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In Lebanon, the system works for the elite

Lebanese demonstrators gather at Martyrs' Square and Riad Al Solh Square during an anti-government protest against dire economic conditions and new tax regulations on messaging services like Whatsapp, in Beirut, Lebanon on 19 October 2019. [Mahmut Geldi - Anadolu Agency]
Lebanese demonstrators gather at Martyrs' Square and Riad Al Solh Square during an anti-government protest against dire economic conditions and new tax regulations on messaging services like Whatsapp, in Beirut, Lebanon on 19 October 2019. [Mahmut Geldi - Anadolu Agency]

“This is the most exciting, unifying thing that has happened since the end of the civil war,” said Fabio Irani, 25, a protester in Beirut. Lebanon is experiencing the rise of a collective consciousness and the rejection of a sectarian division of society which has gripped the country for 29 years, since the end of the civil war in 1990. This is the culmination of decades of anger at the mismanagement of the nation by government officials, and corruption which serves only to enrich the political caste. The protesters are not just demanding the resignation of Hariri’s government, which Irani calls “Chapter one”, but the overhaul of the sectarian system.

Events which have led to these demonstrations have been exacerbated by the failure of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government to address national problems in recent weeks. The September fuel crisis, which saw petrol station owners forced to pay foreign importers in Lebanese lira due to the lack of dollars, has raised concerns over economic collapse. September 28 saw long queues coming out of petrol stations as residents rushed to fill up fearing that the stations would cease trading by morning. The government’s short-term solution of agreeing that importers could pay foreign companies in lira and reaffirming its commitment to the pegged exchange rates has raised eyebrows about Hariri’s dedication to finding a long-term solution.

READ: Will the Lebanese end Hariri’s era of corruption?

Wild fires ravaging the regions surrounding Mount Lebanon have further undermined the coalition government’s authority. National firefighting helicopters remained grounded throughout the crisis due to disrepair, resulting in a reliance on Cypriot and Jordanian equipment. Such levels of mismanagement have demonstrated that the protection of Lebanese land, property and people are not priorities for Hariri’s government.

A proposed tax of $0.20 per day for Whatsapp, Facebook and Facetime calls, which was scrapped only hours after it was announced as a result of a public outcry, has been the latest trigger for national protests. This is no coincidence. Lebanon has some of the highest charges for mobile data anywhere in the world, where sim card users are charged up to $30 per week for 1.5 GB of data. The market is cornered by two state owned companies, Alfa and touch, which, allegedly owned by previous Prime Minister Najib Azmi Mikati, can charge extortionate prices as a result of their monopoly. The government’s move to impose a Whatsapp tax, claiming it would provide $250 million in revenue every year, signalled its intent to place the burden of the country’s financial crisis on the people. Tolerance for a government who would deign to levy a tax on a vulnerable part of society in order to maintain the profits of Mikati’s monopoly has been exhausted.

The passion and spirit of these protests resides in the desire to rid Lebanon of its rotting political elite. “Sorry Liverpool, we have a revolution, down with the red devils”, reads a sign held by a protester in Downtown Beirut yesterday evening. “Free Hugs”, reads another. The protests are peaceful, but the message is strong. A masked protester defiantly holds his sign, “It is better to die standing, than to live on our knees”. At the protests in Downtown Beirut, it is enough to simply be present. To silently smoke a cigarette on the pavement, or to stare wordlessly into one’s phone feels like enough. A show of calm solidarity. This sense of calm is a testament to the strength of spirit and passion felt in Beirut.

Previous protests of 2005 and 2015 have seen a tendency for sectarian militias to partake in demonstrations, souring and dividing the revolutionary message along sectarian lines.

What is remarkable about these protests is that all sectors of society are involved. The attitude on the streets is welcoming and inclusive, and the atmosphere is electrifying.

READ: Hezbollah chief supports Lebanon government amid protests 

The Amal Movement’s attempts to divide society along sectarian lines by firing on protesters in Tyre on Saturday failed to arouse a divisive response – a real testament to the commitment to unity, and the proof that the morale of the Lebanese people won’t be broken.

A street carnival atmosphere swept across Beirut and Tripoli yesterday evening, with loud music, drumming and dancing blaring from the Downtown district of the capital. Protesters turned their differences into a celebration of what it means to be Lebanese. United and telling their government that enough is enough. Showing that the will of people cannot be ignored. No longer willing to be subjugated by a sectarian system which benefits the few, not the many. Mothers, fathers, grandparents and youths have taken to the streets to demand a better future. A future where the costs of living are reflected fairly by salaries; with job opportunities for the youth; and a future with a secular state, in which being first and foremost Lebanese matters more than one’s religion.

This revolution is triumphant, hopeful, needed, but not yet complete. The strength of emotion captured in Lebanon has created a powerful civil society movement of cohesion and national unity. It is a breath of fresh air for many Lebanese and has roused responses from across the globe. With Hariri due to address the people at the end of his 72-hour ultimatum this evening, Lebanon waits for government action, but with the protests gaining momentum it may be too little too late.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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