The protests in Lebanon: ending sectarianism or maintaining the status-quo?

The protests in Lebanon: ending sectarianism or maintaining the status-quo?

Lorenz van der Ven

Lebanon is facing a societal stand-still. Already suffering from a struggling economy, the country is facing lasting protests as well. From impoverished Tripoli in the north to Tyre in the south, from the capital Beirut in the west to Baalback in the east, the entire country has seen protests spread  through it for the last two weeks. As a result of this, Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri decided to resign this week.                                                       Interestingly enough, protests are targeting politicians beyond any cultural, religious, political and economic backgrounds. Political figures from the whole political spectrum, from influential shia-groups such as Hezbollah and Harakat Amal, to the Lebanese presidents party Free Patriotic Movement; all are being targeted for the same reason: not being able to improve living conditions, combat the economic recession and fight the enduring corruption throughout governmental authorities.

The Lebanese political spectrum 

The Lebanese constitution is based on differing Lebanese political parties. The most important parties are based on religious backgrounds. The president needs to be a Maronite Christian. The current Lebanese president, Michel Aoun is the founder of the Free Patriotic Movement. The supporters base of the Free Patriotic Movement mainly consists of the Jbeil region. The Prime Minister is constitutionally always a Sunni Muslim. Sa’ad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement, held this office until this week. He enjoys support mainly in Tripoli in the north and Saida in the south. The Speaker of the Parliament, Nabih Berri, always a Shia Muslim, enjoys support from his political party, Harakat Amal. His supporters base is mainly in the south, in the cities of Tyre and Nabatiyeh and in the east, around Baalback. The fourth political power in Lebanon, the well-known Lebanese political and (para)-military movement Hezbollah, enjoys support in the same areas as where the Amal-supporters are living: the southern and eastern parts of Lebanon. 

Protests are breaking boundaries

The protests in Lebanon started two weeks ago, when the Lebanese government released their proposed budget plans for the upcoming year. Additional taxes were announced in the already economically struggling country. The ‘WhatsApp-tax’, a tax for WhatsApp-calls, unleashing unprecedented anger [1]. All of a sudden, protesters mobilised at the central Martyrs Square in Beirut, waving the Lebanese flag and shouting ‘ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam’ (in English: ‘The people demand the downfall of the regime’). It was the same Arabic slogan that reached global notoriety at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. The beginning of this Lebanese protest is remarkable because it is targeted against every political party alike.

Let us take a closer look. These massive protests, the first since the Beirut-protests in 2015 over the failure to manage Beiruts sanitation system [2], have not only spread over the whole country,  but also managed to target the whole political establishment. And the outcomes of it are impressive. Not only are Shias, Sunnis and Christians protesting their own political leaders, they are demanding resignations of their respective leaders too. Political barriers between Shias, Sunnis and Christians seem to move and people from all political and religious backgrounds are willing to put an end to the political sectarianism that has been prevalent in Lebanon for decades now. Characteristic for this inter-religious demand, is the way influential Christian and Islamic religious figures are protesting next to each other, by waving the Lebanese flag as ‘unique-selling point’, thereby overcoming cultural differences and building bridges on the streets. To express their unity, both Christian and Islamic prayers were being held at the same squares, right next to each other [3]. 

But what is the main goal of these ongoing protests? 

Since the political establishment has not responded adequately to the deteriorating economic situation over the years, the trust of Lebanese civilians during better periods of the current political leaders have vanished. The anger of the protesters is no longer focussed on one political party, person or ministry, but against the political establishment as a whole. This became clear when Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces party, withdrew his four ministers from the Hariri-led coalition. He was quoted by saying ‘we have not seen any serious intention by the Lebanese officials to address the crises’. [4] By withdrawing his party from the current Lebanese coalition, he was hoping to evade public pressure from his party and to gain a stronger position in the political spectrum in the period following the protests. But, all of a sudden, his aim was vanished, when protesters responded by celebrating his resignation and declaring they did not want the protest to be politicized, thereby dismissing Geagea’s hopes for a stronger position. Samy Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb-party and member of the influential Lebanese Gemayel-family, found the impact of the Lebanon-protests literally on his way. When he appeared at the protests in the outskirts of Beirut, protesters welcomed Gemayel by throwing water towards him and his entourage.                                                                                                                                                        But unequivocally the most impact has the resignation of Hariri this week, after he reached a so-called ‘dead-end’ and after citing ‘no one is bigger than the country’, thereby ending his national-unity government [5].

The political response

‘All of them means all of them’. The sound of this slogan has been bed-rocking Lebanon for over two weeks and is meant to reiterate to the political leaders that protesters are demanding the fall of the whole political establishment. The main political leaders Hariri, Aoun, Bassil and Nasrallah have felt the immediate consequences with the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri and the ending of the national-unity government. All of them tried to persuade the protesters to focus on ongoing measures of the current government to fight corruption, economic misery, shortage of fuel and bread, lack of political transparency. President Aoun increased anger at the Lebanese squares, by releasing a seemingly pre-recorded speech without calling for much-needed political and economic reforms. Thereby he just called upon representatives of the people protesting on the streets to come and visit him, which was received with firm opposition [6]. Foreign Minister Bassil told the protesters to be their voice, but they answered his call by initiating an anti-Bassil song. Nasrallah told protesters on live television that they should not answer to politicians trying to politicize the protests, thereby indirectly referring to the Geagea- and Bassil speeches. He tried to convince protesters to wait and see the changes taken by the Lebanese government, including the taxes being reversed in the upcoming government budgets [7].                                                                                                                      Prime Minister Hariri released a full package of reforms, such as half-cutting salaries for ministers, reversing new taxes and targeting the banking sector. The underlying thought was that Lebanon would accept these reforms and stop the widespread protests against governmental authorities and political leaders, but referring to his resignation this is – until now- not enough to secure Hariris political fate. At this moment, protests are diminishing a little, but at the same time little can be said about the political future of the current Lebanese political establishment.

References

  1. Lebanon: The WhatsApp tax that launched a hundred protests, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/listeningpost/2019/10/lebanon-whatsapp-tax-launched-protests-191025223928624.html
  2. The protests in Lebanon have bridged social divides – now everyone is fighting against the corrupt elite, https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/lebanon-protests-corruption-tax-reform-beirut-government-sects-a9165956.html 
  3. Lebanon protests: Christians, Muslims unite in prayer, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20191022-lebanon-protests-christians-muslims-unite-in-prayer/ 
  4. Samir Geagea announces resignation of his ministers from Hariri cabinet, https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2019/10/20/Samir-Geagea-.html 
  5. Lebanon’s Hariri resigns after nearly two weeks of nationwide protests, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/29/middleeast/lebanon-saad-hariri-resigns-intl/index.html 
  6. Lebanese president says willing to meet protesters, https://www.france24.com/en/20191024-lebanese-president-says-willing-to-meet-protesters 

‘All of them’: Lebanon protesters dig in after Nasrallah’s speech, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/lebanon-protesters-dig-nasrallah-speech-191025190848575.html