Protests in Lebanon have continued into their tenth day, despite calls from the government for the people to desist. Riot police have been called in to try to defuse the situation in Beirut, as demonstrators have clashed with pro-Hezbollah supporters in the capital. Over one million people have taken to the streets in recent days to voice their anger over proposed reforms which involved a tax on the use of WhatsApp, leading to the application of the epithets ‘Tax Intifada’ and ‘WhatsApp Revolution’ being applied to the demonstrations.
Yesterday, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called upon protesters around the world to avoid the use of violence while also urging world leaders to listen to their concerns. These comments follow a month in which disruption has been witnessed elsewhere in the region. The Independent has reported that the official death toll in Iraq is 157, with 6,100 wounded, although those on the ground believe “that the real number of fatalities was far higher”. Fortunately, Lebanon has thus far avoided such bloodshed, despite two fatalities being reported last Friday by Libnanews. However, the depth of people‘s concern runs deep, leading Guterres to rightly call upon world leaders “to listen to the real problems of real people.”
Nowhere is this call for understanding more relevant than in Lebanon. The country is the third most indebted in the world, with public debt representing 150% of its GDP, and the gap between the rich and poor is staggering. Lydia Assouad of the Middle East Center writes that the “richest 0.1 percent of the population… earn 10 percent of the total national income, which is what the bottom 50 percent of the population earns.” As the group of roughly 3,000 individuals at the top includes a burgeoning political class, among whom the multi-millionaire President Michel Aoun can be numbered, the widespread unrest in response to an austerity package which will affect the poorest in society is unsurprising. The proposed reforms included a daily fee of 20 cents to be levied on phone calls (including those made on WhatsApp), as well as an increase of VAT from 11% to 15% within the next 4 years. Although these measures were abandoned within hours of demonstrations breaking out, the raft of alternatives the government has proposed in response to the protests has only served to highlight the class-inflected bias of the government’s initial policy.
However, Guterres’ comments elide the elephant in the room in terms of Lebanon both historically and at present. Historically, the detrimental influence of foreign powers on the internal politics of Lebanon has been apparent since France took land from Syria and pieced it together with Mount Lebanon in the wake of the First World War. The concept of confessionalism – a political system whereby posts are distributed proportionally according to the religious makeup of the country – was extended to the new, broader entity and enshrined in the 1926 constitution which used the subsequent 1932 census to establish Maronite Christian ascendancy. The failure of this system to accurately reflect the fabric of society was a major influencing factor in the country’s 15-year civil war, during which an Israeli invasion helped to further destabilize the country and plant the seeds of the growth of Hezbollah. This impact of this war still looms heavily over the country’s economy, in which over a third of those under 35 are unemployed, according to Al Jazeera.
At present, the issues the country faces are reminiscent of Greece’s recent relationship with the European Union. The primary motivating factor for the government’s austerity package has been a desire to meet the requirements of the Conference for Economic Development and Reform through Enterprise (CEDRE), which pledged $11bn dollars in financial assistance should the government commit to privatizing government assets, cutting the wages of public servants and reducing the provision of social services. The prospect of international financiers and Western powers, such as France and Germany, gaining substantial influence over the country’s political and economic life has coupled with the detrimental financial impact upon the poor to produce a series of demonstrations the end of which is hard to foresee.
The hope for Lebanon remains that these demonstrations have largely remained peaceful and have been a truly national phenomenon – not split along sectarian lines. There also appears to be a willingness from the government to compromise which, at the very least, may ensure that the protests do not echo the current situation in Iraq. Despite the differences between these two situations, both seem to signal a change to the nature of politics in the Middle East. In Patrick Cockburn’s view, they represent “a new type of conflict” distinct from “sectarian and ethnic civil wars”, in which “popular uprisings rock kleptocratic elites”. The Lebanese people can only hope that this analysis holds true.