TRIPOLI, Lebanon — On a recent rainy January night, hundreds of people could still be found in Nour Square, the main protest site in Lebanon’s second largest city.
The numbers are not as large as they were when the country’s herak (uprising or revolution) against its post-war political order began in October, but it is clear the announcement of a new government last month has not satisfied demonstrators’ demands.
“Tell the leaders sitting on their chairs that we doing their job to provide a living for this man or this family coming and eating from here or taking bread from here,” said Linda Bourghol, a social worker from Tripoli who has organized a soup kitchen in Nour Square that feeds demonstrators and the city’s poor alike.
Economics have motivated the protests since the beginning as demonstrators seek a government that is more responsive to their day-to-day needs. The sectarian-based political order enshrined to deliver peace and stability after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990 benefits very few Lebanese. Protestors – who are not associated with any one sect or political faction – have called for the dismantling of Lebanon’s government, which is based on sectarian quotas and stipulates that certain positions must be filled by members of certain sects.
“That’s the long-term strategic goal,” said Lucien Bourjeily, a writer, director and longtime activist from Beirut who helped lead protests against the government in 2015 when corruption and mismanagement left piles of uncollected garbage in the streets across the country. “There are a lot of other wins that would happen before. But that is part of it. The sectarian system is one of the main reasons the political system is so inept. There’s also lot of countries that are secular and corrupt. It’s not the only reason, but it’s one of the main reasons there is no accountability.”
“There are some things in the constitution — it was supposed to be 1992 we go into a non-sectarian parliament, and it never happened. Now it’s 2020. The real issue is non-application of the laws,” Bourjeily said. “Of course there is need for reform, but the constitution is not so bad. The abolition is already there. It just wasn’t applied.”
In the last decade, poverty rates have worsened in Lebanon, and the current crisis threatens to leave half the country living below the poverty line within months. Lebanon’s state has failed its citizens in myriad ways — from widespread poverty to the lack of 24-hour electricity to increasingly dirty water and air. The country has become a frightening example of how a weak governing system unwilling or unable to enforce laws can fail.
“They are not obliged to ask for this, it’s the government’s duty to provide all of this. We repeat again from the streets we are not going to leave. Not from Martyrs’ Square (the main protest site in Beirut) nor from Nour Square,” Bourghol said. “We are going to continue with the poor people to topple the regime and all the leaders from (Lebanese president) Michel Aoun and on because they stole the country.”
“It’s not corruption in the state, it’s a state of corruption,” said Claude Jabre, a protester in Beirut with a background in environmental activism. Activists say the country’s political leaders have simply abandoned the rest of the country. “They are surviving for the last 30 years, and they don’t care about the rest of us. They want me to leave the country and send money back. That was what caused this problem. Not enough people were sending money,” Jabre said.
But the country’s political class appears largely unbothered by the continued protests, road closures and occasional violence. They have yet to be seriously affected by capital controls banks have imposed on many customers or the increasing shortages of medications in hospitals. Meanwhile, a new cabinet announced in January lacks representation from some of Lebanon’s traditionally powerful parties such as Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and is dominated by the political alliance led by Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah. They are promising reforms, but few believe what is needed to create a more just system will happen. For the most part, those in power are still largely stalling for time, perhaps hoping the movement against them will lose momentum.
“Nobody knows what will happen. They (the political class) don’t know,” said Bourjeily. “We have been going to the streets for many years now. People might get tired of the economic situation.”
“They are playing chicken — who will flinch first? They can take it for a long time — they have money, they have palaces, they have money abroad — the people don’t have this luxury,” Bourjeily said. “I think people will give it a couple weeks to see what this government is going to do – they cannot afford to stay still and just wait. There are people now who don’t trust it and won’t give it any chance. There are people who will wait a little bit and give it a couple weeks. There are a small minority who trust it and say ‘let’s give them a chance.’”
“People might hope that this government will bring some kind of stability for people to pay the rent at the end of the month and meet their basic needs,” he continued. “They (the ruling class) benefit from the middle class getting crushed — when someone gets really poor at a certain level, they can barely survive, and how can you fight the government when you are struggling like that?”
Bourjeily and others said they are optimistic, and see cracks in the ruling class’s façade.
“This new government surprised me,” said Farah Chaer, another veteran activist from Beirut. “I’m definitely happy for the first time we don’t see (Saad) Hariri as prime minister. They brought their friends and their cronies – but at least I’m not seeing their faces for the first time. I wasn’t expecting this.”
“I think a lot has been accomplished,” Bourjeily said. “We haven’t reached the goals that were stated at the beginning — first to bring down the government, and afterwards we get a new independent, neutral and technocratic government to lead the transitional period to get to parliamentary elections within six months.”
“We hope for new laws and the independence of the judiciary and some people going to jail and stolen public funds (returned to) the public treasury,” Bourjeily said. “We are getting there. The first step to real change in the change of perception — and this change has happened. Today people are expressing their doubts about the politicians’ ability to handle things.”
Some of the men who have so far refused to budge are former warlords, leaders who have already killed plenty of Lebanese. The current president, Michel Aoun, led one faction of the Lebanese army during the civil war, which culminated in fighting between Christian factions before Aoun entered a 15-year exile. Hezbollah demonstrated its willingness to use force inside Lebanon in 2008 in street battles that it quickly won. Amal, the political party now led by parliament speaker Nabih Berri, was also civil war-era militia. While the most severe violence against protestors has so far come from the police, Amal and Hezbollah supporters have attacked protestors.
“I don’t think the violence from the state will stop. We’re not dealing with a democratic state, we’re dealing with mafiosi,” Chaer said.
“The more we protest, the greater the threat of violence will be,” Bourjeily said. “The more they feel threatened — for example, if there is an election and there is a list that is really winning against them, they might threaten the candidates, they might close down the place where the election is happening, they might steal the ballot boxes, they might try to bribe their way out of it. I don’t think they use violence unless they feel threatened.”
The protests have been largely peaceful, though some protestors have expressed the belief that some violence is necessary. Bourjeily disagrees.
“We are dealing with a very violent regime that is very well-armed — you have an official army and parties also have militias,” Bourjeily said. “Fighting them doesn’t help. Non-violence irritates them, they don’t know how to fight back. I respect other ways of looking at this, but my opinion is that we can achieve better and faster with non-violent direct actions, by having clear difference between the opposition and the people in power. They are violent. I don’t think [violence from protestors] helps. But I totally understand the frustration of people who are reacting this way — they have been subjected to economic violence for so many years. But as opposition, we surely benefit from a different approach.”
Former prime minister Hariri resigned his post after two months of demonstrations, leaving much of the international community without their normal interlocutor. It was Hariri’s third term as prime minister; his father, Rafik Hariri, served twice as prime minister — all told, a Hariri has been prime minister for more than half of Lebanon’s postwar period.
While the World Bank has offered assistance, a bailout with no strings attached, as has happened in the past, seems unlikely this time around. Nor would it necessarily help.
“Even if we get some injection of liquidity now it’s not going to help unless we make major changes — you can’t import $15 billion a year. Such a huge trade gap is not sustainable,” said Ziad Hayek, an economist and banker who resigned his post as the head of the government’s High Council for Privatization last year to protest rampant corruption.
“I think the Lebanese economy is in the state it’s in because of two factors. One being the lack of interest of the political class in economic and financial matters in general — they have neglected everything that’s economic throughout these past decades. Second is their lack of experience in these matters — even if they wanted to be involved in it, they have basically seen everything from a political angle rather that a socioeconomic angle — it’s never regarded as priority if you look at all the actions of the Lebanese government in the past,” Hayek said.
“From time to time they have a (donor) conference, but never take time to implement the reforms that are necessary,” Hayek said. “They have let special interests run the economy. The banks, the unions, the organizations such as the lawyers’ union, the doctors, the engineers — each one of these associations have been able to impose their own regulations on Lebanese business. For instance, if you want to start a company, you have to have a lawyer — and that will cost you $6000 minimum, $4000 to pay for an auditor, if it’s an LLC you a second auditor — so you’re $11,000 out of pocket to start a business before you’ve even begun.”
After the end of the civil war, devaluation of the Lebanese lira and hyperinflation caused many to lose their life savings. The Lebanese government has maintained a fixed exchange rate with the US dollar since 1997, a policy that was only tenable as long as the Lebanese diaspora was continuing to send money back to the country. That solution is no longer working.
“They have chosen to implement this peg even though they’ve had several opportunities to change it,” Hayek said. “As long as you’re able to finance it with remittances from abroad, it was useful for the political class to maintain that peg. The overvalued currency allowed them to live beyond their means. You could buy the best wines and cars and things that you could import because your currency is overvalued.”
“To devalue the currency would have meant that people had to live much more humble lives — at the end of the day, the Lebanese are poor,” Hayek said. “It was fake wealth.”
The lack of political accountability and severe wealth gap in the country have created a system that on its face often seems absurd. Lebanese who can afford it pay two electricity bills — one to Electricité Liban, the state provider, and a second to one of the hundreds of private generator owners across the country that provide electricity during the hours that the state does not — in some areas, the state provides less than 12 hours each day.
Electricity is perhaps the most salient example, but it is not the only one. Telecoms prices in Lebanon are amongst the highest in the world, despite the internet speeds being amongst the slowest. Water shortages cause some people to pay three providers for that service — one to the state, one to a private company that provides water for activities like washing up, and a third for the delivery of potable water.
The International Angle
Attempts by Lebanese political parties to paint the demonstrations as the work of some hidden hand or foreign agenda have so far failed. Most dangerous are Hezbollah’s assertions that foreign powers are exploiting the movement, but even Hariri has gone so far as to insinuate the same.
The biggest problem with international coverage of Lebanon is that it is so frequently focused on Hezbollah or done through that lens, and the herak coverage has been no different. But in the context of what is going on right now, Hezbollah are largely the same as any of the parties in power — trying to keep their base loyal and maintain power. They’ve been part of parliament since 1992.
If the demonstrations are successful in prompting a real reform of the Lebanese state (or simply its true adherence to the existing constitution), it is hard to imagine a long-term outcome that does not involve a renegotiation of Hezbollah’s role as the only non-state actor with a formal military force. The core demands of the protestors do not include this.
“In order for Lebanon to exercise even the most basic aspects of state sovereignty, the use of military forces and decisions tied to war and peace need to make their way back to the executive branch of government in consultation with the legislative branch on foreign policy and ways and means,” said Aram Nerguizian, senior advisor of the Program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “The alternative would be what we have now: a messy case of muddling along in an untenable cycle of military dualism. I say untenable because this is not the haggard, underfunded military of 2005. The (Lebanese Armed Forces) of 2020 is arguably one of the most capable and lethal Arab militaries in the region relative to its size and resourcing, and a military that has capabilities that even Hezbollah can only dream of.”
“All it lacks is what most in the military’s higher echelons now crave to see: a sitting government that finally – and for the first time in 50 years – gives it a legitimate and clear order to extend full and uncontested state sovereignty on national security,” Nerguizian said.
But back in Nour Square in Tripoli, the concerns of the protestors are far more immediate.
“I’m 18 years old,” said Mohamed Shatah, a volunteer at one of the kitchens. “I went to the revolution because we are starving.”
Shatah tears up as he speaks of his family’s hardships — particularly his elderly father who continues to work despite worsening health problems.
“Every day my dad is dying in front of my eyes and I can’t do anything about it,” Shatah said. “My brother is 25 years old and he can’t buy a house. He can’t help my dad. Why are the leaders so corrupt? Isn’t 30 years of robbing us enough? Isn’t it my right to be educated? Isn’t it my right to dream?”
“It’s true I didn’t live through the war. In the war they starved people — why are they doing the same to us? Let them feel with us. Let them feel with the poor. Let the people wake up and come down to the streets.”