LEBANON PROTESTS: Since their government announced new tax measures on October 17, Lebanese people, across all sectors of society, have taken to the streets in nationwide anti-government, anti-corruption protests. In a short series, we present three interviews with young, active Lebanese participants who share their perspectives and experiences from the protests.
BY SOFIE BERVILD NIELSEN & IBEN VON HOLCK
Hussein is in his early 20s and lives in southern Beirut. He has been part of the protests in Beirut since they broke out on the 17th of October. Hussein holds a Bachelor’s degree but has not been able to find a steady job since his graduation. We met him for a walk around the Riad el Solh in downtown Beirut – a vital square for the protesters since the first demonstrations broke out, as it faces the house of the Cabinet and is situated next to the parliament, banks, government offices, and institutional offices. We bring here extracts of our conversation on his experiences and perspectives regarding the Lebanese protests.
Hussein: I was here at Riad el Solh the night the protests broke out. I didn’t know that the protests would happen, I was just going to a restaurant in Beirut with some friends. We saw a lot of people in the streets on our way, so we stopped at a shop to watch the news. They said people were protesting in Downtown, and we decided to go check it out. We didn’t expect it to be big, but when we arrived, the protest was already huge.
The vibe was very aggressive that night. The security forces attacked us with teargas all night, and the protesters were very angry. In the middle of the night, we heard from someone that protesters were blocking all roads in the country, so we could not get home. We had been so busy protesting, we hadn’t followed the news and didn’t know the protests had spread like wildfire all over Lebanon.
We stayed in the streets all night and morning to keep protesting. We just had a short break in the morning to get some water and recharge our phones at a restaurant. At noon the next day we were so tired after all the teargas and no sleep. We managed to find a bus home, but it took so much time. Protesters were blocking the roads and burning tires, causing a traffic jam every five minute. My home is next to the highway, and when I finally got there, I was really shocked to find the highway empty. Cars were parked across the road and some were even driving in the wrong direction. The signs of an uprising were clear, and it made me feel a bit afraid that this would turn the country into chaos. It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that these roadblocks were putting a necessary pressure on the system. I decided to go back to Downtown in Beirut to join the people who were protesting in the middle of the roads by installing concrete blocks and signs and toppling garbage bins. It became our form of expressing anger.
In my opinion, the protests sparked due to a series of events that people were not satisfied with at all; an oil crisis, a flour shortage, and a currency crisis, among many other issues. Then a big wildfire happened all across Lebanon that devastated much of the green cover. The fire went on for two days without the government managing this catastrophe. Instead, on the third day, the government announced a series of new taxes. One of them was really outrageous. They wanted to put a tax on WhatsApp calls. WhatsApp is a global free communication app and it’s how most people in Lebanon communicate. After this tax was announced, people lost it and took to the streets. Not just because of this tax, but the idea behind it. It is a clear sign that we have reached a very advanced state of an inefficient, paralyzed, and corrupt government in Lebanon when the only way they can find more money is to put ridiculous taxes on the people. This tax represented the entire failure of the government and their carelessness for the people.
It’s a grassroot effort
The first phase of the protests was very intense for me. There was no organization at all. People just took to the streets day and night. “Whatever it is, go to the street” was the motto. Some days I would just sleep 1 – 2 hours, in the street. Then things slowed down. At first this made me feel quite depressed and desperate. I realized, though, that the protests weren’t dying out and people were not giving up. We were just entering the next phase of looking more into what’s next and how to build upon what we already have accomplished. Civil society organizations started to bring tents to Riad el Soleh and Sahet el Shohada, and initiate discussions, trying to educate and raise awareness. It was a small-scale organization but the different groups began merging their efforts and the initiatives grew bigger and stronger.
It is all very much a grassroot effort. We have also started to demonstrate in front of public institutions which we see as the faces of corruption. What is nice about these protests is that it does not matter who is organizing them. Anyone can call for a protest. We share calls for different protests in WhatsApp groups and if you see a call for a protest you find legitimate enough, you go. This way, the demonstrations keep happening semi-spontaneously. One day, we went to protest in front of the electricity company. In Lebanon, due to the government’s mismanagement, we don’t have access to electricity all day if you don’t pay privately for expensive generators. There has always been fake promises and lies about big projects to solve this, but they eventually lead to nothing.
End to corruption and sectarianism
The demands of the protesters are various, but all fall into the title of removing corruption from the system. We, the protesters, are the people saying “kilon yanni kilon”, which translates into “All of them means all of them”. We are trying to build the country we want and dream of by demanding the removal of the entire ruling class and make all the corrupt politicians resign. We want new, more decent leaders in charge. Leaders who will work for the country and care about its people. Serious law amendments are needed to change the system. Serious procedures and transparency measures are needed to fix the critical economic situation. The politicians always turn to taxes as the solution to fund the public debt they create by bribery, corruption, and stealing from the government treasury.
“Kilon yanni kilon”
But the protests are not just about economic changes. We are also demanding more social justice, better social welfare, and free education and healthcare – or affordable at least, which is not at all the case now. We demand a change in social norms and culture by calling for an end to sectarianism and the way religion in Lebanon is deeply entrenched in the state. Our entire system is found on sectarianism, which means the criteria for holding a political position is based on the religion or sect you are born into rather than your actual qualifications and competence.
Reason for pessimism
In the beginning of the protests, the Lebanese people were more mobilized and united than ever before. Something like this has never happened in Lebanon. But I am losing more and more hope for the future of the protests. The politicians are not listening to us and they keep giving statements that show their carelessness. They want to make a new government equal to the last one, which is the opposite of our demand. In addition, during the last couple of weeks, protesters have been attacked violently many times by thugs supporting different ruling parties. They come in huge numbers on motor bikes with chains and knives and beat up protesters and destroy our tents. And the police aren’t doing much to protect us.
“But I am losing more and more hope for the future of the protests.”
You can see how this is affecting people, because the streets and squares are much more empty than before. When you talk to people, there is a feeling of fear and anxiety. The uncertainty is growing more and more. I feel we have lost our spirit and courage being hurt so many times, which is also why I am less active now. I am not sure how much more we can achieve, or if the protests will die out now. It makes me feel sad and hopeless that we face so much refusal from people when we are actually trying to make the country better for everyone.
The only thing I imagine can keep the protests alive and the people united is the still-worsening economic situation, which no politicians are taking responsibility for. Things are getting worse, basic goods and groceries are becoming much more expensive, and people are not being paid and are losing their jobs. Several people have commited suicide in recent weeks because of their deprivation. For some of the poor people who have been against the revolution, I think this might create a conflict in their minds between the poverty they experience and their loyalty to their party leaders – and push them to become part of our protests.
Change takes time
I am still happy the uprising happened. Before, even if people were upset with the situation, they would not do anything. During the protests, we have witnessed a level of mobilization and unity among the Lebanese people that we have never seen before.
I have come to know so many people here at Riad el Soleh during this movement, or revolution if you want. We are bonding because we are sharing all this time together, occupying the streets and squares and doing something we believe in so passionately. The Lebanese society is very divided and the government neglects public spaces completely. That’s why we have not had this form of social mixing across different sects, religions, cultural backgrounds, and social classes before. Now we have created a public space where you see all these social groups sharing valuable experiences.
Even if the protests are more quiet now, we are still in a state of heightened civic awareness and engagement. After 60 days of protesting, I think this is very satisfactory.
What we need now is to follow up on what we criticize instead of just being angry about it. We need to act more strategically on the unity and awareness we have created, through campaigns, mass communication, and more pragmatic political activity. I see opportunities in some of the newly created political groups, with a vision for a better Lebanon. They will have to educate people and gain influence.
What happens later on – who knows. I still hope for the revolution to continue, but it is clear that the changes need to happen with time. I think we need to mature as a people and as a country. This will take years and years. I hope what we are doing will have an impact on the next elections, this is what matters on the long run. We, the protesters, are still the people demanding a government of independent, decent, and hardworking people, who want the best for the country and are not influenced by other agendas. We are the people saying, Kilon yanni kilon.
Sofie Bervild Nielsen is a visual anthropologist currently based in Copenhagen. The focus of her research especially concerns dissidence, forced migration, immobility, and digital infrastructures.
Iben von Holck is a Copenhagen based anthropologist by formal education, working critically with urban space and architecture.