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Image by Cynthia Nahhas

Lebanon’s Intifada

“The people want the downfall of the regime!” This now infamous chant has finally made it to the streets of Lebanon. Why are there people on the streets and what has the government done? A Lebanese student offers an insightful opinion.

Oct 26, 2019

“The people want the downfall of the regime!” This is the now-infamous chant that swarmed the streets of the Arab world — from Tunisia to Egypt to Syria — since the 2011 eruption of what some term the “Arab Spring.” It finally made its way to Lebanon on Oct. 17 — the first day of what some are calling the “Tax Intifada.” By the third day, the number of protesters was estimated to be at about 1.2 million.
While international media often portrays these protests as triggered by a tax of 0.20 U.S. dollars per day on VoIP calls (such as WhatsApp calls), this tax is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, this tax was accompanied by various other “austerity measures,'' which include increasing the VAT rate from 11 percent to 15 percent by 2022 and imposing additional taxes on gasoline and tobacco to alleviate the crippling government debt, so as to further postpone a looming financial crisis. These taxes disproportionately affect the less privileged and shift the burden of the financial crisis, which itself is a product of years of mismanagement and corruption by this ruling class, to the poorer citizens and migrants. Meanwhile, the salaries and benefits of current and former government officials amount to 100 billion Lebanese liras, or about 250 million dirham, of the yearly government spending.
In my opinion, the crux of the problem is socio-economic, fueled by political corruption, nepotism, confessionalism and sectarianism. Problems such as unemployment, poor quality of public schooling, poor public healthcare services and regular power cuts have pushed the people to the streets. The overall unemployment rate is at 25 percent, and the youth unemployment rate (which only includes those under the age of 25) is at a shocking 37 percent. Let that sink in. Although the cost of living in Beirut is ranked as “the third-highest among Arab cities”, the minimum wage is 675,000 Lebanese liras, or 1,650 dirhams per month at the fixed exchange rate of 1 U.S. dollar equalling 1,507.5 Lebanese liras. And let us not forget those who do contingent work (mostly migrants) make less than minimum wage.
But what does economic collapse look like, and why is it especially a cause of anxiety in Lebanon? After the Lebanese Civil War ended in 1990, Lebanon, which was largely run by many of the politicians still in power today, adopted a neoliberal capitalist economic strategy to encourage investment, especially of the foreign kind. One of the measures taken was to peg the Lebanese lira to the dollar at “1 U.S. dollar = 1,507.5 Lebanese lira” in order to increase trust in the economy. Since then, the Central Bank has been able to maintain the peg, but in the last year or so, experts have been warning about its instability given the exponential increase of government debt. If the peg can no longer be maintained, people’s lives will turn upside-down. Anyone with savings in liras, who earns their salary in liras, or simply possesses lira bills will suffer dire consequences; and let us not forget the price hikes that will ensue following the lira’s collapse.
Along with the peg of the lira, the government resorted to the privatization, semi-privatization or outsourcing of public services, including trash collection, mobile phone services and, oddly enough, the management of the Beirut Central District. Downtown Beirut is, essentially owned by the company Solidere, established by former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated and was the father of current Prime Minister Saad Hariri. When nepotism and privatization coalesce, the outcome is quite obvious: many of these companies, partnerships and contracts are associated with officials and their cronies, creating a clear conflict of interest and allowing for unethical and unjustifiable government spending that ultimately has led us to where we are today.
But why now? In addition to the dire economic situation and living conditions, Lebanon suffered from unprecedented forest fires that ravaged the country the week before the protests. Helicopters that had been purchased for such emergencies are grounded due to lack of maintenance, which is another sign of a corrupt and careless government. Despite the far-reaching nature of the fires that spread in different parts of Lebanon, some officials tried to play the quite outdated sectarian card. They raised suspicions about the fires being intentional in order to vacate the areas, which were inhabited by certain sects. This was done by officials from various sects.
For most people though, this was a national tragedy, transcending sects and ideological divides. It was about Lebanon’s nature and land, which are integral parts of the Lebanese identity. The Lebanese flag is adorned by a cedar tree, a symbol of perseverance, or ṣumūd.
If political leaders played the sectarian card, they also perpetuated the divide-and-conquer discourse. By exploiting their followers’ religious affiliation — a heightened identity marker as a function of the civil war — different political leaders incite their followers against other sects. This creates a divided nation in which progress, change and peace are hard to achieve, and impasse and stagnation are the norm. Notwithstanding some leaders’ sectarian rhetoric, to me, these wildfires are a national tragedy that have united the Lebanese nation, in Benedict Anderson’s sense of the word, as one of the numerous factors that drew people to the streets.
As a result of what one might call a “national awakening” — a nahda of sorts — the people are protesting primarily as Lebanese citizens, rather than as belonging to the political parties that are deeply linked to sects. This coalescence last occurred in 2005, when people filled the same square to demand the expulsion of the Syrian presence from Lebanon. Some protests broke out in 2015 due to the “garbage crisis,”, but they did not have nearly as much reach.
What is truly unique and unprecedented in these recent protests is their decentralized nature. In the past, protests occurred in central Beirut, usually in Martyrs’ Square and Riad Al-Solh Street. Now, the protests are also happening in the Northern city of Tripoli, Southern Sidon, Tyre and Nabatieh, Jal El Dib and Baabda in Mount Lebanon and Bekaa, among other places. This decentralization of the protests symbolizes the decentralization of the capital Beirut, which is often associated with wealth, investment, capital and authority. By reclaiming other cities and streets as equally valid sites of revolt and resistance, the people are also speaking up against the state’s hegemony and authority. In addition, protesters broke into buildings that were previously closed off by Solidere, such as Le Grand Théâtre de Beyrouth and the Egg. These buildings are relics of an often romanticized colonial past and a traumatic one respectively. Breaking into these buildings and reclaiming these spaces challenges the capitalist structures that brought Lebanon to this point and allows the protesters to viscerally confront the trauma of the civil war — a trauma that has historically led us to political, social and cultural impasse.
Woman standing by the Egg. Image by Cynthia Nahhas
While this awakening is hopeful, what do the protesters actually want? What are they asking for? Most notably, people have lost hope in the ruling class and, hence, want the Cabinet to resign and have a new set of people (so-called technocrats) run the government. In other words, they are asking for a secular state. The viability, however, of secularism in a state that has been founded on sectarian principles which have been further reinforced and codified after the civil war in the Ta’if Agreement, is questionable. Would people, especially those who have experienced the civil war firsthand, trust such a system and rid themselves of sectarian thinking? And what about those who would run for office? Would they govern without partisanship?
There are many questions, but very few answers, if any. Since the blessed day of Oct. 17, Prime Minister Saad Hariri has addressed the public twice, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, twice, and President Michel Aoun once. And despite varying political motivations, they unanimously condemned the government’s resignation, citing the possibility of chaos and collapse. Hariri announced a seemingly unrealistic revision of the 2020 budget that includes no additional taxes, a 50 percent pay cut for government officials and only a 0.6 percent deficit. Nonetheless, people are still blocking the streets and protesting for their rights. Banks, schools and universities remain closed as I write. When will the economy no longer endure the constricted flow? When will Hariri consider a more structural reform that perhaps includes his resignation? No one knows this, but one thing is clear: the protestors will be going nowhere until they see real reform.
Tom Abi Samra is a contributing writer. Email him at
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