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Lebanese First: Anti-corruption protests in Lebanon unite sectarian groups

On October 17, 2019, Lebanon introduced a tax on talking. Although the Western-leaning government withdrew the duty on a series of internet services like WhatsApp phone calls within hours due to the public outcry on the streets of Beirut, it was already too late. The protests intensified, forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his cabinet less than two weeks later. Unsatisfied, protests continued, calling for systemic change in Lebanon’s corrupt, sectarian politics. 

What began as a minor protest in Beirut has led to riots across the country, with participants numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Proudly waving the Lebanese flag while blocking the streets of cities and towns, the protesters joyously danced and sang tunes ranging from “Baby Shark” to “Bella Ciao.” Both young and old participated, eagerly contributing their individual skills and expertise to the grassroots movement. 

Sectarian rhetoric—prevalent in Lebanese populism and demagogia—is strongly discouraged in the demonstrations. Protesters of diverse religions and sects chant “all of them means all of them,” signaling their distrust in both political parties and sectarian elites alike. Some of them even wear “Joker” masks, invoking Gotham City as an analogy for the pervasive corruption and vast institutional inequality rotting Lebanon.

Alex Karam, a Maronite Christian; Iman Jaroudi ’22, whose family is Sunni Muslim; and Melissa Koudjanian, an Armenian, are students of Lebanese descent living and studying abroad. These students all belong to different sects in Lebanon and live halfway across the world from the country, yet are all invested in and enthusiastic about the revolution. Just a few years ago, such a social consensus among sects would have been unimaginable. They represent how, in face of the degraded quality of life, there has emerged a climate of combined unity, optimism, and assertiveness. 

“This is the first time we are seeing something like this in Lebanon,” Melissa excitedly proclaimed in an interview with The Politic

Alex concurred: “As long as I can remember, nothing has come even close to this.”

***

Alex, who left his Christian neighborhood in Beirut at 16 in search of better education, was studying for final exams at his boarding school in Japan when the protests broke out. He returned home in December to a country ready for a “really necessary” change. He enthusiastically joined the protests, singing the national anthem and waving the flag with his friends on the streets of his hometown. 

The cascade of events in October followed by these unprecedented taxes—the straw that broke the camel’s back—unleashed a tsunami of suppressed, long-held grievances. 

Just three days before the initial mass mobilization, Lebanon’s worried citizens watched their government ineffectively respond to wildfires spreading throughout the country’s mountainous west. Lebanon’s fire-fighting vehicles were apparently out of commission due to poor maintenance, and the flames stopped only when neighboring Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey intervened.

Lebanon’s eventful October also saw a new record in the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. Lebanon faces crippling debt—the third largest in the world—and the government directs half its revenue to pay interest, a problem compounding upon their already inadequate public services and infrastructure. 

Adding to a general feeling of hopelessness, youth unemployment in Lebanon reached 37 percent at the end of 2019, with more than a quarter of the Lebanese population living under the poverty line. It has become a widely-heard mantra in Lebanon that there is no point in going to university since there are no jobs. 

Economic instability reached a new peak at the beginning of October when the value of the Lebanese pound diminished against the United States dollar for the first time in two decades. “The banks open at 9 a.m.. I went at 7 a.m., and there was already a queue,” recalled Alex, who rushed to withdraw U.S. dollars with his fellow citizens. This currency shock sparked panicked shortage scares, which may have ultimately brought people to the protests.

Alex sighed. “Everyone is on the streets, but they have no money.” Many stopped working in order to protest, he told me, proud of the citizens’ dedication.

***

Over the past few years, the Lebanese government has failed to deliver basic services. “I remember my grandma texting us that there are piles of trash in the middle of the street,” recalled Iman Jaroudi ’22, whose family still lives in Lebanon, in an interview with The Politic. Her relatives frequently lament the disturbing and humiliating mismanagement of Beirut. When Iman visits them every few summers, she is struck by the sense of insecurity, chaos, and gradually increasing frustration towards the government. 

Iman feels detached from politics on the ground. Her father moved to the United States  from Lebanon in 1989, and she has lived in Kansas City, Kansas her whole life. She loves to talk about her repetitively-named hometown, but her identity has always stretched further. Meanwhile, her aunt, a professional graphic designer in Lebanon who believes in the need for reform, works closely with protest organizers on advertisements and literature and sends her regular updates. 

Iman is proudly Lebanese, and the country plays a major role in conversations around the dinner table, but she’s only been to the country four times—three of which she can remember. 

“You could tell something was bubbling beneath the surface,” she said. She believes the uprising was an inevitable shock to the very foundations of Lebanon’s politics, society, and identity. The political elite had finally “unleashed years of unrest,” she said.

Lebanon is highly heterogeneous, composed of 18 distinct sects of Muslims and Christians and numerous other religious and ethnic minorities. Three decades ago, Lebanon fought a bloody civil war characterized by sectarian rivalry that ended with the Taif Accords. These agreements reaffirmed Lebanon’s adherence to political confessionalism—the allocation of power in government proportionally based on ethno-sectarian criteria. 

The speakers of Parliament, the prime minister, and the president are by law designated to be Sunni Muslim, Shi’a Muslim, and Maronite Christian respectively. The parliament’s 124 seats are equally divided between Muslims and Christian, with general elections taking place only once every six years. 

In theory, the sectarian system aims to promote coexistence and prevent the domination of one sect over the others in the Lebanese government. Until now, peaceful sectarian divides have characterized much of life in Lebanon, and calls for reform only remind the country of its traumatizing sectarian civil war that ended in 1989.

In practice, however, the system isn’t so innocuous. Even the elections for parliament are inconsistent. Since 2009, Lebanon’s parliament has voted three different times to postpone the elections due to concerns of instability until finally conducting them in 2018. In another undemocratic process, while Parliament is elected directly by the people, Parliament itself elects the president for a six-year term. And even the power of the parliament is disputable: While representing all political parties, Hezbollah, a U.S.-denoted terrorist organization, is believed to be pulling the strings. Hezbollah is holding “Lebanon’s security and prosperity hostage,” explained Rachel Mikeska, a spokeswoman at the American embassy in Lebanon, in an interview with the New York Times.

In the foreground, major parties, such as the Sunni “Future Movement,” are allegedly in control, but these parties merely pay lip service to opposing Hezbollah’s influence and are perceived by the Lebanese people as highly corrupt and self-interested. “They are trying to manipulate us for their personal gain,” asserted Iman. 

Many of the protesters are calling for a complete dismantling of the sectarian system, direct election of the president, and the abolition of the sect quotas. “It is long overdue,” said Iman. “This system cannot hold up in the 21st century.” 

The Lebanese people have united against those who they perceive as their true oppressors: the political elite that has controlled the country since the end of the three-decade civil war. Not the Christians against the Muslims. Not the Shiites against the Sunnis. “At the end of the day, we are all Lebanese,” Iman said. 

***

Now five months into the upheaval, the movement is only gaining momentum. “The motivation for the protest, I don’t think it has gotten weaker,” Melissa, who has proudly watched history unfold in her home country from her dorm at the University of British Columbia, shared in an interview with The Politic

Lebanon’s complicated political system, coupled with bitter and long-held sectarian divides, prevented any united movement against the ruling political elite in the past. Melissa lived in Lebanon until she was 16 and watched united peoples on TV rise up in neighboring countries while Lebanon remained mired in political stasis. 

“It is not just the WhatsApp tax. They had it coming,” Melissa said, referring to the government’s short-sightedness in proposing these steep taxes. The collective shift from something socially understood to a tangible reality had a shocking impact on Lebanese everyday life. “It became more personal when your family is struggling,” Melissa said.

In response to public outcry, on January 31 the Parliament elected a new cabinet composed of technocrats endorsed by Hezbollah, promising to resolve Lebanon’s economic troubles. The protest movement immediately rejected their legitimacy, and within hours, the streets were full again. As a Lebanese blogger wrote, while the new cabinet has financial expertise, “the other half of the demand is that they be politically independent.” 

Or as Melissa put it: The cabinet is “absolute crap.” 

Lebanon’s government is currently ranked 137th out of 180 on the Corruption Perception Index, a measure of government transparency. “If you ask anyone, it’s the same-old, same-old. Everyone is corrupt, and we don’t need to know anything more,” Melissa admitted.

As reported by the New York Times in 2019, the private company Eden Bay seized one of Lebanon’s last public beaches. Not coincidentally, a relative of the former Shiite speaker of the Parliament was the owner and made a killing from the sale. Lebanon is also infamous for its inconsistent electricity services—concerns the government has barely responded to, ostensibly because utility company producers have lobbied the government to prevent reforms. Also unsurprisingly, the leader of the Druz political party, a religiously distinct sect constituting five percent of Lebanon’s population, owns a fuel-importing firm that powers the generators.

Perhaps as important is what the government has not done. While the country has been running out of hard currency and relying almost completely on imports for all of its products, there are 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in Lebanon’s territorial shelf waiting to be extracted. 

“Even if this new government tries to take Lebanon out of the deep financial crisis it is in, I don’t know if the people will stop protesting,” says Melissa. Lebanon is trying to redefine itself by developing a more collective and inclusive national identity. Instead of preventing societal rifts, the sectarian system has exacerbated other divides. Before, “although everyone criticized the government, everyone was stuck to their sects and political parties.” Now, for the first time in Lebanon’s history, they’re subscribing to another belongingness paradigm: the people versus the political elite. 

Melissa believes that her generation is ready to move forward from Lebanon’s troubling past toward a shared Lebanese identity. “With the younger generation, things are different,” she said, pointing at increased secularization and the fading memory of the civil war. 

“I live in a country with 50 percent Muslims. I did not have a friend who is Muslim,” Melissa said of her experience before the protests began. In the past, according to Melissa, such cohesiveness between the different sects was nonexistent. “Although everyone criticized the government, everyone was stuck to their sects and political parties,” she said. That has started to change. With the Lebanese flag replacing the propaganda of political parties, the protesters are united against the elite, not against one another. 

***

For these students, the protests are about more than economic interests—they are about national aspirations. To them, this diverse, grassroots effort is why Lebanon’s protests are different from other revolutions like the Arab Spring and why the only remedy will be honest structural change.

“There was no urge or that excitement,” says Melissa, referring to the failed protests of the Arab Spring, which hazily colored her childhood memories. 

The combination of worsening economic conditions in the foreground and the underlying anger gradually built up over the corruption enhanced the sense of national belongingness observed by Melissa, Alex, and Iman. Alex is optimistic that his status as a Maronite Christian will not isolate him for much longer. “I have always identified myself as a Lebanese first,” he says.