Why Protesters in Lebanon Are Taking to the Streets
The protests combine political and economic grievances and could bring down the country’s sect-based political order.
On Oct. 17, what has become known as Lebanon’s “October revolution” began with a handful of protesters gathered in downtown Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square, outnumbered by the riot police who were guarding the nearby Parliament and prime minister’s offices.
Over the next few days, the movement swelled, becoming the most comprehensive anti-government protests the country has seen at least since the civil war ended in 1990, in terms of numbers, geographic spread, and diversity of sect and class. The demonstrations brought hundreds of thousands of Lebanese to the streets, paralyzing the country’s transportation and banking system and, on Oct. 29, forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
To some, it appeared that Lebanon was coming late to the Arab Spring. But Lebanon presents a different, in many ways more complicated, set of circumstances than the other Arab countries that rose up in 2011.
What sparked the protests?
The protests began in response to a set of regressive tax proposals made on Oct. 17—notably the quickly rescinded tax on internet-based calling services such as WhatsApp, which are widely used in Lebanon, particularly because regular phone service is expensive.
The proposal came at a time when many citizens were fearful of an impending currency crisis and fed up with a political system based on nepotism and sectarian identity that had failed to provide even the most basic of services. The country suffers from long-running shortages in government-provided electricity and water. Four years ago, failure to resolve a waste collection crisis left mountains of trash in the streets of Beirut.
Then, in the week leading up to the protests, the government turned out to be woefully unprepared to handle massive forest fires that erupted around the country. Civil defense volunteers lacked basic equipment, and a trio of firefighting helicopters that had been donated to the country in 2009 were out of commission due to lack of maintenance.
How does Lebanon’s sectarian system work?
The slogan of the protests has been “all of them means all of them,” suggesting that demonstrators blame political leaders of all parties, regardless of sect. Under Lebanon’s current system, leadership posts are apportioned based on confession. The president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim. Parliamentary seats are also apportioned via a sect-based quota system.
President Michel Aoun was selected in October 2016, breaking a two-year deadlock between the two main factions in government at the time: the March 8 coalition, of which Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement party is a part, which includes the Shiite militant group and political party Hezbollah and is aligned with the Syrian regime; and the opposing March 14 coalition, led by Hariri’s Future Movement. The speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, of the Hezbollah-aligned Amal Movement, has held his position since 1992, with the length of his tenure becoming a running joke in the country.
Although he holds no official government position, the other figure who looms large in Lebanese politics is Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah.
In a speech on Friday, Nasrallah expressed sympathy for the movement’s socioeconomic grievances but said he opposed Hariri’s resignation and called for a swift formation of a new government. He also said outside forces had been trying to hijack the protests to create divisions within Lebanon, cause political and economic collapse, and target Hezbollah.
Parliamentary elections were held in May 2018 for the first time in nine years. In the lead-up to the elections, activists were hopeful they could bring in new faces independent of the traditional political parties, but in the end, only one so-called civil society candidate, Paula Yacoubian, was elected.
Are the protests also about the economy?
The Lebanese central bank, led by Gov. Riad Salame, has been under fire over accusations that measures have been taken to protect the banks’ bottom line rather than citizens’ well-being. Salame, who has headed the central bank since 1993, has been scrutinized for ongoing financial engineering that initially was meant to be a temporary measure to prevent hyperinflation following the end of the civil war in 1990.
Among those measures is the Lebanese pound’s peg to the U.S. dollar, officially at 1,507 pounds to the dollar, but with a large debt load and stagnant growth, the country has struggled to maintain the peg. Banks have been hoarding dollars as a result of a shortage in recent months. The immediate end of the peg would spell disaster for many, with citizens already struggling to withdraw U.S. dollars and facing a rising black market exchange rate. Prior to the protests, the unofficial exchange rate on the street had crept up to around 1,650 pounds to the dollar. With banks closed since the beginning of the uprising, the black market exchange rate rose to 1,800 pounds to the dollar or more.
The official exchange rate remained unchanged when banks reopened Friday, with some withdrawal limits and other controls put in place to avoid a collapse. The long-term fate of the currency remains uncertain.
Mirvat Mezher, a 45-year-old mother of three in the coastal city of Sidon, told Foreign Policy that—like many Lebanese who joined the protests—she was already fed up before the tax proposal.
Her husband has cancer; the family has fallen into debt with education expenses for their three children; Mezher has been looking for work without success; and her oldest daughter had to drop out of university to work. If her children do graduate from university, she expects they will have to go abroad to find good jobs.
“Our situation in Lebanon is really miserable,” she said, laying the blame at the feet of the country’s entrenched political leadership. “We no longer have anything to lose.”
Why now and not during the Arab Spring?
Nizar Hassan, an activist with LiHaqqi (“For My Rights”), one of the main groups participating in the demonstrations, said it has taken time for people to come to see the system as a whole—rather than specific parties or actors—as the problem.
Unlike in Syria, Egypt, or Libya, where there were clear strongmen to topple, Lebanon’s government is a coalition of sect-based political parties, which govern in shifting alliances—or sometimes don’t govern at all, as happened after the May 2018 parliamentary elections, when it took the political factions nine months to agree on a cabinet. During the Arab Spring, Lebanon did see protests calling for an end to the sectarian system, but they were much smaller than the current protests.
What are protesters demanding?
The decentralized nature of the protest movements across Lebanon, and the diversity of political views, means that demands vary. However, there are a series of overarching demands that have resonated among the vast majority of protesters.
They first called for the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s cabinet, insisting that it be replaced with a downsized and independent technocratic government. Although there is not a consensus on what that would look like, many protesters have called for it to be made up of people coming from outside the established political parties. They have also called for early parliamentary elections with a new electoral law for elections that are not based on sectarian proportionality. Finally, they have called for an independent investigation into stolen and misappropriated public funds.
Protesters have called for the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s cabinet, insisting that it be replaced with a downsized and independent technocratic government.
There have also been calls for the resignation of other top officials, including Aoun, as well as calls for the direct popular election of the president, who is currently selected by Parliament.
Does Hariri’s resignation change anything?
Hariri announced his resignation on Oct. 29, claiming he’d hit a “dead end” in trying to implement reforms and quell the unrest. Earlier that day, supporters of the Hezbollah and Amal parties beat demonstrators and journalists and set fire to protest encampments in downtown Beirut.
Hariri had promised protesters on Oct. 18 that he and his cabinet would present an economic blueprint for swift reforms within 72 hours. Despite presenting those reforms, which included slashing public official salaries in half, promising to solve Lebanon’s electricity crisis in a year, ending regressive taxation, and privatizing the telecommunications sector, protesters remained adamant for him to resign, calling the proposals empty promises that the leadership would be unable to implement.
It’s now up to Aoun, following political consultations, to appoint the next prime minister, who will then set up a new cabinet. In the meantime, Aoun requested that the current cabinet continue in a caretaker capacity led by Hariri. Hariri’s allies lauded him for his resignation, while Aoun’s party condemned it, saying that Hariri’s resignation could push Lebanon into the void. The international community has responded with mild panic, having uniformly expressed its support for Hariri to stay in power.
What comes next?
Since Hariri’s resignation, protesters and politicians alike have been trying to reposition themselves. Forming a new government will not be easy, considering Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing arrangements. Aoun must hold consultations with different political leaders and parliamentary blocs before appointing a new prime minister. There are already disagreements about whether the government should be technocratic or not, which alone could stall its formation.
Maha Yahya, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, said she sees three possible paths the government formation could take. Hariri might be renamed as prime minister but with a technocratic government agreed on by political parties; he might be replaced by someone like Interior Minister Raya Haffar El Hassan—someone who is Sunni and “close enough to [the] orbit of Hariri but not mired in corruption”; or the country might enter another extended stalemate, with a caretaker government that has limited powers.
Yahya warned that an extended stalemate would risk a turn toward political violence, as well as an increased potential for “complete financial and economic meltdown.”
“We’re standing on the precipice—we’re actually sliding down,” Yahya said. “A quick formation of government is what will stop the slide or at least contain it for a bit.”
Others are afraid that the protest movement—widely hailed for encompassing all sects and communities—will be co-opted by established political players and devolve into conflict along party or sectarian lines. Some have even gone as far as to raise the specter of another civil war. The Christian Lebanese Forces party, whose four ministers resigned in the early stages of the uprising, has tried to join the protesters. Meanwhile, Hariri and his Future Movement are framing his resignation as supporting the protesters.
These attempts could further inflame the rhetoric from their political rivals—notably Hezbollah, the Free Patriotic Movement, and Amal—who would likely double down on the narrative that the protest movement is politicized and beholden to a segment of the elite or is being pushed by outside powers.
The activist Hassan said he expects to see more attempts by those in power to squash the movement. Apart from sending the army to disperse roadblocks set up by the protesters to keep the country at a standstill, he said, those might include “spreading propaganda and fear … turning it into something sectarian or regional, making people remember the civil war and relating things that are happening now to that.”
To preserve its strength, he said, the movement must remain independent. “It’s very, very spontaneous and based on interventions on the grassroots level,” he said. “That’s why it’s so decentralized, and that’s why it’s so powerful.”
Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese journalist and researcher based in Beirut. His work focuses on human rights, inequality, and vulnerable communities. He has written for Al Jazeera English, CityLab, the Los Angeles Times, Middle East Eye, and other platforms. Twitter: @chehayebk