LEBANON'S PROLETARIAT RISES ABOVE INJUSTICE
“All of them means all of them” — so said the people of Lebanon, demanding that their leaders be sacked. Belonging to every one of the eighteen officially recognized faiths (and more, one expects, that are not), masses of protestors called for an end to corruption, an end to mismanagement, an end to disparity, and an end to sectarian division; in short, a total overhaul of the country’s political class.
“Muslim and Christian, we all came to free Lebanon from the thieves,” Sina Olaih, a demonstrator, told The New York Times when protests broke out last October, in Beirut. Popular frustration, mounting after years of austerity, neglect, and graft, reached a breaking point with the government’s announcement of a tax on internet-based calls over widely used social-media platforms, such as WhatsApp. The Lebanese people, especially the young, responded with fury. Organizing with the help of the very social media that had been targeted for taxation, protestors took to the streets of Beirut the evening of October 17; the following day, the sentiment had caught on all over the country. Traffic in cities across Lebanon came to a crawl as protestors massed at intersections, blocking roadways with smoldering tires. “Revolution! Revolution!” The chorus rang out as flames engulfed posters bearing politicians’ faces. “The people want the fall of the regime.”
The Lebanese government quickly withdrew the proposed tax. The Prime Minister, Saad Hariri — caught weeks earlier siphoning millions of dollars to a South African model — promised to rally his government to legislate crisis-easing fiscal reforms, and to free up eleven billion dollars–worth of foreign aid to mitigate Lebanon’s foundering economy. All within seventy-two hours. Protestors called his bluff, returning to the streets to demand that he resign. On October 29, he did. “We just want to say that this is the first out of many,” a protestor, Rose, said to The Guardian. “We’re waiting for the others to show some dignity. But I doubt they have it.”
In factional Lebanon, the protestors’ unity across religious lines is remarkable. “In the past, we used to protest for certain parties and groups,” Nasser Barakat, a taxi driver, told the Times. “This time, we’re here because we’re Lebanese.” Though a republic, the separation of church (or mosque) and state does not exist; an unwritten convention called “confessionalism” decrees that all political positions, from the lowest clerkship to the highest office, be strictly apportioned by faith, or confession. Since the establishment of the convention under French mandate in 1926, the principal seats of power, for example, have been allotted as follows: the president must be Maronite Christian, the speaker of the parliament Shia Muslim, and the prime minister Sunni. This practice is widely blamed for the rampant sectarian cronyism on the part of politicians, a pattern of patronage that sees lucre and power exchanged for loyalty. Political connections are necessary to secure many jobs, not all of them glamorous; even teachers, reportedly, have had difficulties finding employment without them. The richest one percent, about three thousand citizens including most of the political class, earn ten percent of the national income. Meanwhile, everyday Lebanese, the bottom fifty percent, are left to scrounge for an equivalent portion of the nation’s wealth.
Tensions among sects have persisted since the end of Lebanon’s bloody and many-sided Civil War (1975–1990), which saw as many as a quarter-million killed. In the months since demonstrators first descended on Lebanese streets, reprisals on the part of prominent factions have threatened to break up their pan-religious unity. Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia paramilitary group whose political wing is dominant in Lebanese politics, as well as Amal, an allied party, have attempted to frighten protestors into silence. Supporters of both parties patrolled the scenes of early demonstrations on motorcycles, only for the army to drive them away. Some have attacked peaceful demonstrators or their property; others have intimidated Shia protestors with anonymous blackmail. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has impugned anti-government demonstrations, claiming that they are a symptom of foreign intrigue. Such efforts at propaganda have had some success in deterring dissent, but they have also fomented distrust. “People used to watch Nasrallah’s speeches without asking questions,” Ihab Hassan, a Shia protestor “since Day 1,” told the Times. “But now, even though they still support him, they’ve started asking questions.”
Despite the Prime Minister’s resignation, the political elite is striving hard to maintain the status quo. In December, the president appointed Hassan Diab, a professor of engineering and former education minister, to the vacated premiership; he was warmly received by the old-guard coalition known as the March 8 Alliance, which includes Hezbollah and Amal. A new cabinet of twenty ministers, announced late January, failed to appease protestors, stacked as it was with establishment figures. “The new prime minister is going to form the same government based on sharing among sects, and this is what we’ve been demonstrating against for weeks,” said Ihab Hassan, reiterating a demand that left-wing groups have been making since the days of the Civil War. “They are not taking the Lebanese people seriously with this government,” Charbel Kahi, another protestor, told the Associated Free Press. “Just like we forced the previous government to step down because it did not meet the demands of the people,” yet another protestor, Wael Hassaniyeh, told Reuters, “the same fate awaits this government, God willing.”
Despite the pressures of riot police, repressive parties such as Hezbollah, and economic collapse, demonstrations have yet to wane. Nor will they, it seems, without a sweeping refashioning of the political system. “Any government that doesn’t satisfy the public’s demands is going to start basically in a hole,” said Michael Young, a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, in conversation with the Times. “It will be a government that is opposed by the people and it will have little legitimacy to impose reforms.”
Elsewhere, in Iraq and Chile and Canada, popular movements have found similar success in bringing their grievances to bear on reprobate governments. Broadly left-leaning campaigns for change are seeing a resurgence in efficacy after decades of inertia. Call it a re-enchantment — the peoples of many nations are fed up, and they are looking leftwards, to their own force in numbers, for redress. Masses are heaving; statesmen are quailing. The revolution has only just begun.