The 'Fight for Everything:' Lebanon's Leaderless Revolution Unites the Country Against Political Corruption

Posted by Edy Semaan on October 21, 2019 in Blog

(Photo Credit: Ghady Semaan - Oct. 2019).“This is not the WhatsApp Revolution,” read a post that was circulated on social media after Lebanon’s protests started. For the hundreds of thousands of people on the street today, truer words have not been spoken. While a proposed tax on WhatsApp and other messaging services propelled mass demonstrations in different parts of Lebanon Thursday night, the motives behind the popular uproar go beyond that.

After ministers announced Oct. 17 their intention to introduce tax hikes aimed at raising revenues in the 2020 draft budget, including a 20-cent daily charge on calls via voice over internet protocol (VoIP), citizens started organizing and storming streets and public spaces in multiple cities and towns. Such a charge would make heavily-used free messaging services in Lebanon like WhatsApp and Facetime unaffordable for many and an additional burden at best.

However, news of the proposed taxes were only the straw that broke the camel’s back. Frustration among citizens across the politico-sectarian spectrum has been growing for a while now. It is the corollary of a snowballing wealth gap, especially between the political class and working people. The proposed taxes on voice and video calls and the increasing prices of basic goods like bread and gas add up to a bigger sentiment of income inequality that the protests reflect.

“We took to the streets to fight for everything,” Ghida Farhat told veteran journalist Marcel Ghanem on his show after a long day of protests and blockades Friday.

Aside from crowding Beirut’s Martyr Square and other main locations in the capital, hordes of people demonstrated in every city, including Tyre, Sidon, Jal el-Dib, Jounieh, Byblos, Batroun, Tripoli, and Chouf, marking the first such movements ever in Lebanon. The small country has seen several demonstrations in its recent history, notably in 2005 after the assassination of statesman Rafik Hariri. But what characterizes the protests this time around is the never-before-seen simultaneous protests by residents of all backgrounds exclusively waving the Lebanese flag, under anti-establishment, anti-corruption, and anti-partisan motto “#Everyone_Means_Everyone.” Support and solidarity also poured in from across the world, with expats similarly expressing their lack of trust in the current government and support for the national uprising. In Washington, D.C., for example, more than 100 members of the Lebanese community gathered at the gate of the Embassy of Lebanon, repeating chants calling for the “fall of the regime” and “the end of corruption.”

Over several failing governments and compromises in the past years, the Lebanese people grew tired of getting disappointed and experiencing the same grievances with no effective change or improvement in sight. The multi-confessional and politically diverse stand comes as a first for a country as divided along sectarian and party lines as Lebanon, but not as a shock. The country has heard many promises, but to this day, residents still don’t enjoy basic rights like 24/7 electricity, decent internet connection, clean water, and suitable public transportation system.

The uproar also differs from neighboring revolutions because it does not reflect the desire to topple an authoritarian regime but it is the result of seeing the same faces in power who keep overpromising and underdelivering, especially in recent months amid reports that the small country’s economy is at the edge of collapse. Add to that the garbage crisis that made international headlines a few years back and still hasn’t seen a permanent solution.

The ongoing demonstrations have been largely peaceful, with protesters singing the national anthem and cheering to the beat of patriotic chants. They were also notably joined by well-known figures from the music, film, art, and entertainment worlds. The series of protests did, however, start with a heavy burning of tires on main streets and highways, which drew the ire of activists demanding an end to pollution and disorder. The issue owes its high significance in the national discourse to the recent wildfires that erupted across the country only a few days before and left huge forest and habitable areas in complete ruin, an outcome exacerbated by the lack of a quick, coordinated or effective government response. Several environmental advocacy organizations and individual volunteers received a lot of praise for organizing and leading public cleaning efforts in the mornings of the protests.

Leaderless and not factionally motivated, people voicing their concerns everywhere in the country were one in their demand to put an end to the widespread corruption in the government and the mediocre living conditions for which they held the “National Unity” cabinet of Prime Minister Saad Hariri responsible. Many also called for new parliamentary elections and the formation of a technocratic government that replaces old leaders and political dynasties with competent professionals who can salvage the country’s economy and democracy.

The Prime Minister had asked protesters for a period of 72 hours to come up with a plan, and on Monday, announced a list of economic and political reforms aimed to deliver on overdue goals, avoid further fiscal troubles, and soothe people’s rage. The echo on the streets, though, is that protesters are not buying the new assurances and won’t settle for anything less than the resignation of the entire cabinet. Already, the four ministers of the Lebanese Forces Christian party succumbed to public will and resigned Saturday.

Now, it remains to be seen whether the unprecedented show of unity will result in chaos, compromise, or a new era of political reform. But if the protests over five days and counting show anything, it’s that Lebanon is witnessing a watershed moment, and there’s no going back from here.

(Photo Credit: Ghady Semaan - Oct. 2019).