'Why should politicians feel safe when the rest of the country burns?': New forms of protest emerge amid Lebanon’s crisis

A protester hangs a noose in front of Lebanese Caretaker Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi’s house.
6 min read
20 July, 2021

In the empty corridors of Beirut's downtown Souks on a night at the end of June, three young men wearing nondescript clothing approach. They introduce themselves using only their first names and laugh nervously as they wait for the rest of the group to turn up. One – Ahmed – begins to stretch, explaining that "we might have to run for a long time tonight."

The others arrived in dribbles – two or three at a time – eyes darting as they tried to figure out if everyone else was there for the same purpose. Though most did not know each other, they were all there for the same reason: To make the life of Lebanon's elites a living hell.

The plan was simple. Protesters had caught wind that a number of Lebanese Members of Parliaments and their families, as well as prominent business people, were gathered for a lavish birthday party at Seray, an up-scale restaurant in downtown Beirut. Protesters were going to crash the dinner, and name and shame those politicians and oligopolists who were dining out as the rest of the country suffered.

Protesters were going to crash the dinner, and name and shame those politicians and oligopolists who were dining out as the rest of the country suffered

The protesters – numbering about 25 in total – split into two groups, with a smaller detachment surveilling Seray while the rest waited about five minutes away from the restaurant. The reconnaissance group sent the license plate numbers of arriving cars to the rest of the group, who checked them against a database to confirm which officials or business people were present at the restaurant.

There was a match, the car of Mohammed Cherri – a Hezbollah-aligned member of Parliament – pulled up to the restaurant. With that, the protesters were off.

New forms of civil disobedience

The protest in late June is part of a new kind of civil disobedience in Lebanon, far from the mass movements seen in the fall of 2019 when millions filled the streets and demanded the ousting of the corrupt political class.

Instead, these new protests are often decentralised and are highly targeted – seeking to achieve smaller, concrete goals or affect specific politicians or businesspeople, rather than trying to upturn the entire system itself.

"People started to adopt this new way of protesting because the old one started to fail due to the absence of political experience, so people weren’t able to maintain this mass protest," Ahmad told The New Arab. “Especially after not being able to reach tangible results after two years of thawra [revolution]."

In one such example, a Lebanese NGO Banin Charity stormed and occupied a bank for five hours to free up funds that had been frozen in its account since the banking crisis started in fall 2019. The direct action achieved what almost two years of litigation couldn't – the bank manager wired $185,000 worth of funds to a hospital in Turkey where four beneficiaries of the charity were to receive surgeries.

Other instances are more spontaneous. Activists often crowdsource information to track the whereabouts of politicians and business people and confront them directly.

An anti-police slogan "ACAB" is shown on a Lebanese police officer's riot shield, sprayed on by protesters (TNA).
An anti-police slogan "ACAB" is shown on a Lebanese police officer's riot shield, sprayed on by protesters [TNA]

Confrontations take many forms. In some cases, the excesses of politicians are merely documented and shared widely on social media.

The children of Lebanese Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh are photographed as they vacation in Nice, and the Lebanese Minister of Environment is confronted as he enjoys dinner. "Just a question, how can you as a minister, go to restaurants as people can’t even get fuel to fill their cars?"

There has long been a gap between the haves and the have-nots in Lebanon, but the recent economic crisis has turned the divide into a gaping chasm. Spiralling hyperinflation has meant the complete eradication of the middle class, their salaries turning into monopoly money overnight and their savings locked away in banks.

A night out in one of Beirut’s happening districts of Gemayzeh or Badero might give the impression that despite everything, the country is managing to cope, with the bars whose patrons spill on the streets and the restaurants that are reservation-only. However, on the very same streets, beggars roam and children tuck into street corners for a night’s rest.

The worst of these excesses are embodied by the political class, who, despite causing the economic crisis, remain unaffected by it.

The idea, Ahmad said, "is that we don’t want them to feel safe, wherever they are in the country." He explained that as the rest of the country burned, politicians should not feel comfortable revelling in excess using money that – in his opinion – had been pilfered from state coffers.

The worst of these excesses are embodied by the political class, who, despite causing the economic crisis, remain unaffected by it

Elites fighting back

At Seray, the protest quickly turned deadly. The waiters managed to push demonstrators out of the restaurant and lower the shades so patrons could dine in peace. In response, the demonstrators blocked off the roads leading to the restaurant so they could see exactly who was attending the birthday party as they left.

One of the first cars to try to leave was driven by Jihad al-Arab’s wife and daughter. Jihad al-Arab, a wealthy Lebanese contractor and brother of former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's head of security, is widely seen as emblematic of the type of corruption and graft which paved the way for Lebanon’s current decline.

Protesters surrounded the black SUV and beat their hands on the window as his wife and daughter stared straight ahead, trying to manoeuvre their way through the throng. Water bottles were thrown at the windshield and protesters chased after them as they managed to back up and flee the scene.

Within minutes, men on Vespa scooters showed up, the personal security of the patrons inside. They tore through the demonstrators, throwing them to the ground and screaming "You want to have a revolution, do you?" One assaulted the cameraman of The National, Mahmoud Reda, punching Reda in the face and breaking two bones in his nose.

Another man pulled out a gun and began to fire in the air, clearing the way for cars to leave the restaurant. Protesters reacted in anger, with some breaking car windows and throwing chairs at the wait staff of the restaurant.

More shots were fired and a protester collapsed on the pavement, seemingly from the excitement. The army soon arrived and attempted to arrest the personal security guards. More personal security guards arrived on scooters and pried their colleagues from the soldiers' grasp, ignoring the army's warning shots.

The incident was hardly unique. Just two weeks prior, a woman was assaulted by Gebran Bassil's bodyguards at a restaurant after yelling "shame on you!" at the former foreign minister.

When families of the victims of the Beirut port blast held a vigil for their loved ones in front of Caretaker Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi's home on Tuesday, police responded by beating demonstrators. Enraged, the protesters stormed Fahmi's home, breaking the windows of the building’s entrance before being dispersed by tear gas.

Still, there are small but meaningful victories. Just a day after the protest at Seray, Jihad al-Arab announced on local media that he would be closing down all of his businesses in Lebanon.

"Any big change in Lebanon would require the participation of the masses; however, this requires more time. What we’re doing now with these small confrontations is keeping the momentum going until we reach the point where there’s nothing to lose," Ahmad said.

William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean. William is also a researcher with the Orient Policy Center. Previously, he worked as a journalist with Syria Direct in Amman, Jordan.

Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou