Tear gas tastes how a razorblade looks – clean, sterile but with a cold, vicious edge. It is a taste that became all too familiar for many in Lebanon throughout the first months of this year. We were having dinner in a central Beirut restaurant when a group of protestors streamed past in the street below. A white cloud of gas, mixed with the acrid smoke of burning tyres, drifted in through the restaurant’s open windows. Although we moved to a back courtyard and the waitstaff closed the windows, the steady flow of food from the kitchen continued uninterrupted and the backgammon games of patrons were unperturbed. This contrast of violence and chaos with the everyday, of living with the seemingly unliveable, has been a staple of Lebanese life since the days of the 1975-1990 Civil War.
Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that this tolerance represents aloofness or apathy. Anger lies just beneath this surface of normality and runs deep across almost all of Lebanese society. Modern Lebanon stands at a crossroads of crisis, facing a swathe of challenges that decades of mismanagement and corruption by its leaders have left it perilously unprepared to deal with.
Lebanon has been gripped by unprecedented mass protests since October 2019. Early on, hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered in a movement remarkable not only for its scale, but for its universality: cutting across the social, political and sectarian divides that have riven Lebanon throughout its history. Unlike previous protest movements, which were largely confined to Beirut, demonstrations were held in cities across the country.
While initially sparked by a range of economic measures including a tax on WhatsApp calls, the movement was responding to far more systemic issues than international media implied in framing it as ‘WhatsApp protests’. Within a fortnight, the government had resigned. But the protests were not just a rejection of a single government, but of a broader political and economic system of corruption and clientelism that has robbed people of their livelihoods and young people of their futures. In Lebanon, the protests are described almost universally as a ثورة ‘thawra’ – revolution – and while it is not an armed rebellion, it has certainly been revolutionary in the social awakening that it has precipitated.
People throughout Lebanon speak of a sense of pride and unity felt in the early days of the revolution and of the emergence of a purely Lebanese national identity, free of partisan or sectarian connotations and caveats. Rather than singling out one party or sect, the revolution was a revolt against the entire political and social elite, neatly summed up in the ever-present chant كلن يعني كلن – “all of them means all of them”.
The divisions these elite have wrought in Lebanese society, both economic and physical, are obvious to any visitor. Lebanon faced an extremely uncertain economic outlook even before the coronavirus ravaged what was left of the imploding Lebanese economy. Despite the universal denouncement on the streets of the country’s economic situation, the multimillion dollar yachts of the Zaitunay Bay yacht club in central Beirut paint an all-too-obvious picture of the extreme wealth disparities that exist. Not everyone has suffered in the days since the civil war – politicians and businessmen have amassed vast fortunes, even as Lebanese citizens struggle to survive day-to-day.
Marks of violence and protest are spread throughout downtown Beirut, with broken windows, burnt-out banks, and protest art common sights, and behind it all, an overt military presence with squads of soldiers and armoured vehicles patrolling the streets. In the weeks after October, public spaces that had been co-opted by protestors, including the streets themselves, began to be retaken by the state. Demonstrations against a confidence vote in the new government on 11 February saw an almost complete shutting down of downtown Beirut by security forces.
Barricades and security installations manned by soldiers brandishing automatic rifles and the occasional rocket-propelled grenade now draw dividing lines through the centre of the city, cutting people off from traditional gathering places and squares. The streets for entire blocks around the parliament have been barricaded by security forces for months, with an ever-greater fortress of concrete, steel and barbed wire insulating politicians from the people in the surrounding streets.
As winter passed, however, the protests began to change in form and tone. Jubilant crowds of hundreds of thousands became smaller, more mobile groups of protestors, and violence became a more regular feature of demonstrations. A clear split began to emerge over the viability of the revolution and the use of violence to achieve its goals. In the eyes of some, violence was the only tactic to which the state would respond, and which could hope to achieve results. But for others, it was driving down turnout and playing into a government narrative that the protestors were vandals and rioters.
More recently, Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, the epicentre of the protests, has been largely empty and quiet, despite the six-metre high fist that has become a symbol of resistance continuing to defiantly stand at its centre. Many have blamed the coronavirus, which arrived in Lebanon on 21 February, for the death of the revolution. A strict lockdown has prevented gatherings and the ruling elite have attempted to capitalise on the crisis by reclaiming what legitimacy was lost in the revolution.
Yet the reality is that the protests were losing momentum even before the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Lebanon. Despite occasional resurgences, particularly on the swearing in of the new government and the passing of their first budget, turnout had been falling through the winter and up to a week could pass with relatively little disturbance. With the eventual passage of the budget, it seemed to many that there was little more to be gained from street demonstrations.
Arguably, a principal cause of this apparent failure has been the movement’s lack of structure or leadership, ironically a source of its strength in the revolution’s early days. Without a clear political agenda or designated spokesperson, the revolution was able to attract mass appeal, serving as a conduit for the outpouring of all forms of political and economic grievances. It was immune to accusations of partisanship or sectarianism, and its momentum could not be stopped simply by arresting a series of figureheads. Yet this same lack of leadership hampered its organisational capacity and left it unable to produce a viable, widely accepted alternative to the present political structure. Against this background, the existing political elite remained the only body capable of filling the vacuum left behind by the government’s fall.
Further, others argue that a class divide began to emerge on the streets. Certainly, as the weeks wore on, those who continued to demonstrate were largely either those with the means to do so, or those who had nothing more to lose. But for many, the realities of survival did not permit them to remain on the streets as the country’s economic situation continued to deteriorate.
One of the primary demands of protestors was the establishment of a technocratic government, headed by apolitical “experts” who could devise a solution to Lebanon’s political and economic woes. A new, supposedly technocratic government was sworn in on 21 January but was immediately rejected by protestors who denounced the links between a number of new cabinet members and existing political parties.
However, from the beginning the desire for a technocratic government has faced serious questions over what form this would take, and indeed its viability in a country that has experienced a serious brain drain in the years during and since the Civil War. Given the persistence of the Lebanese oligarchy, there are few experts at the head of their field without some tie to the existing political structure. Most of all, the cause of Lebanon’s problems runs deeper than simple mismanagement. Any successful government would be forced to confront and address severe systemic problems, a task beyond the reach of purely bureaucratic solutions.
Understanding Lebanon’s issues requires an awareness of the background of austerity and corruption that has defined Lebanese political history and social development since the end of the Civil War in 1990. Lebanon never went through a reconciliation process after the Civil War. Instead, plans for the country’s recovery, spearheaded by billionaire Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, focussed on extensive development and reconstruction, most notably in the devastated downtown Beirut area. Soldidere, a company in which Hariri had considerable financial interests, was granted almost unlimited purview to raze and rebuild the city centre in the name of progress.
With limited government oversight, there was a near-total removal of boundaries between the public and private sectors. Reconstruction thus developed into an elite resource grab and economic free-for-all, entrenching corrupt clientelism that has directly contributed to the state of the country’s economy today.
The historic Beirut downtown area has now been replaced with glass towers and the old souks with a gleaming mall selling expensive international designer brands. It is a soulless place, and nearly deserted. By some estimates up to 23 per cent of Beirut apartments are unoccupied, largely owned by international investors and wealthy members of the diaspora. Many of these apartments are in the downtown, which despite its emptiness and wide streets, feels sterile and claustrophobic.
A significant achievement of the revolution has been the reclaiming of some of these public spaces for public use. A miniature tent city sprung up in Martyrs’ Square offering food and accommodation. Barriers to previously closed private spaces such as “The Egg” — an abandoned, unfinished cinema overlooking downtown Beirut — were torn down and the spaces converted into locations for public lectures and discussions.
Many of Lebanon’s political issues are rooted in its confessional political system. Seats in the Lebanese parliament are divided along religious lines. The president must be a Maronite Christian, the speaker of parliament a Shi’a Muslim and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim. Though this system was credited with securing social stability in the wake of the Civil War, in practice it has entrenched the political power of a small number of former militia leaders who were intimately involved in the Civil War and who now sit at the centre of extensive sectarian patronage networks.
The legacy of colonialism continues to cast a long shadow over Lebanon, and foreign powers and interests have much to answer for in the perpetuation of these divisions and the exploitation of Lebanon and its resources. Under the control of the Ottoman Empire and, later, France, Lebanon’s early power-sharing systems, conflicts and current borders have all been heavily influenced by the geopolitical interests of foreign powers.
Lebanese banks form a cornerstone of the political system, harnessing foreign remittances to provide the state with extremely high-interest bonds that have contributed to catastrophic levels of public debt. The government defaulted on loan repayments in March, much of them owed to local banks. While the revolution was a response to an already dire economic outlook, the coronavirus has pushed the Lebanese economy into total meltdown. An artificially high currency peg has produced no less than four parallel foreign exchange market rates. While officially the Lebanese pound is pegged at 1500 pounds per US dollar, the currency has collapsed in recent months and on the black market the rate is nearing 4000 pounds to the dollar. Sky-high inflation is now placing enormous upwards pressure on prices, raising living expenses to levels that were untenable for many even before the mass unemployment precipitated by the coronavirus lockdown.
Particularly affected have been thousands of migrant workers who work under the exploitative kafala system of sponsorship and whose meagre wages, denominated in Lebanese pounds, are now virtually worthless. Even for those fortunate enough to have reasonable savings, extreme capital controls limit bank withdrawals and transfers to and from the country. By some estimates, half of the Lebanese population could soon be living in poverty. It is this economic catastrophe which will define any future protests and the course of Lebanese social and political development.
The confluence of Lebanon’s crises has produced a moment of reckoning for the country and devastated its most vulnerable. The revolution failed in its attempt to establish a new political order. But its success in opening a new arena for political discourse in Lebanon should not be overlooked. The unifying sense of national identity felt in its early days, though brief, is deeply imprinted across Lebanese society. Whether the revolution will begin anew once lockdown measures are eased remains to be seen. There have already been demonstrations in cities around the country in recent days. If nothing else is certain, it is that Lebanon’s problems will not disappear, but neither will the anger of its people and their desire for change.