Anti-government protests in Lebanon attract wide cross-sectarian support

Protesters in the north, south and from marginalised areas of the Bekaa Valley blocked roads, causing the government to close schools across Lebanon.
Saturday 19/10/2019
© Yaser Ahmed for The Arab Weekly
Cartoon by Yaser Ahmed © for The Arab Weekly

TUNIS - Against a background of devastating forest fires and proposals to tax social media, protests erupted across Lebanon.

Government proposals to tax the messaging service WhatsApp appear to have pushed the patience of the Lebanese public, frustrated by a failing economy, widespread perception of official corruption and a confessional system of government that allowed vested interests to prevail at the expense of the public good, beyond the breaking point.

Though Lebanon’s cash-strapped government quickly backtracked on a proposal to impose a 20-cent daily fee on WhatsApp, unrest that had been simmering across Lebanon spilled over.

Thousands gathered in central Beirut, burning tyres and echoing the call of the region’s 2011 revolutions as they chanted for the “fall of the regime,” Reuters reported. Protesters in the north, south and from marginalised areas of the Bekaa Valley blocked roads, causing the government to close schools across Lebanon.

During a televised address October 18, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri blamed the lack of progress on unspecified elements of the opposition, whom he gave 72 hours to resolve the crisis. “The pain of the Lebanese is real,” Hariri said. “The Lebanese were waiting for the government to give them solutions and we couldn’t give it to them.”

“What we have seen… is a true pain, which I feel and acknowledge,” said Hariri.

Ihab Khachab, a 21-year-old student at the American University of Beirut, said these were the first protests many could remember that had involved all of Lebanon’s religious and political sects.

“I feel like this time Lebanon will change for the better since today everyone wants this change, no matter what your sect or religion is, everyone is done with that and everyone wants a better life,” he said.

News that three of Lebanon’s firefighting helicopters were out of service because of lack of parts bolstered public perceptions of a government unable to deal with a crisis largely of its own making.

Sporadic protests have taken place over US dollar currency shortages and Lebanon’s economy in general. In September, protests flared in Beirut. Several hundred demonstrators marched to government headquarters chanting, “Down with capitalism!” and “Leave!”

For many in Lebanon, the traditional sectarian divide that allots government ministries largely on religious grounds has limited the public’s ability to express its concerns.

“Sectarianism is a weapon used by our government to divide and weaken the Lebanese people as much as possible,” Lama Tauk, 18, from Beirut, said. “The protests are uniting the people again. They’ve suffered enough and are holding everyone in the government accountable. This is beautiful.”

An-Nahar newspaper called the protests “a tax intifada.” Another daily, Al Akhbar, termed the demonstrations a “WhatsApp revolution” that has shaken Hariri’s unity government.

One of the most indebted countries in the world, Lebanon has struggled to implement the reforms called for by its international backers. At the CEDRE conference in Paris last year, billions of dollars in relief were pledged on condition that the government initiate changes it promised. That aid has yet to materialise.

Instead, the government embarked on tax-raising measures that, analysts pointed out, decreased government revenue.

Lebanon’s economic difficulties have been exacerbated by the flight of capital from its typically robust banking sector, where remittances from its diaspora traditionally met financing needs, including the state’s deficit.

With banks’ foreign currency reserves limited, the US dollars available to Lebanon’s traders have been restricted, causing difficulty in maintaining international trade, notably in petrol.

Though public worries over a possible currency devaluation are thought premature, Lebanon’s sovereign credit rating and its ability to repay its debts, many of which become due this year, are causes for concern. In September, Fitch downgraded Lebanon’s sovereign credit rating to CCC and, in October, Moody’s said Lebanon’s credit rating was “under observation.”