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Lebanon’s protests continue to gain momentum

Massive protests engulf Lebanon, and four ministers are to resign in consequence; organizers hope to keep the demonstrations' focus on moving forward.
Demonstrators take part in an anti-government protest in Tripoli, Lebanon October 20, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Ibrahim - RC1AD085BF90

The smell of smoke and burning garbage have been engulfing Beirut as black clouds rise from the tipped-over garbage bins throughout the capital's streets.

Following an announcement of tax increases, protests that were launched Oct. 17 quickly expanded from a few hundred people in Beirut to hundreds of thousands across the country. On Oct. 18, it was announced that four government ministers from the Christian Lebanese Forces will be resigning.

The massive demonstrations were apparently triggered by a $6 a month fee to make phone calls on WhatsApp and other apps. The government later rescinded the WhatsApp tax proposal, which was seen as affecting the poor the most.

“They are saying that we started [protesting] because of the WhatsApp [tax],” architect Faysal Timrawi told Al-Monitor, “The poor people care about the $6 that they would have to pay for WhatsApp. However, in the same government meeting, they issued many other taxes.”

Nizar Hassan, an organizer for Li Haqqi, the group that organized the protests, said Lebanese use WhatsApp because Lebanon has among the highest prices when it comes to telecommunications.

Since the start of the protests, however, the focus has shifted from just the proposed taxes to other issues that activists claim plague Lebanese society. For Timrawi, it is the government’s inability to function properly, had the people seen any signs of progress or positive change they wouldn't have taken it to the streets.  

When Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri gave a speech the evening of Oct. 18, he said he was issuing a 72-hour deadline to his "partners in government" to stop blocking reforms. This speech did not resonate well with the protesters.

“He’s living his father’s legacy. Young people had many issues with Rafik Hariri, but he knew how to make our economy stronger. All of the international community knows about Lebanon because of Rafik Hariri [who long served as prime minister]. Saad gave himself 72 hours to make a decision while all of the people in Lebanon are in the street protesting and calling for him to resign.” Timrawi said.

Hassan also had strong words about Hariri’s 72-hour timetable.

He said that Hariri, because "he knows that all of the political parties are insistent on him being prime minister, could resign and force them to form another government. The 72-hour ultimatum that he gave is completely meaningless because what will change? Will they enact progressive economic policies?” Hassan said.

For Hassan and many other protesters, the reason for the demonstrations is the flawed economic system. He said the major banks in Lebanon have been able to make hundreds of millions of dollars in profits despite the lack of growth in the Lebanese economy.

Hassan said that when the demonstrations started, he and other protest leaders thought there would be a large turnout, but nothing close to the massive rallies that have been taking place.

“It’s a popular uprising happening in different cities of the country,” he said Oct. 19. “The first day we had something like 25 major roads blocked. The whole country was blocked. Yesterday [Friday, Oct. 18] was the same. People in Tripoli and Saida and Chouf and Aley and everywhere in the country are continuing to protest regardless of the fact that they are sometimes supporters of ruling-class parties. It’s really amazing to see this happening.”

Another major difference in these protests and previous ones is the lack of religion associated with the demonstrations. During the protests for the last few days, there have been no party-affiliated flags while Lebanese flags number in the thousands.

“We have never lived it before,” Timrawi said, “We never had the opportunity to live life as Lebanese. Now all of the people have the same issue to focus on. We don’t ask about any religions.”

Despite widespread support for the protests, violence and arrests by the security forces have taken place, partly in response to vandalism and looting by some demonstrators. The evening of Oct. 19, security forces fired large amounts of tear gas on protesters in the Riad El-Solh Square by the Grand Serail, the prime minister's headquarters. Security forces then beat protesters; this was caught on videos that were circulated on social media. By the end of the night, it was estimated that around 70 people had been arrested.

Since the protests have continually expanded, Hassan said he and the organizers are facing multiple struggles when it comes how to proceed. The first is how to keep the protests' focus on moving forward.

He said, “Our challenge now is to orient this into a positive direction and not let emotional reactionary rhetoric and reactionary policies and actions take over, such as people demanding military rule or technographic government that does not have a clear progressive policy orientation. We have to be very careful and we are being very careful. We’re trying to push the rhetoric in the direction of fundamentally changing how economic policy is made in the government.”

The second challenge is to not let the demonstrations die out as time goes on.

“Protest exhaustion is something that is very, very real and it cannot be avoided,” Hassan said. “People get tired. We haven’t slept in days. But what we need in order to change is disruption. Disruption of the system of governance and the economic system. And with the bad and weak trade unions we have that are controlled by political forces, the only social disruption that we have today is the disruption of people in the streets. We need roads to be blocked. I know it’s annoying as hell for people who are trying to move from some place to another, but it’s really a necessity. If we don’t disrupt the country, they [the government] will not lose money. They will not be suffering the losses of the uprising.”

The night of Oct. 19 saw the protesters achieve a major victory when the Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, announced that his party's four ministers would be resigning from the government, leaving only 26 seats filled. For Hassan, this is extremely important as it will help give people hope that their actions can actually create change.

“We need people to believe that their actions, that their taking action, is something that can have actual results,” he said, “That it is not something that is hopeless.”