Young Lebanese protesters demand better future — at home
At an anti-corruption rally in Lebanon’s capital, 16-year-old Mariam Sidani said she had skipped school to protest against politicians who care nothing for her life prospects.
“No one’s taking care of my future,” she said, her face flushed after a day in the sun.
“I want to live in my own country, not be forced abroad,” she said, her long hazel hair flowing over her backpack straps.
At the heart of Lebanon’s one-month-old protests, a young generation of activists is coming of age and demanding a country in which they can see themselves thriving and growing old.
With humourous songs, satirical art and creative slogans, they are demanding the overhaul of an entire political class they see as inefficient, corrupt and out of touch.
Many of the protesters were born in 2000 or later, learning online what life is like overseas, and they say what is on offer in Lebanon is simply not good enough.
“All over the world students are fighting for climate justice,” said Sidani.
“But we don’t even have a sea,” she said of a polluted coastline that is largely privatised and to which access is prohibitively expensive.
– ‘Worse than season 8’ –
Near the seat of cabinet, students dance to the booming beat of a rapper from the northern Akkar region demanding "the fall of the regime."
A young female university student holds up a poster depicting top politicians as sharks.
“Let’s go hunt,” it reads.
Another student deplores the country’s endless political crises and crumbling economy with a pop culture reference.
“It’s so bad you made me forget how bad season 8 was,” her poster says, referring to TV series Games of Thrones.
Like their older counterparts, Lebanon’s Generation Z demand 24-hour electricity, clean water, healthcare, better garbage management, more public spaces and an end to corruption.
But in a country where more than 30% of youth are unemployed, they also just want jobs.
Tina, a 17-year-old high school student, said she wanted a future not defined by the ability to pay bribes or call in a favour from someone influential.
“We want to stay here with our families and find jobs without personal connections,” she said, clutching a cardboard poster that denounced parents who effectively buy their children good marks in school.
Not far off, dancing among the crowd, 19-year-old Sandra Rizk had flown back to Lebanon from her first year at university in Italy to take part in the protests.
“We have really intelligent people who are leaving this country to go and fix other ones. It shouldn’t be like this,” she said.
“Those people have to come back and repair Lebanon,” said the fashion design student, short curly brown hair framing her face.
– ‘Social justice’ –
Analyst Nadim Houry said the new generation of demonstrators had surprised people.
“Everyone expected them to be too lethargic from all these hours on YouTube and social media,” said the executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative.
“But similar to their cohort in places as far as Hong Kong, they have shown themselves to be more political and articulate than their predecessors,” he told AFP.
Born a decade after the country’s 1975-1990 civil conflict, they never knew some of the country’s politicians as warlords, and are not paralysed by the same fears as their parents or even elder siblings, Houry said.
“They care less about sectarianism and more about social justice,” he said.
In a multi-confessional country where Lebanese have long voted along sectarian lines, young protesters say they have freed themselves from political affiliations and are putting their country first.
“They want to be treated as citizens and not as members of sects,” Houry said.
Lebanon has been shaken by protests before, including a huge movement that ended Syrian occupation in 2005, and a brief outcry denouncing those responsible for heaps of garbage mounting in and around that capital in 2015.
But 26-year-old interior architecture student George said today’s cross-sectarian uprising was different.
“This is the real revolution that represents all of us,” he said, carrying a Lebanese flag.
His generation would carry the movement forward, he said, even if those who were employed felt they needed to return to their jobs.
“If older people need to go back to work, we’ve swapped our university and school timetables for the revolution,” he said.