A year on, Lebanon’s uprising yields gains but also setbacks

Despite the challenges of a grinding economic crisis and the spread of the novel coronavirus which dispirited the protests, activists insist that the uprising commonly referred to as “al-thawra” (revolution) has not died out though it suffered many setbacks.
Friday 16/10/2020
A woman protester wears a protective mask bearing the inscription “Thawra” (Revolution), May 1, in Beirut. (REUTERS)
A woman protester wears a protective mask bearing the inscription “Thawra” (Revolution), May 1, in Beirut. (REUTERS)

BEIRUT - A year ago on October 17, the Lebanese took to the streets to vent their anger against the entire political establishment whom they blame for Lebanon’s worst economic and financial crisis ever.

The countrywide cross-sectarian protests triggered by a tax increase on Internet voice-call services, soon evolved into an unprecedented popular uprising that vilified the traditional political parties and their leaders regarded as corrupt and incompetent.

Protesters called for a total overhaul of the deeply entrenched sectarian political system, accountability for the plundering of public funds, an independent judiciary and the restitution of stolen funds among others.

Two governments have since resigned the latter over the seismic Beirut port explosion on August 4, the economic situation has worsened and the traditional ruling class is still firmly entrenched.

Despite the challenges of a grinding economic crisis and the spread of the novel coronavirus which dispirited the protests, activists insist that the uprising commonly referred to as “al-thawra” (revolution) has not died out though it suffered many setbacks.

“The thawra did a very important thing by exposing all the traditional political parties and the whole political class without exception. It actually showed how politically bankrupt they are and made many partisans turn against their leaders,” says Halime Kaakour, a political activist and university law professor.

“Moreover, the thawra triggered an intellectual revolution in the sense that it raised awareness about political and economic issues in the country. The average citizen has become more conscious politically and economically. They are now scrutinising the government’s policies, the banking and financial sectors and the laws… They are even looking for solutions,” Kaakour said.

Since the uprising, political leaders have been harassed and shamed in public places and made aware of the growing tide against them.

“Politicians now feel so insecure that they don’t even dare to show up in a public place,” says political analyst Amin Kammourieh.

“Accountability and corruption of the political class has become the talk of the town everywhere. The thawra also brought down all the taboos and self-censorship by vilifying all leaders, including those who were regarded as untouchable,” Kammourieh said.

A demonstrator holds a Lebanese flag during a protest in Beirut, in November 2018. (REUTERS)
A demonstrator holds a Lebanese flag during a protest in Beirut, in November 2018. (REUTERS)

The August 4 explosion caused by tones of ammonium nitrate stored in an unsafe way at Beirut port reignited the protests. Enraged protesters lambasted the political elite and hanged cardboard cut-outs of politicians from mock gallows including an image of the powerful Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah — a gesture almost unthinkable a year ago.

Kammourieh maintains that although no tangible change has occurred in the past year, “the thawra placed on track many issues that necessitate reforms.”

“Parliament passed two major anti-corruption laws this year — a significant move for a body usually mired in political deadlock.

“However, the revolutionary potential of the protesters remains minimal, due to the lack of unity around a single vision and the lack of specificity on overall strategy. In brief, the thawra could not impose itself as a political player or change the existing political balances,” Kammourieh said.

“The thawra did not die. It is still breathing, but it needs a solid leadership that becomes institutionalised in politics, otherwise it will be a great disappointment for the Lebanese people,” Kammourieh added.

According to Kaakour the protest movement provided a platform to marginalised sectors of the society and demonstrated the important role of the youth, the women and the professionals in driving change.

“Even the mainstream media outlets that are mostly funded by or aligned with one of the country’s political leaders had to change and gave more space and voice to activists and protesters in the street,” Kaakour said.

The protesting groups have been largely drawn from professional or syndicate groups, such as retired military officers, teachers unions and lawyers.

But the possible return of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri as head of a government coinciding with the 1st anniversary of the revolution is a twist of fate for the Lebanese who brought down the government under Hariri around this time last year.

Lebanon is in dire need of a bailout by the international community which conditioned financial support to much needed political and economic reforms and Hariri is tipped to be one who could avert total economic collapse.

“The thawra toppled the government a year ago, but it did not succeed yet in bringing the aspired government because the confessional system is so robust and entrenched despite being dysfunctional. Definitely change will not be easy and will take time,” Kaakour said.