Demonstrators carry national flags as riot police stand guard behind barbed wire during an anti-government protest in Beirut, Lebanon October 19, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A week ago, thousands of protesters in Lebanon took to the streets to demonstrate against the government’s plan to impose new tax laws. During the week the discourse changed into calls for the entire government to step down. Despite reforms announced by the prime minister, the protesters’ say they don’t want a solution from him. They want the whole government to step down. Protesters have blocked roads across Lebanon on the seventh day of protests. They refuse to leave the streets until the government steps down.
Clashes broke out after the army forcibly wanted to open a main road in Beirut. Two people were reportedly injured.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s economic reforms package has failed to calm down the protesters. Mass protests have occurred in Lebanon before, but this time analysts say they don’t expect the protests to die down anytime soon.
Lebanon’s economy is stagnating and the country has one of the world’s highest debt to GDP ratios. Economists have warned of a complete economic collapse. In recent weeks, banks have restricted the withdrawal of U.S. dollars. International donors have pledged to help Lebanon reduce the debt and the government has promised reforms.
The demonstrations began after the government announced new taxes. This included a $6 monthly fee on calls on free messaging apps like WhatsApp. This unleashed anger against decades of corruption and government mismanagement.
Now the protests turned an uprising with one objective, which is to bring down the current government. No politician has been spared, but foreign minister Gibran Bassil has been the target of the protesters’. The most popular chant is “Hela, Hela, Hela Hela Ho, Gibran Bassil kes emmo.” Literally translated, it’s a blunt reference to his mother’s genitals, but here it essentially means, “ f*ck him.”
Before being appointed foreign minister, Bassil served as the country’s Minister of Energy and Water. In 2012, #BlameBassil was a popular hashtag. Lebanese expressed their grievances about the country’s shortage of water and daily electricity cuts. Bassil is also known for his anti-refugee view points. He mentioned wanting to return Syrian refugees who fled the war across the border.
“the people want the fall of the regime.”
On Monday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a package of reforms include halving politicians’ salaries, assistance for poor families, creating a body to fight corruption and improvements to the country’s dilapidated electricity infrastructure. It also included a pledge to recover stolen public funds.
“Your movement is what led to these decisions that you see today,” Hariri said. Protesters watched Hariri’s speech close to the mosque named after his father Rafik Hariri. Hariri senior had served as Prime Minister and was assassinated in 2005. Chants of “Revolution, revolution” erupted as Hariri finished. More and more people descended on Martyrs’ Square holding Lebanese flags and chanting “the people want the fall of the regime.”
The political parties currently controlling the Lebanese government have dominated for decades. They have been in power since the end of the country’s civil war in 1990. Most of the main party leaders today were warlords themselves. And often, when they leave office their sons or other relatives takes over.
A civil war could break out
On the streets leading to Martyrs’ Square and Riyad al-Solh square, in downtown Beirut, protesters have set up roadblocks. They used rubbish bins and containers, wood and concrete to stop anyone from going through. Banks, schools and universities remained closed on the third day of the general strike until further notice.
The Lebanese army receives large amounts of foreign donations and training, particularly from the United States. It’s one of the few respected state institutions in the country. It is also one of the few institutions that has not been affected by s by political meddling.
But the army’s increasing involvement in a crackdown on the protest movement has complicated the situation. Late on Friday, on the second night of the demonstrations, soldiers cleared a peaceful protest in central Beirut. Using batons and rifles to beat protesters, also after the demonstrators were clearly incapacitated.
In a statement the following day, Human Rights Watch said the army had used “excessive and unnecessary force” against protesters. Dany al-Horr, a protester at Martyrs’ Square, told Al Jazeera, that if the government refuses to step down, a civil war could break out.
“Civil wars begin by humiliating people. By not listening to the people, the government is making the people look as if they’re losing their dignity … people will get killed eventually if things drag on for a while,” he said.
Lebanon’s citizens that feel like they were reborn in the past week. People who have been marginalised for decades feel empowered to demand change.
The power-sharing agreement that ended the civil war 30 years ago may have kept the peace but it has also created economic backlash for many Lebanese.
The atmosphere seems hopeful. Although kids come to protest with their parents in Tripoli, the outcome is not yet determined.
That Lebanon’s leaders are unsure what to do about the protests, doesn’t mean they will going to hand over power without a fight.