Dispatch

Lebanon’s Protests Are Leaderless. That May Be Their Strength.

Fed up with decades of economic mismanagement and corruption, most demonstrators just want the government gone.

Lebanese security forces stand between supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah movement (foreground) and anti-government protesters (background) at Riad al-Solh Square in Beirut on Oct. 25.
Lebanese security forces stand between supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah movement (foreground) and anti-government protesters (background) at Riad al-Solh Square in Beirut on Oct. 25. AFP via Getty Images

BEIRUT—On Thursday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun announced that he was ready to negotiate with representatives of the protesters massing all over the country. “I’m waiting for you,” Aoun said in a televised address from his presidential palace. 

No one came.

Over a week into the biggest anti-government protests in Lebanon in more than a decade, the demonstrations remain leaderless and without an official list of demands. And that may be their greatest strength.

The protests started differently than most do here. Rather than middle-class Lebanese creating a Facebook event days in advance, poorer Lebanese flooded the streets on Oct. 17, after the government proposed a series of new taxes, including a fee on calls made via free messaging services like WhatsApp.

“This time it was spontaneous,” one protester, Amro Sukarieh, told Foreign Policy. The first night, there were few placards and flags, just anger at the government. 

Decades of corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement have brought Lebanon to an economic breaking point. Protesters say politicians have stolen tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars from the public coffers aided by bank secrecy laws and also patronage networks. Despite most Lebanese knowing this was happening, few felt they had the power to stop it.

That seems to have changed. 

Now, most protesters say they simply want their government to resign and until then they will stay in the streets. There have been confrontations between protesters and Lebanese security forces, but no attempt to fully disperse the demonstrators.

“We already succeeded in one thing: Now the government sees their own people. They see we can get mad,” said Nour Maatouk, walking near a wall spray-painted with the words “Fuck the system.” Like many in the protests, she came down to the streets when she saw what was happening on the news, not because of someone’s call. “Now, the government considers us citizens,” she said.

The first people in the streets complained of unemployment and an inability to meet their basic needs. Mostly young men shouted “thieves, thieves” and drove around central Beirut on scooters. Some smashed shop windows, lit fires, and blocked roads.

“Revolution, revolution,” crowds chanted, fists in the air—reminiscent of the early days of the Arab Spring. 

By Saturday, Lebanese of all ages and almost every religious and economic background were in the streets across the country calling for the end of the government.

“I heard lots of calls for bringing down the regime,” Aoun said in his address. “The regime cannot be changed in the squares. … This can only happen through state institutions.”

But nobody told these protesters to go to the streets, and it seems no one can tell them to go home. Usually, protests in Lebanon are called for by political parties or civil society groups. Sukarieh says he has been at almost every demonstration since 2005, when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets successfully demanding an end to Syria’s military occupation of the country.

“This time is different,” Sukarieh said. “All the Lebanese are united under Lebanese flags.”

Many of the politicians who lead parties today led fighters during Lebanon’s civil war. The Taif Agreement, which ended the war, reestablished the country’s sect-based power-sharing system—relegating Lebanese, some say, to engage politically based on their religion, not their interests. “We don’t want one leader,” Sukarieh said. “That will bring us back to the thing we are trying to escape.”

Many protesters say their leaders have purposely fostered sectarian divisions in the country to keep people scared and feeling dependent on their political parties. A network of patronage further entrenched that dependence, and many of the youth on the streets say they can’t get jobs unless they support a political leader or have connections, called wasta in Arabic.

“We are fighting to have no leader,” Maatouk said. 

When Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a bucket of reforms this week, which included a pledge to fight corruption and reclaim those stolen funds, the protesters basically laughed at him.

“Hariri’s speech is more disappointing than my future,” read the placard of a young man in central Beirut.

The fact that the government has no one to even try to negotiate with is a strength, many here say. In 2015, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Beirut after garbage began piling up. A grassroots movement called “You Stink” led months of protests, which widened to include issues of corruption and government mismanagement. Eventually, waste collection resumed. The protests fizzled without any real structural or policy reform.

But some say that was also a result of attempts to discredit the leadership of “You Stink” and divisions among them. That is a lesson to the protesters now.

Online, one of the leaders of that 2015 movement urged the protestors not to talk with the government. “We will not negotiate,” Assaad Thebian wrote on Twitter. “Only the street speaks for the revolution.”

One of the most popular chants of the protests has been “Everyone means everyone.” And “everyone” means every leader must go. No leader has been spared the calls to step down.

At a table during one protest, a group heatedly discussed a possible list of demands, using a Lebanese flag as a talking stick. End corruption. Socialized health care. Equality for women. Protect the environment.

“We don’t need demands,” one young man interjected. “We need the government to fall.”

Some protesters say they know that if they do succeed, that could create a power vacuum and at the moment it’s not clear who would fill it.

“If there had been a leader in the beginning, people would have disagreed on that leader,” one protester, Salam Daoud, said. “People are angry, and that’s what brought them to the street. If it had been led by a certain party or group of people, I don’t think it would have been this big.”

She says that in the protests, decades of sectarian divide seem to have faded: “We have never liked each other this much.”

But Daoud also says they do need to think about how to move forward and eventually they will need organization, collective demands, and someone to deliver them.

 But for now, she says, it’s: “Work. Protest. Sleep. Repeat.”

Rebecca Collard is a broadcast journalist and writer covering the Middle East.

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