RIYADH — Returning to my apartment in the evenings, my daily ritual over the past week has been to load Facebook and scroll through endless videos and images posted by my friends and family in Lebanon. They show massive crowds thronging to Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, posters lampooning the political elite and impromptu speeches by protesters condemning their country’s broken government and economy.
I am not Lebanese, but I have called the country home for a total of seven years now. More important, my wife is Lebanese and the upheaval in the country is no longer just another news story, but something that directly affects my family. Our family WhatsApp groups are now a constant flurry of activity, with members sharing the latest news, participating in the ongoing political debates and trying to figure out what comes next.
Lebanon has never seen such grassroots political protest; it’s also never undergone major peaceful reform. How the current situation plays out is anyone’s guess.
The proximate cause of the current wave of protest was an announcement by the government, since rescinded, that it would impose a tax on Whatsapp voice calls. Lebanon has some of the highest telecommunications fees in the world, and many people use such calls to circumvent the exorbitant costs of the normal phone system. But the latest proposed tax was just the tipping point: For years, Lebanese have increasingly been gouged by the state and received less and less in return. The government has proved incapable of providing basic services such as electricity or garbage collection, and good jobs are a rare commodity—many young Lebanese are forced to find employment outside of the country.
Lebanon also has one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world, and the valuation of the lira, which has remained steady since the end of the civil war, is increasingly under threat. The country suffers from a dollar shortage: Starting about a month ago, the banks made it increasingly difficult to withdraw US currency; they would often simply lie when customers would attempt to do so, blaming the problem on temporary glitches. The government responded to its economic challenges by embarking on austerity efforts. To many ordinary people, however, the real cause for the crisis was the country’s corrupt political class, which they blamed for looting the country’s wealth.
There is a fundamental disconnect between the aims of Prime Minister Hariri and the protesters’. Hariri is searching for ways to reduce the budget deficit without raising taxes. But no one who has taken to the streets is protesting for a balanced budget—Lebanese want the government to do more for them, not less.
Those grievances have prompted a broad-based protest movement, the likes of which Lebanon has never seen. There are massive demonstrations not only in downtown Beirut but across the country, in cities such as Tripoli, Nabatieh and Sur. All Lebanon’s major religious groups have participated—and in contrast to previous protest movements, have aimed their ire at their own political leaders rather than just those of other sects.
In response to the protests, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a series of economic reforms yesterday. The salaries of current and former members of parliament will be cut, several state institutions abolished and increased taxes imposed on the banking sector. He also promised to oversee the drafting of a law to recoup assets lost due to corruption.
There is a fundamental disconnect between the aims of Hariri and the protesters, however. The prime minister is searching for ways to reduce the budget deficit without raising taxes on citizens. But no one who has taken to the streets is protesting for a balanced budget—Lebanese want the government to do more for them, not less. Hariri’s proposals include a relatively small amount of money for impoverished people; details of his anti-corruption legislation, meanwhile, remain hard to come by. It is far from clear how Lebanon squares the economic necessity of austerity with the steadily mounting demands of the protesters.
The protest movement also faces real challenges in the days and weeks ahead. It is fundamentally leaderless: Lebanese politics have long been dominated by those who base their appeal around the defense of their religious sects, preventing the emergence of a truly multi-sectarian political movement. That lack of leadership makes it difficult to coordinate effectively or unite around a set of concrete demands.
There is also the ever-looming threat of political violence. The protests have turned violent at times over the past week. The Lebanese army last night also broke up an attempt by members of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, two Shia parties, from reaching the protesters in downtown Beirut. It is unlikely that the political parties will allow such a threat to their primacy to continue indefinitely.
Lebanon is in uncharted territory. There is no precedent in the country’s history for such massive political mobilization outside the entrenched parties’ control. Unfortunately, there is also no precedent in Lebanese history for significant political change occurring without violence. Whatever happens, I will remain glued to my computer screen.
Photo by Shahen Araboghlian [CC BY-SA 4.0]