Lebanon News

Thirty days of struggle fall on deaf ears

A pro and anti government supporters clash during protests in Beirut, Oct. 29, 2019. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: It’s been 30 days since the country began its uprising against a mainly corrupt political class which many believe plundered and mismanaged Lebanon for nearly 30 years, to the point where it is now on the brink of collapse. The nationwide protests are calling for the political elite to leave. That may be a tall demand, but more workable requests have also been called for in the 30 days. A number of small concessions have been made by the politicians but this has failed to address the main demands of protesters: a government of experts, a new electoral law, and holding early elections. Instead, politicians are increasingly blaming this crisis on the monthlong uprising.

And now they have agreed on naming former Minister Mohammad Safadi as prime minister.

This is the response of the ruling class to a street that has decried the old guard: A 75-year-old billionaire business tycoon, former MP and minister who is also accused of corruption, including in the Zaitunay Bay project. He is a caricature of everything protesters have opposed, and they instantly responded: “All of them means all of them, and Safadi is one of them,” were some of the chants heard.

The uprising, thanks in large part to the disconnected responses of politicians, is showing no signs of letting up.

Those politicians have tried to coopt, appease and wait out the street. That has in large part failed, and now some are increasingly turning to fear tactics and repression via security forces.

As a tense new phase looks set to begin, one should look back to the night it all broke out.

A day after the Oct. 16 Cabinet session, ministers announced they had endorsed a tax on WhatsApp calls, at the same time as they were studying an increase in the value-added tax.

A small protest that began in Beirut’s Riad al-Solh quickly gained steam, and exploded in size after Education Minister Akram Chehayeb’s bodyguard fired shots in the air in Downtown Beirut.

In the first concession, caretaker Telecoms Minister Mohamed Choucair announced the WhatsApp Tax had been taken off the table. But the damage had been done. Thousands filled the streets of Beirut before protesters flooded dozens of towns and cities across the country. Fires were set in main roads, as highways were blocked, and the country came to a standstill.

Lebanon was united in a way it had never been before, and no one saw it coming. The hope and raw emotion of that night ended somberly, with two deaths by the hands of protesters themselves.

Two Syrian workers, Ibrahim Younes and Ibrahim Hussein, suffocated to death due to smoke from a fire set in a Beirut high-rise.

Fires were again set in Beirut on the next day, Friday, while roads, banks and schools closed, and would remain so for the next two weeks.

Tens of thousands filled squares form Beirut to Tripoli and created new public squares in other cities, such as in Sidon’s Elia crossing and in Zouk and Tyre.

Day 2 saw heavy repression by security forces that beat protesters and fired large amounts of teargas into peacefully gathered crowds.

The first tangible response from the political class came on Day 3, when Lebanese Forces ministers resigned. The blood was in the water, and protesters wanted more. “The first one went in, where is the second?” they chanted in Riad al-Solh after the news broke, using a football chant.

By this point, thousands of Lebanese abroad began staging protests in solidarity with their compatriots, from the U.S. to Europe and Australia, in a touching display of the diaspora’s support.

Cabinet made its second concession on Day 5, endorsing a budget that reportedly included no new taxes, and endorsing a reform paper that contained a series of commitments, including on securing electricity. Protesters were unsatisfied and did not believe the promises they had heard many times before.

Perhaps realizing their problems weren’t going away, some parties stepped up efforts to suppress and undermine the streets. On Day 6, Nabatieh municipal police attacked a peaceful protest, injuring 15.

Hezbollah supporters scuffled with protesters in Downtown Beirut on Day 7, Oct. 24, leaving a number injured. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah asked his supporters to withdraw from the streets that day and claimed protests were being funded by embassies. This had a chilling effect on the participation of many Shiite supporters of the uprising, for whom Nasrallah is a religious figure first and foremost.

But Nasrallah’s supporters were to return to the streets five days later along with supporters of the Amal Movement to rampage through Beirut, beating many protesters and journalists before setting fire to the protest encampment in Martyr’s Square and Riad al-Solh. Security forces mostly stood by, clearing out the large mob only after they had destroyed everything.

The bitterness of that morning was tempered by Hariri’s resignation later that day, which led to celebrations across the country. It was a brief moment of respite, but once again, people wanted more.

Roads remained closed, but frustration began to grow as many began feeling the bite of two weeks without work. By Nov. 5, after several days of open discussions in squares and, indeed, at roadblocks themselves, the tactic shifted toward blocking state institutions deemed corrupt or inefficient.

Though powerful, these protests were less crippling than the road blockages and it seemed some steam was beginning to get lost. Then, the students breathed new life into the movement. From Nov. 6 onward, an open-ended strike was announced, and thousands of kids and young adults skipped school to bring down the regime.

Around the same time, corruption cases stalled for years were suddenly dislodged, in a development caretaker Justice Minister Albert Serhan attributed to street pressure. This is one of a series of small victories of the protesting population, which also includes pressuring the postponement of a Parliament session with controversial laws on the agenda.

And even though road blockages have decreased in scale, protesters have shown that, when provoked, they will take back to the streets. This was the case after President Michel Aoun’s latest interview, in which he told protesters to emigrate if they thought there were no decent people in the state. That night the protests saw Alaa Abou Fakher killed by a member of the Army intelligence, and his death united the country in candle light vigils.

Now, on Day 30, banks have been closed for a week once again, as have most schools and universities. Telecoms employees are on strike, fuel stations are closing early to ration gasoline, and importers are warning that they may struggle to bring in basic foodstuffs.

At the same time, the Lebanese Army is increasingly being used to crack down on protesters, bloodying several and arresting 20 Thursday night of which nine were subsequently released. The problem for politicians? Every time they have given a detached speech, or have ordered security forces to crack down on protesters, they bring people who are more united than ever before back to the streets.

In a skit shared on Twitter Friday, a young man walked up the stairs of his house from a protest, taking off a Lebanese flag wrapped around his head. “Come in, Come in, the news is on,” his mother says.

“What’s going on?’ he responds.

“Safadi will be prime minister.”

“Damn these authorities, every time we leave, they bring us back,” he says, turning around and wrapping the flag around his head again.

“Where are you going?” she asks

“To the square [to protest].”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 16, 2019, on page 2.

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