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The straw that broke the camel’s back in Lebanon

Steven Sahiounie, political analyst and journalist

The Lebanese government has read the writing on the wall.  The protesters had spray-painted graffiti to a cement wall: “Down with the rule of the mafia” was painted next to “revolution” and the word “thieves” was a reoccurring theme of the Lebanese citizens who have had enough, and the day of reckoning has come to face those who are in power and have abused that power, according to those hundreds of thousands protesting in the streets from Tripoli to Tyre.

“This is the first time that all the Lebanese citizens are all united around one issue – and that’s the resignation of the government,” said Lara Saade, a constitutional lawyer based in Beirut.

It began on the 17th when the communications ministry announced a new tax on the phone app Whatsapp”.  Many Lebanese have close family members living in the four corners of the globe, and this necessitates free communications using the app. Almost immediately the protesters took to the streets in the hundreds, and within hours the tax plan was rescinded, but it was too late for the government.  This was that last straw, the threshold of patience and suffering had been crossed, and the crowds swelled day by day. By the 19th the atmosphere in the streets turned festive and patriotic, and on the 20th it swelled to hundreds of thousands across the country as whole families came out to show their solidarity with the mainly youthful protesters, which were interspersed with middle-aged to elderly citizens who had suffered through the civil war, an ‘Israeli’ invasion-occupation, and ‘Israeli’ air raids during the July 2006 war.  

The crowds chanted for the entire government to resign. They began asking for an interim government of experts, not political parties, to run the country just until a new general election could be held and a new group of freely elected leaders could be chosen.  The crowds felt that promises of reforms from a group of politicians, who have been attached to the government for years, if not generations, could not possibly be trusted to change their ways and right the wrongs they have done to the public. The majority of the Lebanese are living in poverty, or just surviving, while there is the top 1% who is raking in income which equals nearly ¼ of the national GDP.  This huge disparity of incomes has fueled street protests.  

The government has failed for years to provide free education for children, which has led to generations of the uneducated, unskilled and unemployed.  The government has not provided water, electricity or garbage services consistently, with sporadic cut-offs, and piled refuse in a country which is supposed to be a tourist attraction.

Lebanon is a sectarian run government, with some democratic aspects. The President must be Maronite Catholic, the Prime Minister must be Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the Parliament must be a Shite Muslim.  This system was devised by the French before leaving their colony but was supposed to be abolished in 1988 by the Taif pact.  Many of the current Lebanese government can be traced back to 1988, and they have never acted to implement the pact.  Instead, the same names in government are consistently re-cycled in a game of musical chairs each time they form a new government.  

“Politicians of all affiliations are deeply committed to political sectarianism, no matter what they preach or say, whether this commitment is out of greed, fear or to maintain the status quo,” said Karim Makdisi, associate professor of international politics at the American University of Beirut.

Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who leads the prime minister’s Future parliamentary bloc, called for PM Hariri to carry out reforms. “Restoring confidence is not only through promises. Citizens want to see actions because they are tired of promises.” he said while being accused of ‘misplacing’ $11 billion during his term from 2005-2006. Lebanon has a reputation as “The Switzerland of the Middle East”, and that had nothing to do with the snow-capped mountain ski resorts, but was referring to the secret bank accounts kept.  One of the 17 reforms now proposed by PM Hariri is a large tax on the banks, which have not been paying their fair share, due to their alliances with certain politicians.

PM Saad Hariri is one of the richest men in Lebanon, and has delivered a proposal of reforms which he hopes will get the protesters off the streets, but they have not given up and this is the 7th day of protests which have resulted in street closures, including the main international highway along the coast, which is the only road to the international airport for flights abroad.  The schools are all officially closed, as are the banks.  Grocery stores are now running out of fresh items, and pharmacies are running low on medicines, as the delivery trucks are at a stand-still. 

Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri is accused of decades-long corruption. His Amal movement is aligned with Hezbollah, and both are Shite resistance movements based mainly in the South, which were instrumental in ending the long ‘Israeli’ occupation which began in 1982, and they are resisting the occupation of Palestine which began in 1948.

The leader of Hezbollah, Sayyed Nasrallah, said in a televised speech, “The current crisis is not something new, it has been accumulating for the last ten or twenty years.” He supported PM Hariri and his proposed reforms and was against the entire government resigning, as he felt it could lead to chaos, but he criticized all political factions and officials who blame others, while not accepting their responsibilities to the public.

President Michel Aoun has not been vocal, but his son in law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, has spoken and been rebuked and mocked by the protesters.  Nepotism and family dynasties have been sharply criticized in the street.   

All of the officials have come under verbal attacks in the street, and this forms the basis of their general plea to remove the entire government, from top to bottom, and begin anew. They see these ruling elite as having shared not only political power but as having accumulated wealth from public utilities and national resources.  They want new politicians, that are not tied to sectarian politics, which is also tied to family names, dynasties and going back to militias during the civil war.