Hundreds of thousands have stomped on party line divisions to chant “all of them means all of them” in unison
On Feb. 9, the country of Lebanon woke up to a picture of a father with his young daughter’s smiling lips pressed to his cheek, grass under them and sun in her hair, on the front of every newspaper and homepage.
George Zreik doused himself in gasoline and set his body ablaze in the courtyard of the private school his daughter was enrolled in. He had pleaded with the school’s administration to provide him with her transcripts so he could transfer her to a more affordable public school.
The school refused on the grounds that he hadn’t paid her tuition fees since 2015. MPs from North Lebanon described Zreik as “a martyr of taxes and the high cost of living.” MP Tony Frangieh said Lebanon should “wake up before the whole country burns alive.”
On Oct. 14, the country of Lebanon’s politicians slept while fires blazed through the dense forests to the east and south of Beirut, eventually engulfing regions in the north. The fires burned in about 100 locations, displacing hundreds of families, decimating an estimated three million trees and endangering residential areas, schools and small businesses.
The next morning, the country’s leaders called for urgent assistance from Cyprus. Help came from Jordan, Italy, Greece. Limited help came from the Lebanese state, which had three firefighting Sikorsky S-70 helicopters to its name, donated to the government after a coalition of citizens and businessmen raised about US$15 million in 2009. The helicopters remained grounded while civil defence workers scrambled to gather any resources they had. As it turns out, the helicopters had gone out of service due to the failure of successive governments to fund their maintenance, rendering them non-operational. More than 70 people were treated for asphyxiation, fainting and burns. Saleem Abomjahed, a 33-year-old father of two, suffocated to death as he worked to put out a fire that broke out in his hometown.
On Oct. 20, more than a quarter of the country of Lebanon’s population took to the streets to protest a political oligarchy, whose constituents have stripped a nation bare. Lebanese people have had enough of intermittent electricity and water, dismal telecommunications at exorbitant prices and the scent of trash wafting through Beirut neighbourhoods. They’ve had enough of widespread corruption, nepotism, gridlock in government and failing public services. They’ve had enough of the ruling elite that protect their personal interest as the country’s economy deteriorates and its infrastructure crumbles.
With a 152 per cent debt to GDP ratio, Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world. Almost a third of the population lives under the poverty line, while the country’s political oligarchy line their pockets.
Having grown accustomed to chuckling in the face of misfortune, the generally good-humoured Lebanese snickered over their espressos at the news of former prime minister Saad Hariri’s $16 million gift to a bikini model he met at a luxury resort in Seychelles. It was funny until it wasn’t. The government soon announced a proposed tax of 20 US cents on the first WhatsApp call users make every day.
For countries at the end of their tether, all it takes is a few cents. In Chile, a fare increase of four cents for a subway ride in the capital of Santiago sparked protests which raged on even after the government revoked the increase. Fuel tax rises in France triggered weeks of violent protests before they were dropped from next year’s budget. Protests over unemployment, poor public services and corruption erupted in Iraq and rising bread and fuel prices catalyzed a revolution in Sudan.
Tens of thousands of Algerians are still protesting seven months after overthrowing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. In Bolivia, protests called for the ousting of Evo Morales amidst electoral fraud allegations. Approximately 80,000 marched in Spain to protest the separatist movement in the northeastern Catalonia region. An estimated 250,000 people in the Czech Republic demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. Russian protests against the construction of a massive landfill for unsorted waste from the Moscow region have developed into a grassroot movement aimed at a series of social challenges in Russia. Ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong, caused by the proposed legislation of the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill, demand democratic reform.
It seems like protest movements are on the upswing. There are reasons for this: the global economy is in a synchronized slowdown, the middle-class is shrinking while gaps between rich and poor grow, a concentration of young people (a demographic that constitutes a fourth of the global population) are residing in developing countries. The expansion of democracy has slowed internationally, leaving citizens to believe that the best way to deal with unresponsive governments and economic grievances is to take to the streets.
Now over one month into the protests, Lebanon’s economic paralysis is closing medium-sized enterprises as the country copes with a wave of painful layoffs and bankruptcies. Despite Lebanon’s central bank pledging it wouldn’t impose capital controls, banks reopened after weeks of closure with new withdrawal limits and wire transfer caps. Lebanon’s local currency, the Lebanese pound, has weakened against the U.S. dollar by about a fifth on the black market while confidence in the pound plummets. The Order of Physicians, Syndicate of Private Hospitals and importers of medical supplies stated that they are no longer able to import medical supplies due to restrictions imposed by the banking system.
Clashes between security forces and protesters have become increasingly violent. Military forces have fired tear gas and rubber bullets and violently rounded up protesters. There have been five confirmed protest-related deaths. Father of three Alaa Abou Fakhr died in front of his wife and child when army personnel shot him in the head.
In a live interview aired on Nov. 12, President Michel Aoun, 84, said that if those demonstrating “see no decent people in this state, let them emigrate.” But the Lebanese have emigrated, and the fire of the revolution is alive in the heart of a diaspora that aches for home. Statistics from the Lebanese government estimate the number of Lebanese living abroad to be 15.4 million, compared to the estimated 4.5 million inside the country. Solidarity protests were staged in countless cities, including Toronto, Sydney, Lagos, Warsaw and New York.
In the same interview, Aoun responded to a call for the formation of a technocratic government composed of independent leaders by saying, “Where should I look for them? On the moon?” But the election of independent lawyer Melhem Khalaf to the Beirut Bar Association this week is a symbolic victory for protesters who know qualified independent candidates exist in every Lebanese municipality. Now, with the emergence of a loud and angry post-sectarian generation, and an older generation apathetic from decades of betrayal and broken promises, those candidates have a higher chance of being elected to positions of power than ever before.
Hundreds of thousands have stomped on party line divisions and set aside partisan sentiments to chant “all of them means all of them” in unison. Protesters are calling for a complete resignation of cabinet and early parliamentary elections in order to form a technocratic government in which decision-makers are selected on the basis of their expertise. Candidates that are nominated through networks of patronage and clientelism have triggered unyielding backlash from protesters. When former finance minister Mohammed Safadi’s name came up in negotiations for the next prime minister, thousands took to the streets of Beirut, shouting “thief.”
The uprising shows no signs of stopping, and protestors will not leave the streets as long as the ruling class puts forth names that are emblematic of a sectarian governing framework.
George Zreik’s cousin, Jean Fayad, stood on the steps of the church where condolences were being accepted. He compared his relative’s death to the 2011 self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi in Tunisia, which became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring.
When I lived in Lebanon, I used WhatsApp to communicate with friends, teachers, employers, doctors, businesses and, most importantly, family abroad. Even though the tax proposal was scrapped, the move tapped into deep-rooted frustration that allowed for broad, cross-sectarian action in a way that’s unprecedented for a country that has been identity-obsessed for decades.
For the first time, Lebanon is embracing a collective consciousness that is unravelling antiquated notions of patriotism and reforming national unity. The country’s politicians have allowed for Lebanon to be a gambling chip on the poker table of foreign governments for decades. This time, the people won’t be played. They’re long overdue a win.