­eral strike. Banks and schools have re­mained closed since the se­cond day of the protests, de­spite some at­tempts to open the lat­ter. A lead­er­less move­ment—an ini­tial strength but as time goes on in­creas­ingly per­ceived as a weak­ness—those par­tic­i­pat­ing in mass protests have been united in their calls for the res­ig­na­tion of the gov­ern­ment, a tech­no­cratic gov­ern­ment put in its place to ad­dress im­me­di­ate eco­nomic con­cerns, the call­ing of new elec­tions, a more pro­por­tional elec­toral law, and the over­throw­ing of the post-war sec­tar­ian sys­tem. Their first vic­tory came just three days into the protests, with the res­ig­na­tion of the four Le­banese

Those par­tic­i­pat­ing in mass protests have been united in their calls for a tech­no­cratic gov­ern­ment and new elec­tions un­der a new law.

Forces min­is­ters from the gov­ern­ment. Ten days later, on the 13th day of protests, one marred by vi­o­lence against pro­test­ers from Amal and Hezbol­lah sup­port­ers, Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion, and by ex­ten­sion, the res­ig­na­tion of his unity gov­ern­ment. In the streets, the crowds chased away by the ear­lier vi­o­lence re­turned and cel­e­brated their vic­tory, how­ever, to these pro­test­ers the prime min­is­ter’s res­ig­na­tion was just one im­por­tant step on a long path to­ward much needed re­forms and fun­da­men­tal change in Le­banon.

WHEN ENOUGH BE­CAME ENOUGH

Ini­tial protests were sparked by lo­cal me­dia re­ports on a se­ries of pro­posed taxes that cabi­net dis­cussed in line with the 2020 bud­get. When it emerged that cabi­net had agreed to im­pose a tax on Voice over In­ter­net Pro­to­col ser­vices, which would have re­sulted in a charge on the use of What­sApp calls up to $6 per month on top of by re­gional stan­dards high phone bills (two to three times those of re­gional peers), this was seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was not, how­ever, the un­der­ly­ing cause of this Oc­to­ber up­ris­ing (see com­ment page 44), as was ini­tially naively re­ported in both lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional me­dia.

Our own cov­er­age of the Le­banon econ­omy over the past 20 years has shown time and again what needed to be ad­dressed to pre­vent a loom­ing eco­nomic cri­sis (see Ex­ec­u­tive’s 2019 Eco­nomic Roadmap). As we en­tered into this Oc­to­ber, Le­banese had faced mul­ti­ple gas sta­tion strikes and strikes from bak­eries over dif­fi­cul­ties that gas dis­trib­u­tors and wheat im­porters had in se­cur­ing dol­lars at the of­fi­cial rate to pay for im­ports. Fear over the po­ten­tial dol­lar short­age was stoked by res­i­dents fac­ing is­sues with­draw­ing dol­lars from ATMs and banks, trou­ble de­posit­ing Le­banese lira in dol­lar ac­counts, and in­creas­ingly higher un­of­fi­cial ex­change rates.

In the days lead­ing up to the protest, Le­banese lit­er­ally watched in hor­ror as some of the worst wild­fires in over a decade spread across the coun­try aided by a heat­wave and high winds, with the Chouf and Metn ar­eas par­tic­u­larly hard hit. Over two days, Le­banon lost at least 1,200 hectares of for­est ac­cord­ing to Ge­orge Mitri, di­rec­tor of the land and nat­u­ral re­sources pro­gram at the Univer­sity of Bala­mand, who was cited in sev­eral me­dia re­ports. Added to the 1,300 hectares al­ready lost this year, the an­nual av­er­age due to wild­fires, Le­banon dou­bled its an­nual losses in the span of 48 hours. And while the Le­banese banded to­gether to pro­vide aid to those dis­placed, and food and wa­ter for the un­paid civil de­fense teams who fought the fires, it emerged that the coun­try was in pos­ses­sion of three fire­fight­ing heli­copters—do­nated by cit­i­zens who had raised mil­lions of dol­lars for their pur­chase back in 2009—that the gov­ern­ment had failed to main­tain.

Across the coun­try, the com­mon call was for the down­fall of the cor­rupt and in­ept regime. The Le­banese re­volt had be­gun.

To add in­sult to in­jury, Free Pa­tri­otic Move­ment MP Mario Aoun came on a lo­cal TV sta­tion to ques­tion why these fires were tar­get­ing Chris­tian ar­eas—a state­ment as cat­e­gor­i­cally un­true as it was mo­ronic. It is against this back­drop that when it was an­nounced that the cabi­net had de­cided on re­gres­sive tax mea­sures, in­clud­ing the tax on What­sApp, hun­dreds of peo­ple took to the streets. Across the coun­try, the com­mon call was for the down­fall of the cor­rupt and in­ept regime. The Le­banese re­volt had be­gun.

THE TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN’

The first line in the Tu­nisian poet Abu al-Qasm al-Shabbi’s “The Will of Life” trans­lates into, “If one day a peo­ple de­sires to live, then fate will an­swer their call.” With the Oc­to­ber up­ris­ing, it seems that the Le­banese peo­ple have loudly and clearly cho­sen life. Re­gard­less of whether fate will an­swer their call or not, their de­sire to live has man­i­fested it­self in ways that can­not be taken away from them.

The most pow­er­ful out­come of the Oc­to­ber protests is the break­down of the bar­rier of fear across Le­banon that had pre­vented the peo­ple of Le­banon’s var­i­ous sects from open­ingly ques­tion­ing lead­ers. For the first time in re­cent mem­ory, Le­banese from Tripoli to Sour—through Na­batieh, Saida, Ba­troun, Beirut, and oth­ers— were openly crit­i­ciz­ing and curs­ing those in the gov­ern­ment from For­eign Min­is­ter Ge­bran Bas­sil to Speaker Nabih Berri to Prime Min­is­ter Saad

The res­ig­na­tion of Hariri’s gov­ern­ment af­firmed Le­banese peo­ple’s new­found faith in their power to ef­fect change.

Hariri, and, fol­low­ing his first speech on the third day of protests where he backed the cur­rent gov­ern­ment, even Hezbol­lah Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Has­san Nas­ral­lah. While pro­test­ers in Na­batieh and Sour were met with ag­gres­sion by sup­port­ers of Amal and Hezbol­lah, the ma­jor­ity still per­sisted in their cri­tiques and de­mands that the gov­ern­ment re­sign. The eco­nomic re­al­ity of the ma­jor­ity of Le­banese—the bot­tom 50 per­cent re­ceive just 10 per­cent of the na­tional in­come—has led to an un­prece­dented break­down in the cur­rent sec­tar­ian or­der. Across the coun­try, and par­tic­u­larly out­side the cap­i­tal, Le­banese cit­i­zens de­cided that is was no longer ac­cept­able for them to strug­gle to find work to sup­port them­selves and their fam­i­lies, while the politi­cian they had blindly sup­ported grew richer at their ex­pense. Le­banese re­al­ized their roles in keep­ing these politi­cians in their chairs and en­trust­ing them with the job of se­cur­ing their ba­sic rights as cit­i­zens. If the gov­ern­ment does not de­liver, then they, the peo­ple, have the power to hold them ac­count­able—and so they did.

The res­ig­na­tion of Hariri’s gov­ern­ment af­firmed Le­banese peo­ple’s new­found faith in their power to ef­fect change in their coun­try, and there is no turn­ing back now. Even if the pro­test­ers do end up leav­ing the streets and open­ing roads, they now know they can go back down again and de­mand change when needed. The anger and the power that has been re­leased can­not be eas­ily bot­tled up again.

An­other rarely seen be­fore out­come of the protests is the spon­ta­neous unity among Le­banese across sects and so­cial classes. The fact that an es­ti­mated 1 mil­lion peo­ple gath­ered across Le­banon on Oc­to­ber 20, without any call from a po­lit­i­cal party or sect leader to do so, is truly heart­warm­ing. Recit­ing both the Fati­hah and the Rosary in Jal el-Dib is un­prece­dented. Pub­lic space has been re­claimed as a long soul­less Down­town Beirut be­comes the balad again, alive with street ven­dors, town hall-style de­bates—a place for all peo­ple to gather. In Mar­tyr’s Square and Riad el-Solh, univer­sity stu­dents and in­tel­lec­tu­als can be found along­side moped rid­ers, co­or­di­nat­ing on road­blocks. And while ac­cu­sa­tions that the protests have, over time, be­come more mid­dle class are valid, there have still been im­por­tant steps to­ward break­ing down class bar­ri­ers and shift­ing to more hor­i­zon­tal al­liances. That sense of cau­tion and fear that many Le­banese have of “the other”—whether that other is from a dif­fer­ent sect or a dif­fer­ent so­cial back­ground—has also been bro­ken as the re­al­iza­tion that we are all suf­fer­ing from the same eco­nomic strains un­der the cor­rupt sys­tem be­comes clearer. In Tripoli, long seen as a bas­tion of Sunni ex­trem­ism, they chanted in sol­i­dar­ity with the pro­test­ers of Sour.

BREAK­DOWN OF A PROTEST

While Le­banese of all ages are par­tic­i­pat­ing in the protests, they are largely sus­tained by the youth who did not live through the civil war and are thus less cau­tious and more op­ti­mistic than their par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion that change can be achieved without a de­scent into vi­o­lence.

The role of women in Oc­to­ber’s up­ris­ing also needs to be high­lighted. One of the most iconic images, taken on the first day of the protests, was of pro­tester Malak Alaywe kick­ing one of Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Akram Che­hayeb’s armed body­guards in the groin. Af­ter the first two days, when pro­test­ers were met with tear gas and rub­ber bul­lets by the riot po­lice in re­sponse to mild provo­ca­tions from the crowd, day three saw women stand­ing on the front­lines, cre­at­ing a bar­rier be­tween se­cu­rity forces and the male pro­test­ers to pre­vent the es­ca­la­tion of vi­o­lence. Tripoli’s Jana Jam­mal be­came an­other icon of the revo­lu­tion when she spoke about be­ing a univer­sity grad­u­ate un­able to find a job without wasta and about her mother’s health­care is­sues. Across so­cial me­dia, other ex­am­ples emerged. In Riad el-Solh and the pub­lic gar­dens in its

vicin­ity, women are lead­ing de­bates on pub­lic spa­ces, anti-sec­tar­i­an­ism, and the way for­ward af­ter the protests.

The protests have af­firmed that women and youth, both of whom are tra­di­tion­ally marginal­ized in Le­banon’s pa­tri­ar­chal po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, are ca­pa­ble lead­ers.

WHEN THEY TRY TO FIGHT BACK

Ma­hatma Gandhi said, “First they ig­nore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Le­banon’s re­volt has passed through these three stages and has se­cured its first ma­jor vic­tory with the res­ig­na­tion of Hariri. What was strik­ing through­out the past 13 days was the pro­test­ers’ per­sis­tence and their in­sis­tence to per­se­vere with their peace­ful ap­proach de­spite se­cu­rity forces forc­ing open roads and counter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary forces at­tack­ing them.

The po­lit­i­cal elite’s re­sponse to these protests—un­til Hariri’s res­ig­na­tion—was lack­ing. Hariri ad­dressed the pro­test­ers on the se­cond day, an­nounc­ing a 72-hour dead­line for the cabi­net to agree on re­forms. When these re­forms were an­nounced (see story page 41), they were met with gen­eral dis­trust from pro­test­ers. It took over a week for the pres­i­dent of the repub­lic to ad­dress the cri­sis, do­ing so in a pre­re­corded and short state­ment that also failed to ad­dress de­mands. Af­ter an ini­tial speech on day two, back­ing the gov­ern­ment, Bas­sil—the subject of a lot of the pro­test­ers’ ire—had stayed silent un­til af­ter the 13 days. Most no­tably, af­ter this first speech failed to have any im­pact on the streets, Nas­ral­lah spoke again on the ninth day of the protests, al­leg­ing that what be­gan as a spon­ta­neous re­volt was now be­ing in­flu­enced by for­eign em­bassies and lo­cal po­lit­i­cal par­ties, call­ing on the pro­test­ers to dis­close their fun­ders and for his own sup­port­ers to leave the streets. So­cial me­dia posts declar­ing them­selves the fun­ders of the protests be­gan to ap­pear, along with jokes of sand­wiches sup­plied by dif­fer­ent em­bassies.

In Sour and Na­batieh, pro­test­ers have been fac­ing vi­o­lence from the se­cond day of the up­ris­ing. The pro­test­ers in Beirut were met with vi­o­lence three times—the most re­cent of which was at the ring when thugs at­tacked pro­test­ers and jour­nal­ists while chant­ing pro-Hezbol­lah and pro-Amal chants be­fore the army was de­ployed to seper­ate them. The same group headed to Down­town Beirut where in a mat­ter of min­utes they tore down the tents and in­fra­struc­ture the pro­test­ers had built over days. Pro­test­ers did not take the bait. They per­sisted with their peace­ful protest­ing, and once the se­cu­rity ser­vices had cleared the thugs out of Down­town be­gan to re­build their tents.

On road­blocks, pro­test­ers proved per­sis­tent and de­ter­mined. When se­cu­rity forces would open one road, pro­test­ers would sim­ply close it again. When ru­mors spread that se­cu­rity forces would re­open the streets at dawn, pro­test­ers slept on the streets to pre­vent that from hap­pen­ing, or aban­doned their cars to block off high­ways. Road clo­sures be­came a power strug­gle be­tween the gov­ern­ment and the peo­ple, one that the peo­ple seemed de­ter­mined to win.

Cor­rup­tion is so deeply en­trenched in Le­banon—start­ing from the pub­lic sec­tor em­ployee who asks for a bribe to com­plete a sim­ple pro­ce­dure to elected MPs steal­ing the peo­ple’s money—that it is dif­fi­cult to erode in a few months or even years. So while there may be short-term po­lit­i­cal gains from these protests, man­i­fested in the for­ma­tion of a tech­no­crat gov­ern­ment and early par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, a com­plete sys­tem over­haul is re­quired—and when or whether that hap­pens is un­cer­tain.

Some eco­nomic changes may be im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent fol­low­ing the protests, but real eco­nomic re­form will take years. What can be said with cer­tainty is that Oc­to­ber’s up­ris­ing has ir­re­versibly changed Le­banese peo­ple’s re­la­tion tothem­selves. It has led them to fall in love with their coun­try again, and to know that they have the power to fight for it. This has re­gional im­pli­ca­tions that could be the start of a real spring. And that is some­thing beau­ti­ful.

Cor­rup­tion is so deeply en­trenched in Le­banon that it is dif­fi­cult to erode.

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