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‘All of them means all of them’: How Lebanon’s spontaneous protests over taxes led to calls for revolution

Richard Hall, Hannah Abdel-Massih
Anti-government protest in downtown Beirut, on Sunday, which continued into Monday: Reuters

The mass protests that have swept Lebanon in the past week began as a spontaneous outburst of rage. But in the space of a few short days, they have transformed the country.

For the first time, the sectarian political order that has governed this eastern Mediterranean nation since the end of the civil war in 1990 is facing a mass movement aimed at its overthrow.

It all started with a tax announcement.

On Thursday, the government said it would impose a levy on the popular messaging service WhatsApp. Thousands of people – many of them from poorer neighbourhoods and cities – took to the streets later that evening to vent their anger.

The crowds blocked roads, lit fires and clashed with police throughout the night and into the morning in towns and cities across the country. Their numbers were relatively small, but they came at a moment of already simmering rage, fuelled by a failing economy.

These street clashes quickly turned into something bigger. Rather than targeting the government or any one political leader, protesters called out Lebanon’s corrupt political class in its entirety. And they have spread throughout the diaspora, with solidarity protests erupting in London, Paris and New York, to name just a few.

They sang insulting songs about political leaders from every party, one after the other. They chanted “revolution” and “the people want the downfall of the regime”, and in doing so galvanised the country in a way that few protest movements have in the past. According to some estimates, more than a million people have taken to the streets since Thursday.

“The question isn’t why we are here, the question is why wouldn’t we be here,” said Rami, a 24-year-old teacher, who did not want to provide his full name, at a protest in downtown Beirut on Sunday.

“There is nothing in this country that would keep us at home, that would keep us from going down to the streets,” he added.

There is nothing in this country that would keep us at home, that would keep us from going down to the streets

Rami, teacher and protester

That sentiment appears to be shared by many. Families with children, crowds of men on mopeds and motorbikes, young and old have all flocked to squares and streets around the country.

Initial clashes between small groups of protesters have given way to mass demonstrations with a carnival atmosphere. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands came out in the biggest protest yet in the capital.

The scale of the protests appears to have taken the government completely by surprise. In an attempt to quell the protests, Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister, announced a package of reform measures on Monday. They included cutting the salaries of top officials, and abolishing several state institutions.

“The decisions that we made today might not fulfil your goals but for sure it achieves what I have been seeking for two years,” Mr Hariri said.

Demonstrators burn wood and debris during a protest against recent tax calls on October 17 in Beirut (AFP/Getty)

But few protesters seem in the mood for piecemeal reforms. The combination of an acute economic crisis and decades of rampant corruption has pushed the country to the edge.

Lebanon has one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world due to years of mismanagement. Unemployment stands at close to 25 per cent, and tens of thousands of educated young people leave the country each year due to a lack of opportunity.

Inequality has also risen sharply over the last decade. According to research by the World Inequality Lab, the richest 1 per cent in Lebanon receive approximately a quarter of the national income, making it one of the most unequal countries in the world.

In the last few months, the crisis has had a dramatic impact on people’s daily lives. Fears of a US dollar shortage have sparked panic for businesses across the country. Petrol stations have closed down in protest at the rising exchange rate and bakeries have warned they will not survive.

“The economic situation is s**t,” said Fadwa Hawilo, 40, as she marched in downtown Beirut on Sunday.

I came to protest because there is no work, there’s no education. My children are growing up without a future

Fadwa, mother and protester

“I came to protest because there is no work, there’s no education. My children are growing up without a future. My husband hardly works; he might get one day and then the rest of the week he has no work.”

Meanwhile, the country’s elite and political leaders have grown richer and richer. To fix the country’s finances, they have frequently turned to taxes and levies on an already struggling population.

“Their solution was to take from poor people like me,” said Adel, a 70-year-old taxi driver in Beirut’s Martyrs Square on Sunday, who also did not want to give his full name, explaining why he joined the protests.

“As a taxi driver… first of all, I am 70 years old, and I am still behind the wheel. If I don’t work for one day, I don’t eat. I have to work in order to eat. There are no social services, no pensions, nothing,” he said.

“So we are saying to them, rather than taking from the pocket of the poor, go take from the pocket of the well-off, those who stole money.”

These economic grievances are nothing new, but what has changed is the target for the protesters’ ire. Whereas demonstrations in the past have called for governments to fall, this time they are demanding that the entire system of sectarian leadership be replaced.

“We have come to the streets to overthrow the corrupt government,” said Mohammad Amin, a 19-year-old student who holds a part-time job at a money exchange shop.

“It’s about the whole situation – there’s no electricity, no water, nothing. We have a class of people who are all corrupt.”

Tap water in Lebanon is not drinkable, and there are scheduled daily electricity outages.

The protests this past week show a dramatic growth among the country’s civil society movement in just a few short years. In 2015, tens of thousands protested over a months-long waste crisis. That too evolved into wider protests about corruption, but the YouStink movement, as it became known, failed to achieve a united front.

“In 2015, it was mainly an educated middle class who came out. This time it started with the poorest and the unemployed,” Dr Rima Majed, an assistant professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut, told The Independent.

Dr Majed argued that protests of the past few days “have shown the start of the emergence of a new class-based alliance between the unemployed, underemployed, working classes and middle classes against the ruling oligarchy. This is a breakthrough.”

There is also a significance in the protests spreading across the entire country, in places that many political leaders would consider to be dominated by their base.

What is different here is that it started quite spontaneously,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.

“The build-up is against the entire political leadership. Not just Tripoli and Beirut, but in towns across the country. We are hearing slogans about wanting to change the regime, everyone is being held accountable. This is quite significant.”

One refrain chanted by protesters for the past five days puts that point more succinctly.

“All of them means all of them,” they sing.