The Lebanese protests have made significant ground and are sophisticated in nature. However, they also risk opening some of Lebanon’s old historical wounds.
The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on 29 October in response to the wave of protests sweeping Lebanon appeared to be a significant move towards meeting protester demands. These demands include the resignation of the current government and the installation of a board of technocrats capable of solving the state’s desperate financial situation, new elections and an end to the sectarian system and rampant corruption that is largely responsible for the crisis.
What is so impressive about the Lebanese protests is that the protesters understand and accept how democracy should function. To call for a board of technocrats is sophisticated. To call out the specific official positions involved in running the country – the president, the speaker of the house and the prime minister – demonstrates clear awareness of where the power lies and what needs to change if the country is to start functioning as a true democracy. At this point at least, the call for thowra (revolution) is not meant in a radical nihilistic sense. Furthermore, unlike in previous decades, no one is calling for external interference in the matter.
While some pundits and commentators have argued that Islamist party Hezbollah, as the current majority in government, will be the deciding factor in the success or failure of the protest movement, this essentialisation of Hezbollah (and by extension Iran) is a misdirection.
Lebanese politics has become a well-choreographed dance of divide, conquer, and securitise involving all the players. To call out one member – albeit the most powerful currently – is to avoid addressing the real rot at the heart of the system: the willingness by all sects to use the threat of insecurity (usually the threat of a return to civil war) and othering to control their support bases and perpetuate the current system. Whether it is by referring to food hygiene, the garbage crisis, or the threat of foreign invasion, politicians have always used the discourse of national security to contain public dissent and discredit alternative voices.
To be fair, this strategy is not unique to Lebanon and most political parties in democratic states are invested in ensuring the system stays as it is. But the problem for Lebanon’s politicians right now is that the system is not working for the majority of the population. Simply put, the economic situation is dire. Blaming Syrian refugees or the actions of other states is not a solution for people in a country where, in Beirut for example, rent is a minimum of US $600 a month and most monthly salaries barely reach US $800.
It is the hubris of Lebanon’s leaders that is causing them to underestimate their own population and make mistakes. The prediction by Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, that “no good could come of political change whilst offering no practical solutions” was not heeded. Last week, the Daily Star reported that a gang of men launched a violent attack on a group of protesters that had set up camp at the Fouad Chehab roundabout in central Beirut. These protesters were believed to be members of the Shi’ite parties Amal and Hezbollah, coming as they did from the neighbourhood next door to the roundabout which is dominated by that demographic.
Unleashing violence on the unarmed protesters had no effect on the movement, and by the end of the following day, they were back. Furthermore, protests have continued to take place across the country including areas like Nabatiyeh and Tyre, which are considered to be Amal/Hezbollah heartlands; and in Tripoli and Sidon, cities key to the Sunni Future Movement.
But these are dangerous times. There remains a substantial risk of old wounds reopening. In the case of the roundabout incident, what is perhaps less known is that the gang of thugs progressed from the roundabout down to the Christian-dominated neighbourhood of Gemmayze. They were only prevented from entering by a small contingent of the Lebanese Army who fired into the air. Any violence that is perceived to be sectarian, accidental or otherwise, will hand the government the justification to use force to shut down the protests. In another worrying development on Sunday, separate protests sprouted up, one in support of the Speaker of the House (Nabih Berri) and another for the President (Michel Aoun). These ran contrary to the main protest in Beirut’s Downtown area which called for their resignation.
However, for now the movement’s unity remains intact; protesters quickly dubbed the multiple protests the ‘Sunday of Unity’ and ‘Sunday of Pressure’ as well as calling for a nationwide strike on Monday. There have been calls from key politicians for the movement’s leaders to reveal themselves, but thus far they have has refused . This is possibly because no clear leadership exists, or to avoid calumniation that they are an ally of either the US, Israel or Iran, or very possibly all three.
In contrast to other states in the region, it is hoped that the current crisis is resolved peacefully and equitably. If the political space emerges, there is the political knowhow in Lebanon to run free and fair elections outside of the confessional system. The Beirut Madinati movement in the 2016 municipality elections showed that the population is perfectly capable of putting forward non-sectarian and gender-balanced candidates. At this point one thing is clear: the people of Lebanon understand democracy and want it for their country.
Even if these protests fail on this occasion, one point should be noted. In the past few years, the calls for an end to the confessional system have grown consistently louder and Lebanese political parties need to embrace this trend in order to be part of it. A new generation of Lebanese is calling for change, which, if Heraclitus is to be believed, must inevitably come.
Dr Vanessa Newby is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.