Lebanon’s Year of Fire

From self-immolations to forest blazes, the country’s conflagrations are igniting pan-sectarian protests.

Lebanese demonstrators stand by a fire near a makeshift barricade during clashes with security forces at a mass protest in Beirut on Oct. 18.
Lebanese demonstrators stand by a fire near a makeshift barricade during clashes with security forces at a mass protest in Beirut on Oct. 18. AFP/Getty Images

For the people of Lebanon, struggling under the weight of an ever-growing economic crisis, endemic corruption, and rising social inequality, it has been a year full of fire. In February, George Zreik, a struggling father who could no longer afford his young daughter’s tuition, torched himself in her school’s playground. His desperate act of self-immolation shook the country to its core. A photo of Zreik embracing his now-orphaned daughter blanketed social media platforms, but Lebanon’s fragile status quo held, if only just.

This week, after unprecedented wildfires ravaged much of the country, popular discontent finally exploded. Paralyzed by corruption, officials watched helplessly as volunteer firefighters battled the flames with rudimentary and aging equipment. Even as Lebanon’s once lush mountains were still smoldering, an out-of-touch government announced a fresh round of taxes, including on WhatsApp, the popular messaging service. The Lebanese had finally had enough.

The ongoing protests, which so far have brought millions of people into the street and led to the resignation of four ministers, are unprecedented in their nature and scale. Unlike previous waves of popular unrest—including the Cedar Revolution of 2005 and the “You Stink” movement of 2015—the current uprising cuts across all the sectarian and class divisions that historically have made mass mobilization difficult. Lebanese of all backgrounds, including Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Druze; poor and affluent; urban and rural; are in the streets.

To avoid traditional social cleavages that could undermine the movement, each separate group is focused on bringing down the established political order in its own community. The Sunnis of northern Lebanon tore down portraits of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Christians put posters of President Michel Aoun to the flame. Shiites ransacked offices affiliated with Hezbollah and with parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement.

Although spontaneous and still unorganized, the protesters have a few core demands, namely the resignation of at least the current cabinet if not the entire government; its replacement by a government of technocrats to see the country through political, economic, and administrative reforms; and the lifting of taxes levied on poorer segments of society.

Yet despite the extraordinary public pressure being brought to bear, with the country at a virtual standstill, the entrenched political establishment in Beirut is refusing to give way.

Over the weekend, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Iran-backed Hezbollah and the most powerful political figure in the country, took to the airwaves and firmly outlined his organization’s red lines against the protesters’ demands. He emphasized that the presidency of his Christian ally Aoun is to continue unobstructed and the current government is not to be toppled. If other political parties tried to take advantage of the unrest, Nasrallah threatened, his militant group would move into the streets and display the full extent of its power.

Heeding Nasrallah’s words of warning, Druze leader Walid Joumblatt, who had called on Hariri to resign along with his own ministers, reversed course and decided to back the existing government. Likewise, Hariri decided to buy time, announcing an ambitious set of economic reforms and hoping that the nationwide protests would gradually recede.

Whether Hezbollah’s intimidation, coupled with Hariri’s overtures, will prove enough to contain popular anger remains unknown. The fear that once kept many Lebanese from openly and directly challenging Hezbollah is giving way. After Nasrallah’s speech, thousands of people thundered back at him from downtown Beirut, “All of them means all of them, and Nasrallah is one of them,” a reference to the political elite they accuse of ruining the country.

More importantly, protesters within Nasrallah’s own Shiite community are taking to the street despite their ongoing suppression by the militia members allied to him. In the southern city of Tyre, a traditional bastion of support for Hezbollah and the associated Amal Movement, people chanted, “How can we fight for you in Syria and Yemen if we are left hungry in Lebanon?”

Hezbollah’s dilemma, and by extension that of its patron in Iran, is that it can no longer pretend that it isn’t Lebanon’s dominant party. It may hold only 10 percent of cabinet seats, but its real power runs deeper; ever since it secured the presidency and much of the cabinet for its allies in 2016, with traditional rivals Hariri and Joumblatt agreeing to be junior partners, much of the public now holds it ultimately accountable.

Hezbollah’s preferred method of wielding power behind a smokescreen of willing accomplices is losing its efficacy. In the days and months ahead, its problems will be compounded by a pressing need for more painful and deeply unpopular economic measures. The government’s failure to go through with them will almost guarantee an all-out economic and financial meltdown, which has already begun to manifest through a nascent currency crisis.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to underestimate Hezbollah and the governing coalition’s ability to hold on to power. What Lebanon is witnessing today is a revolt, not a revolution. The protesters, impressive and numerous as they may be, are unlikely to succeed in overturning the long-established political order. Instead, they are more likely to get some form of sectarian upgrading. Those in power, feeling the pressure, will attempt to deliver on much-delayed reforms that are prerequisites to unlocking some $11 billion in foreign aid from international lenders.

In the meantime, there is only so much the United States and other foreign stakeholders can do to positively influence events in Beirut. There are some opportunities, nonetheless, that fit in nicely with Washington’s interests on pushing back against Iran while encouraging greater transparency and the rule of law.

Washington should ally itself with the Lebanese people by vocally pushing for reform. With the exception of funds earmarked for aiding Syrian refugees in Lebanon, financial aid absent such reforms would only serve to bail out a deeply corrupt political establishment that is under the sway of Hezbollah and Iran. At the same time, preexisting aid provided to Lebanon’s security agencies should continue but under strict provisions. The United States must be willing to scale back and ultimately suspend such aid if the army chooses to stand by as Hezbollah and its allies employ violence to muzzle protesters.

To be sure, there are no quick fixes in Lebanon. The country’s sectarian and clientelist political order is rotten to its core, and Hezbollah’s backers in Iran are dominating much of the Levant, from Baghdad to Beirut. Yet there’s a possibility for significant political overhaul in 2022, when Lebanon will be due for parliamentary, municipal, and presidential elections. The millions of Lebanese protesting in the streets will have an opportunity to translate their revolt into meaningful political change. Until then, Washington would do well to make sure that the rules of the game remain fair and that these constitutionally mandated votes take place in a timely fashion.

Understandably, three years are an eternity to a mother who cannot feed her child or a father, like Zreik, who cannot send his to school. But there is some comfort in history. In ancient Greek mythology, Lebanon is associated with the phoenix, a legendary bird best known for its death in a tragic show of fire, only to be reborn again. Today’s Lebanon is burning, and its people should prepare to rise from the ashes.

Firas Maksad is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs. He is also a Washington-based political consultant on the Middle East. Twitter: @FirasMaksad