Illustration by Hannah Robinson
They don’t want a civil war. Nor do they wish to overthrow their governments by force. What they insist on is a democratic transition and, most importantly, economic reforms that restore dignity and welfare. In Lebanon, there is a new wave of protests, and such protests are shaking the entire Arab world. From the coasts of North Africa, passing through Lebanon, and reaching Iraq, millions of Arabs have taken to the streets for months. The protests are, in most cases, peaceful; however, the outcome is uncertain so far, and the new revolutionaries know that they must be patient. Help from elsewhere seems unlikely as Western governments support the regime in Lebanon.
The first day of protests in Lebanon dates back to October 17, in what could be called the “WhatsApp revolution” for it was a response to the government’s tax on calls via that app, among other things. Then, a few days later, it became the “DJ revolution”, owing to a protest which turned into a rave. These names underline the non-violent character of this unique and peaceful movement.
Lebanon’s constitution provides a strict division of powers, based on religious confessions; the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of the Parliament must be a Shiite, and the President must be a Maronite Christian, to name a few examples. The various groups are often at odds with each other but this popular protest was, for the first time, a multi-confessional gathering of all social classes. The Shia community has spoken against its own historical leaders, such as Nabih Berri, Speaker of the Parliament and the Amal movement, and even against Hassan Nasrallah, the undisputed leader of Hezbollah.
Lebanese premier Saad Hariri, who has been under intense pressure from the protests, announced an “unprecedented” reform plan. In a speech on live TV, Hariri said he was in solidarity with the tens of thousands of protesters and he promised economic reforms to meet popular demands. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of protesters returned to the streets of Beirut and other Lebanese cities to protest against high prices and corruption. They distrusted the government and were unsatisfied with the decision of Hariri not to resign (though this aim has now been realised).
The Lebanese do not accept that the same political class which has ruled for 30 years can deliver real reform. For the first time, the new generation of young Lebanese reacted as a nation and not a conglomeration of religions. The failure of the political system, instead of pitting them one against the other, has created among them an unprecedented brotherhood.
It will be curious to see if in Lebanon the government will be able to satisfy the demands of the people. The country is at an economic point of no return. Public services are in disarray and public debt has swelled to 150% of GDP. The innovative measures taken by the governor of the central bank, Riad Salameh, now seem inefficient and unlikely to keep the country afloat. Is this the end of the regime as the Lebanese know it?
By Ghassen Nouioui & Rania Ziade Ashkar TV Journalist MTV Lebanon