Mass protests and strikes in Lebanon have already toppled the prime minister, but they must go further, writes Simon Assaf.
This was never supposed to happen. A country riddled with sectarian divisions, facing a deeply embedded ruling class at ease using violence, threats and patronage to keep the people in place.
But now an unprecedented movement for change is sweeping Lebanon, with some one in four of the population taking part in the demonstrations, street occupations and strikes — numbers surpassing anything in the country’s history. There is a popular saying that “Hunger is an infidel that does not abide by public morals”.
If the imposition of the WhatsApp tax was the straw that broke the camel’s back, what else is the camel carrying? In the days before the movement erupted an unprecedented series of wildfires tore through the country; pine forest, ancient cedar woodlands, along with villages and homes were incinerated.
In the months before the wildfires the heartless austerity measures imposed by the government of Saad Hariri (which includes all the sectarian parties) pushed more and more people into poverty. And in the decades since the civil war ended in 1990 the gap between rich and poor has grown wider, the middle classes have collapsed, and people are being forced into exile in a world that no longer tolerates migrants.
In 2002, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reported that 762 bank accounts (less than 1 percent of the population) held 50.5 percent of the total national wealth, while the majority of people, irrespective of sect, struggled to make ends meet.
Lebanese banks are no more than clearing houses for rich families that span the religious spectrum, while ordinary people service the national debt (the third-highest per capita globally).
But these protests did not come out of the blue. These were breakthrough strikes and protests that brought Lebanese (and others) onto picket lines along straightforward class lines. The legacy of the civil war is that most neighbourhoods are segregated (although they are becoming more mixed) whereas offices and factories are not.
During the 2011 Arab Spring, demonstrations went from neighbourhood to neighbourhood crossing old frontlines and proving that there was a future beyond the sectarian system.
Many people drew the conclusion that sectarianism was not an aberration that can be corrected with a dash of “modernism”, it is intertwined in the history and survival of the whole system, and is “the secret of its success”.
In the face of this growing immiseration how did the “resistance” react? Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, famously attributed the 2006 victory over Israel to divine intervention, when it was actually delivered by the incredible levels of solidarity and resilience shown by ordinary people.
At that time Hizbollah was riding a wave of popularity, delivering what no other Arab regime could. Yet this victory proved a turning point. Hizbollah won seats at the ministerial table, and voted through package after package of austerity measures.
As the first stirrings of economic discontent surfaced in 2008, Nasrallah declared: “We are not going to hide behind a loaf of bread.” The “loaf” was secondary to ministerial portfolios.
During the Arab Spring Hizbollah sent troops that were supposed to be protecting the southern border to Syria in order to destroy the revolution there. Citing “foreign plots” then, he has rolled out the same trope today.
Just before his supporters made their first attempt to destroy the roadblocks in Nabatiyeh, the southern city that has endured countless devastating onslaughts by Israel, he declared that the popular revolution was “a plot to destroy the resistance…and was funded by embassies” when it is in fact a movement to destroy the sectarian system that Hizbollah has now become integral to.
The slogan on the streets is “all, meaning all”, that the whole sectarian political system has to fall.
The protests were most vibrant in the poverty ridden northern city of Tripoli, with its majority Sunni population and embattled Alawi minority. Long dismissed as a hotbed of radical Islam and “belonging to Isis”, Tripoli reacted to its liberation with a giant party, a festival of the oppressed in the real sense.
The protests spread to every town and village, with emotional public reconciliations of many communities that had suffered terrible sectarian divisions during the civil war.
The regime is now tangled in its noose. It would like to unleash the sectarian gangs and retinues of gun-wielding thugs, but this would mean declaring war on their own communities. The army has been used, but is proven to be unreliable. Scenes of soldiers bursting into tears when they meet their parents at the road blocks they have been sent to clear make an outright deployment a risky prospect.
So the thugs will do, and they have mobilised and torn into the roadblocks in Nabatiyeh and now Beirut. But the protests always return when they leave.
The government would like to implement what now deposed prime minister Hariri declared as “bold reforms”, which included revamped privatisations, softer austerity measures and some taxes on the super-rich. Such measures are laughable in the face of the challenge from the street.
What is needed as a minimum are punitive taxes on the elite and a radical redistribution of wealth, the end of the sectarian carve-up, the monopolies, corruption and fake elections — in effect an existential threat to the existing order.
The October revolution is challenging the entire system. The sheer breadth and depth of this movement has rattled the ruling class, and it is far from complete. Its significance is not simply that of forcing government resignations, but that it has shown that Lebanon’s long-suffering people have found a new unity and common purpose.
Lebanese Marxist Bassem Chit wrote with prescience in 2007, “Today, we live in the contradiction between the existing sectarian order and the current socio-political reality. We also have an historic opportunity to rid ourselves of this regime forever and to replace it with a genuine democratic system that suits the needs of society and the requirements for a better life.
“Reality has changed, and this system has become a major obstacle to the development of society… [but] the ruling class is not going to leap into the abyss, it has to be pushed.”