Lebanon's historic rebellion faces its moment of reckoning

Lebanon's historic rebellion faces its moment of reckoning
Comment: The future of Lebanon's unprecedented protests rests on whether its citizens refuse to go back to 'business as usual' this week, writes Rami Khouri.
7 min read
22 Oct, 2019
This time, protests are unprecedented in scale and geographical distribution [AFP]
After five days of non-stop and growing public demonstrations against the government, Lebanon faces an important moment of reckoning this Wednesday; one that might reveal the real balance of power in the great confrontation that is now underway.

This face-off is between the unstoppable force of an enraged citizenry that has long been abused and neglected by its own governments, and the irresistible object of a self-perpetuating power elite that refuses to reform its corrupt ways, despite repeated demands from the citizens.

Wednesday will be telling because the government has ordered a return to normal activities in state institutions, schools and universities and private businesses, while most of the protesters insist they will stay on the streets.

They refuse to budge until structural changes are implemented that shatter the sectarian power-sharing oligarchy that has ruled Lebanon - misruled it, they say - for many decades.

The government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri reacted to the unprecedented protests against it by agreeing to undertake a dozen major reforms that it feels respond to the demands of the citizenry.

These include key changes in eliminating deficit budgeting, reducing the state debt, halving ministerial and parliamentary salaries, reducing taxes on citizens and raising them on corporations and banks, assisting the most needy in society, rehabilitating the decrepit electricity sector, retrieving billions of dollars in the bank accounts of corrupt officials and their cronies, and other measures.

Despite the unprecedented scope of these measures, most people demonstrating in the streets refuse to go back to business as usual. The citizenry - at least those protesting - no longer trusts the prime minister or the entire power elite that he represents to make the deep structural reforms that are needed to save the country from economic and environmental collapse.
Never before has Lebanon witnessed such a universal and national expression of shared anger among what seems to be a majority of its citizens

They would seem to have history on their side, given that Lebanese governments have promised for three decades at least - since the end of the civil war - to make the many reforms that have been long demanded, without ever delivering. The ravaged citizenry will no longer accept empty promises.

Lebanon's poor governance legacy has resulted in disastrous conditions for the majority of families, who must spend much of their limited incomes to compensate for the dilapidated state social services, including water, electricity, education, transport and healthcare.

They face a seemingly irresistible object, however, in the oligarchic power elite - comprising the country's 18 formally recognised confessional groups - that allocates the state's budget, ministerial positions, and senior posts in a way that serves their narrow interests rather than the public's rights and needs.

This has been succinctly captured by Christiana Parreira in a new analysis from the respected Synaps research and analysis network in Lebanon:

"Since gaining independence in 1943, the Lebanese state has existed in astonishingly minimalist form, failing to deliver satisfactory levels of social welfare and public services. The country ranks 113th out of 137 in terms of infrastructural quality, according to the consulting firm McKinsey.

"Electricity provision stands as the fourth worst in the world, per the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index. Public schools and hospitals are avoided by all Lebanese who can afford to do so and many who cannot. Lebanon's political class thus presides over a system serving little more than its own interests."

This round of protests is historic, and this week will be a harbinger of where the country is headed, for several reasons.

The breadth, depth, and intensity of the protests across the entire country is unprecedented, revealing a rage of dehumanisation across all religious and political groups, and people of all ages.

This is in sharp contrast with many similar protests that have taken place in recent decades, but mostly in the Beirut area. Previous civic rebellions and strikes were usually driven by organised narrow interest groups: Teachers or civil servants demanding better salaries, or Beirut-based civil society activists demanding better state services in environmental protection, garbage disposal, urban justice, women's rights, and others.

Never before has Lebanon witnessed such a universal and national expression of shared anger among what seems to be a majority of its citizens. Even the 2005 uprising against a quarter century of Syrian rule in Lebanon, after the assassination the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, only expressed the views of about half the country, led mostly by Sunni, Druze, and Christian leaders - while the other half held pro-Syrian rallies organised by Hezbollah and their allies.
This week will be a harbinger of where the country is headed
Also, demonstrators in some regions that are traditionally run by single political-sectarian groups have expressed solidarity with their fellow citizens in other areas, run by groups opposed to them.

Equally novel and significant are public protests in areas where groups such as Hezbollah and Amal are strong, such as the eastern Bekaa or cities in the south.

Even more unusual and telling of the intense anger and humiliation citizens feel at finding themselves both poor and helpless due to decades of being mistreated by their leaders, are the direct, often vulgar and middle finger-laced slogans chanted in public against individual political leaders.

These include a few who were once thought to be invincible, like Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, or MP and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and son-in-law of President Michael Aoun.

All this suggests that Lebanon's citizens may be at a historic turning point.

The majority that is poor, vulnerable and suffering miserable social services has raised its voice in unison to protest against a ruling political oligarchy that has enjoyed its privileges thanks to the entrenched sectarian system.

Class solidarity - wealth, poverty, and power - seems to assert itself in the public political sphere now, where it is attempting to bring down the power elite that has prevailed for so long on the basis of confessional- and sectarian-based identities.

The pauperisation and marginalisation of a majority of Lebanese - as is the case across the Arab region - is clearly key to the intensity of the current "revolution", as most protesters refer to it.

Lydia Assouad, a leading scholar of inequality in the Middle East, notes: "The richest 0.1 percent of the population - around 3,000 individuals, among them a large part of the political class - earns 10 percent of total national income, which is what the bottom 50 percent of the population earns.

An important development on Monday evening saw army units preventing roving groups of motorcycle-riding young men from entering central Beirut where they would have intimidated or beaten the protesters, as a few did in the south on Sunday.

Such anti-protest violence aimed at winding down the uprising has happened before in Lebanon and in other Arab countries where regime thugs used the same tactic.

The critical balance between the power of the populist rebellion and the power of the oligarchic elite tipped in favour of the citizenry five days ago.

Tomorrow will perhaps clarify if the regime and its backers will fight back more vigorously, especially if the intensity of the protests wanes and people get back to work or school.
The critical balance between the power of the populist rebellion and the power of the oligarchic elite has tipped in favour of the citizenry
Several opposition groups have published lists of demands that envisage an independently monitored transitional government leading to new elections and vastly revamped state policies that respect citizen rights and their demand for social justice.

A critical element to watch now is whether the angry citizens can quickly form a leadership or coordinating group that expresses their demands and negotiates the hoped-for transition to a new form of governance, one that is anchored in equal rights for all citizens, rather than shared power among sectarian leaders.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow, adjunct professor of journalism, and Journalist-in-Residence at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative.

Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.