Acasă Extern Lebanon’s Pan-Sectarian Protests

Lebanon’s Pan-Sectarian Protests

Historic anti-government protests in Lebanon have shut down the country over the past week, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets in Beirut and far beyond to demand the government’s resignation.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri addressed the nation on Oct. 18, promising immediate reforms, but his words ultimately rang hollow as Lebanese continued to demonstrate in growing numbers. The Lebanese Forces, a prominent Christian political party, has already resigned its Cabinet members.

The initial demonstrations in downtown Beirut late last week were a response to reports that the government would impose a $6 fee on the use of WhatsApp, the popular messaging service owned by Facebook. Lebanon, currently the third most-indebted country in the world, already has some of the most expensive mobile phone services in the Middle East. Both of the telecom companies in the country are state-owned. In a matter of hours, other protests soon cropped up in cities around the country, from Tripoli in the north to Tyre in the south. Demonstrations in Lebanon have usually been centered in Beirut, but the participation of citizens across the country reflects a unifying rage pushing people to cast aside historically divisive political and sectarian affiliations.

Given their broad scope and nonsectarian nature, the protests soon went far beyond the price of using a mobile phone. They are a popular outcry against the poor quality of life under a government that regularly ranks as one the most corrupt in the world.

“WhatsApp may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but when people call this ‘the WhatsApp revolution,’ it undermines people’s pain, and the difficult living situations Lebanese have been forced to live under for years,” Ghinwa Obeid, a longtime reporter for The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, told World Politics Review. “The protests are deeper than that.”

Lebanon’s shaky economy has been pushed to the brink in recent years despite some rare political progress. President Michel Aoun was elected in 2016 after a 29-month presidential vacuum, and in May 2018, the country held its first parliamentary elections in nine years. Yet political leaders have failed to make any significant changes in basic infrastructure and public services, which have lagged in Lebanon for decades. Daily blackouts have long been a fact of life, and an ongoing crisis over garbage collection has left mountains of trash piled up in the streets.

Other chronic issues like rising unemployment, delayed salaries and a minimum wage that for many Lebanese equals just $450 a month have fueled anger for years. In recent months, the economy took a turn for the worse when banks limited and in some cases halted the movement of U.S. dollars, which are used interchangeably with Lebanese currency. Currently, the Lebanese pound is pegged at 1,500 to $1. The attempt to control circulation of dollars has caused widespread anxiety that the peg would no longer hold, and inflation would spike.

After Hariri addressed the nation last Friday evening, announcing he would set a 72-hour deadline for his Cabinet to come up with a solution, he scrapped the planned WhatsApp tax and pledged a series of economic reforms. But most protesters rejected them as “empty promises.”

The participation of citizens across Lebanon reflects a unifying rage pushing people to cast aside historically divisive political and sectarian affiliations.

This week, the protests have only increased in size, rivaling the 2005 demonstrations that erupted after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and forced Syria’s military to withdraw from the country after a 29-year occupation. Demonstrators have blocked all major roads, with schools and banks officially closed. In cities including Nabatieh, Baalbek and Tyre—strongholds for the two major Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal—protesters have chanted against Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament and head of Amal, and criticized Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, which was previously unheard of in their regions of power.

So far, the protests have been leaderless and unaffiliated with any political party. This reflects the core of the popular uprising as citizens en masse publicly denounce the crippling sectarian divisions in Lebanon’s political landscape. In Aley, a predominantly Druze city where the secular Progressive Socialist Party of longtime Druze leader Walid Jumblatt wields major influence, “the initial protesters refused to politicize this movement and align it with the PSP,” according to Obeid. She said she had spoken to several protesters who expressed the need to put their political affiliations aside to “demand for their rights.”

While the protests have largely been peaceful, and in many instances have resembled a music festival, riot police and the army have used excessive force against protesters in Beirut and other cities. According to Lara Bitar, an independent journalist in Beirut, at least 300 people have been detained since Saturday, although figures are difficult to confirm amid the upheaval and with misinformation rampant. “In Lebanon, violence is not only perpetuated by state agents,” Bitar said. “Militias and thugs of a number of current and former government officials have been taking matters into their own hands.” Local media have reported two deaths in relation to the demonstrations.

Bitar, who has been covering the protests daily, said the crowds have been diverse and are coming together to reiterate the same demands: that the government resign and ruling elites be held accountable for corruption. “There has been room for people from quite different backgrounds to share space” in the streets, she said.

The large Lebanese diaspora has also mobilized around the world with its own satellite demonstrations. In New York City, hundreds of Lebanese, most of them under 40 years old, gathered in front of the Lebanese consulate last Friday night. By Saturday, the protests grew and moved to Washington Square Park.

“We brought our newborn, who is not even two months old,” said Resy Abi Chebl, 36, who attended the protest outside of the Lebanese consulate with her husband and child. “We are in [the United States] for him and for his future. Hopefully Lebanon will be a free country and he can have the option of building his future there one day.”

“The economic situation is disastrous,” said Michel Sahyyoun, 52, another demonstrator outside the consulate in New York on Friday. “They’ve had many years to fix the situation. They’re not going to fix it in 72 hours.”

 

Source: World Politics Review

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