On October 17th, hundreds of people gathered in Martyr’s Square in Beirut, Lebanon in protest of an ineffective government. These protests looked eerily similar to those sparked at about the same time last year, when the Lebanese government proposed a new tax on messaging service applications like WhatsApp. Just as they did a year ago, protestors still brandish Lebanese flags and placards, and their dedication to holding the government accountable and demanding change has not faltered.
Maya Ibrahimchah is the founder of Beit al Baraka, a non-governmental organization (N.G.O.) founded to provide food and shelter for Beirut’s poor. In an interview, Ibrahimchah told Reuters that the organization has grown quickly since the October 2019 protests. Beit al Baraka now serves over 220,000 people, Ibrahimcha said. After the August 4th port explosion, which left around 300,000 people houseless and an estimated $15 billion U.S.D. in damage to Beirut, Beit al Baraka had to expand its services again. In addition to feeding and housing the poor, the N.G.O. has been forced to focus its attention on fixing homes and providing shelter for those impacted by the disaster. The organization receives an estimated 95% of its revenue from Lebanese around the world. Lebanon’s support of Beit al Baraka and reliance on the N.G.O. demonstrates the extent to which its communities rely on each other, not the government, for aid.
But when everyone is lacking funds, relying on each other can only go so far. NGOs that rely on donations from the community do not have the funding required to meet the needs of the Lebanese population. In neighborhoods such as Karantina and Gemmayze, residents say there have been many instances where NGOs had the residents fill out applications for assistance, but never sent further communications.
Lebanese protestors have demanded significant change within the political party system to force their government to address the country’s current economic collapse. In an interview with international news agency Agence France-Presse, Abed Sabbagh, a protestor in his seventies, explained, “Our demand is the removal of a corrupt political class that continues to compete for posts and seats despite everything happening in the country.”
However, dismantling Lebanon’s current political system would be difficult, scholars say. No single individual holds a majority of the power. Carmen Geha, a professor in public administration at the American University of Beirut, elaborated on this difficulty: “We don’t have one head of state, it’s a group of men, they have agreed to divide the spoils of the state at every level. It’s a system that you can hardly topple.”
In spite of this, Lebanon has persevered. The government’s ineffectiveness has given rise to a strong sense of unity amongst the protestors. “You find people more mobilized toward helping each other,” Geha says. “That is another face of the revolution.”
One year after the WhatsApp tax protests, Lebanon has self-organized, using non-governmental and community resources to fill the gap that the government will not provide, or even take accountability, for. Still, these resources have their limits. For the country as a whole to function with relative peace and unity, the Lebanese government must do more to provide for its citizens. Lebanese politicians and political parties must put aside their differences. Instead, they should concentrate on bridging the gap between socioeconomic classes, rebuilding Beirut, and providing financial and housing assistance to all who have been affected by this economic collapse.
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