Hundreds of thousands of protesters have filled the streets of Lebanon for nearly a week in a historic revolt against the political elite with demonstrators railing against a corrupt government that has pushed the economy to the brink of collapse.
For years, socio-economic conditions in Lebanon have steadily deteriorated, with collapsing infrastructure and private sector control over basic utilities. Meanwhile, the political class — comprised of the leaders of various sects and their families, along with current and former government officials — enjoys tremendous economic privileges. A case in point: seven Lebanese billionaires, who all come from political families (including the family of Prime Minister Saad Hariri), are worth ten times more than the poorest half of the population.
Over the last few months, the repercussions of the economic crisis became even more acute. A plunge in foreign exchange reserves has led to a wide gap between formal and informal exchange rates. Several consumer products disappeared from the market after the government imposed limits on imports and bank transactions. Bakers and gas station owners went on strike.
In response to the growing fiscal crisis, the government imposed a series of austerity measures, including a tax on online applications such as WhatsApp, fuel price hikes as well as a value-added tax.
This was the last straw. On October 17, demonstrators took to the streets in the capital city of Beirut and other cities across the country, including regions in southern Lebanon dominated by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. And the demonstrations have only grown since then.
Protesters are holding a central sit-in in Martyrs’ Square in Beirut with other sit-ins across Lebanon, including in Tyre, Sidon, Nabatieh, Tripoli, Matn, Zouk Mosbeh, Ghazieh, and Baalbek.
As part of our coverage of the historic protests, Mada Masr is publishing a series of short interviews with participants in the Lebanese uprising.
We begin this series with Joelle Boutros, an activist in the movement in Beirut.
Mada Masr: What do you think about what’s happening? What is its real significance?
Joelle Boutros: I think this is the first movement in the country’s modern history that encompasses all of Lebanon. There was a movement aiming to “bring down the sectarian system” in 2011, but it was a centralized movement. There was also a movement against the government in 2015, amid the garbage crisis, but it was also either centralized or localized in the areas that the government planned to dump garbage in.
What’s happening this time is extraordinary. Lebanon is revolting from north to south. To find people in the city of Tripoli (a Sunni-majority city in the north of the country with) chanting for Dahieh (the Shia-majority suburbs south of Beirut with that are associated with the Amal Movement and Hezbollah) is extraordinary. Also in Tripoli, for the people of Jabal Mohsen to cooperate with the people of Bab al-Tabbeneh is extraordinary (Jabal Mohsen is an Alawite-majority neighborhood and Bab al-Tabbeneh is a Sunni-majority neighborhood. They have been engaged in sectarian conflict against one another for many years.)
In this context, an expression has emerged that the civil war only ended today, with this movement, 28 years after its official conclusion. There is a great barrier of fear that has been broken: first is the fear of “the Lebanese other” and the second is the fear of the political leadership.
MM: Protests have peaked in the past few days with the establishment of a central sit-in in Beirut, along with numerous sit-ins in other cities, as well as calls for a general strike that are starting to pay off. In your opinion, how can the movement escalate further?
JB: This is the real challenge now: What are we going to do about the state? This movement will die if a certain group of people takes charge of it. The movement started spontaneously, which explains why so many people joined it.
It is necessary to frame the basic demands. There is disagreement over the fate of the government and disagreement about its alternative. But there is a consensus that the plan* announced by Prime Minister Saad Hariri was put forward to try to “deceive the movement.”
A lot of people have serious proposals on how to get out of the current economic crisis. These proposals should all be collected, but they should not be put forward as necessarily representing this movement.
MM: Some say that Hezbollah, as the most powerful actor in Lebanon, is the embodiment of the counter-revolution. Others see that Hezbollah’s rivals in the government, like the Lebanese Forces party which decided to withdraw four of its ministers from the government, represent the real danger. In your opinion, who represents the real counter-revolutionary threat in Lebanon?
JB: All of them. First and foremost, it is necessary for the conversation to not deviate from demands for radical economic reforms. Conversations about disarming Hezbollah or initiating a secular system, in my opinion, will cause us to lose.
People are revolting against Nasrallah (the secretary-general of Hezbollah) because they are hungry and because they’ve seen how his domestic policies have failed to present any solutions, yet until now they also see him as their protection from Israel. A lot of people consider Nasrallah an important person and to them, he and Hezbollah’s weapons are a red line.
In terms of the Lebanese Forces party and the stand taken by Samir Geagea whose ministers quit the government, in reality, this is an attempt to hijack the movement with the rationale of “we’ve responded and we’re participating with you”.
All of these people have just one goal: to sabotage the movement and protect their political and economic interests. It is necessary for us to recognize that these people are working to divide people and get them off the streets.
MM: How about Minister Gebran Bassil, what is the reason for the consensus of hatred towards him?
JB: First of all, aside from the current crisis, Bassil’s rhetoric is patriarchal and extremely right-wing. It’s a type of rhetoric that we haven’t heard since the civil war, especially the racism towards Palestinian and Syrian refugees. This is the kind of rhetoric that caused the civil war in the first place.
Secondly, he has a condescending attitude and uses a patronizing tone with people.
Thirdly, Bassil intentionally uses a rhetoric of victimization. He has nothing to say other than, “we want to work, but they don’t let us.” The president is from his own political party, which has a parliamentary majority and 11 ministers in the government. What more does he want so that he can work?
Fourthly, as head of the Free Patriotic Movement now after Michel Aoun took office as president of the country, Bassil has been able to manipulate the movement’s rhetoric. Far from being the civil, reformist party that once resisted the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, he has transformed it into a party that defends the rights of Christians and has become a part of the sectarian system and has even become stronger than any other party.
* Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced on October 20 a rescue plan for the current economic crisis, which includes facilitating loans for youth housing, partnerships with banks to pay off public debt, stopping additional taxes with the continuation of older taxes on low-income brackets, working towards a loan from the International Monetary Fund to help low-income families and the abolition of the Ministry of Information.