What’s next for Lebanon’s yellow vests?

Analysts believe the momentum recently seen in protests against Lebanon’s state incompetence will die out, as people are losing hope.

al-monitor A man gestures as he takes part in a protest over Lebanon's economy and politics in Beirut, Lebanon, Dec. 23, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir.

Jan 11, 2019

The wave of yellow sweeping across France in the past two months crashed in Beirut on Dec. 23, coalescing thousands of indignant Lebanese citizens protesting decades of state incompetence. But analysts do not predict a change will come.

“So far the demonstrations have been relatively limited,” Karim Bitar, director of research at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, told al-Monitor. “Considering the degree of public anger at corruption, mismanagement and years of bad governance, one could have expected much wider participation. Especially if you compare to what is happening in France.”

Organized by several civil society groups on social media several days before, the demonstration saw significant attendance, which precipitated heavy military response. Journalist and protesters were beaten and intimidated by anti-riot forces on the ground as the security apparatus attempted to contain crowds dispersing throughout Beirut. Well over 20 armored cars, some carrying loaded machine guns, sped through the city in a display of excessive force.

“It’s like we’re living under martial law,” one protester said.

After a viral video circulated of Lebanese photojournalist Hasan Shaaban assaulted by a soldier, many sought a response from the state that has, until now, kept mum.

A few days after, however, the army released a statement calling the freedom of expression “sacred.”

“The [army] command calls on citizens who want to express their opinion to do so peacefully and not affect the lives of others or their movement on the roads,” it read. “The army will not be lenient with anyone who disrupts security or infiltrators among protests who try to shift these protests from their course.”

Despite high tensions, the yellow vest demonstrations have since stalled largely due to the holidays. While a protest is scheduled for Jan. 12, some are wary that too much time has passed for the momentum to continue.

Another obstacle that could prevent demonstrations from growing further is the lack of an end goal. While protesters on Dec. 23 shared indignation toward state failure, a cohesive set of demands was largely absent.

For one, the Sabaa Party, Lebanon’s youngest political party surfacing in 2016 as an anti-establishment alternative, called for the immediate formation of the government. Al-Monitor, which was present at the protests, saw party members passing out signs that read, “We want a government now,” chanting for an end to political stagnation.

With sectarian considerations plaguing negotiations in appointing a Cabinet, the country has continued without a government for nearly eight months.

The demand, however, was not shared by all demonstrators. “I’m not here for any one reason,” Mahmoud told Al-Monitor. Like many others present, Mahmoud was reluctant to give his last name for fear of retribution from the state. “There is no hope in our country. There are no jobs, there is no money, everyone is leaving because there is no future here. A new government will not change that,” he added.

Rami, another demonstrator who came with his wife and young child, told Al-Monitor he would like to see a country that his daughter could grow up in with an adequate education and proper health care. When asked whether he believed a government would address such issues, he laughed.

In a recent report published by US consulting firm McKinsey, Lebanon, the world’s third-most indebted country, showed to be deeply suffering across all sectors. The report was commissioned by the state to provide it with an “economic road map” out of its current situation.

“People know perfectly that a new government will not bring about genuine change,” Bitar said. “The Lebanese are angry, but they are not naive. It is understood that a new government — if or when it is formed — will be a close replica of the current government of oligarchs.”

According to Bitar, this general sentiment will also lead to the ultimate die-out of future demonstrations.

Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, agreed that an end goal for protests in Lebanon is far from sight. “In France you had people going into the streets after a tax rise. There was a clear message they were conveying. In Lebanon we have long passed the half-year mark without a government, but we are not seeing people coming out because of that,” Nader told Al-Monitor.

Ultimately, both analysts were unsure about the future of Lebanon’s yellow vests. While the demonstration was certainly inspired by the momentum seen in France, they lack the organization to see their pleas addressed.

Bitar concluded that the protesters are aware that unlike in the West, their actions may not bear fruit, organized or not.

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