Mass demonstrations in Lebanon against rampant corruption and economic problems entered their second month this weekend, as protesters and the government appear at a “stalemate.”
“Never before, since the creation of the Lebanese state in 1943, has the country witnessed such protests that cut across sectarian divisions,” Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told Newsweek.
The large-scale demonstrations – which have brought hundreds of thousands of Lebanese into the streets across the small Mediterranean nation – began in mid-October after Lebanon’s heavily-indebted government announced a list of a new taxes. Lebanese, who already faced daily power cuts, water shortages, a national trash crisis and low wages, were outraged by the announcement, with some describing it as the straw that broke the camel’s back.
During the first weekend of large-scale protests, local media reported that well over a million people entered the streets to demonstrate and call for the downfall of the government. The protests rapidly spread across the entire country, whereas many movements in years past were largely isolated or confined to the capital, Beirut. In the intervening weeks, the demonstrations have continued, with banks and schools closing and roadways being block across the country, bringing it to a standstill as protesters demand that all the political elite step down and are replaced with new leaders.
Kareem Chehayeb, a journalist and activist, told Newsweek that most demonstrators are calling for “a downsized technocratic government” featuring “new faces.” He pointed out that there is “zero” trust in the current ruling class. “Even if, hypothetically, the government says we’re going to implement all the reforms that you want, they’re not going to trust them,” he said.
Lebanon’s most prominent political leaders have seen their families maintain power for decades, as the economic situation in the country has deteriorated. Most are widely believed to have stolen significant amounts of public funds, while taking kickbacks and failing to address basic infrastructure and social concerns. Protesters have repeatedly chanted “all of them, all of them,” calling for the resignation of every politician. A couple weeks ago, a protest leader read out the names of members of parliament. After each name, the mass of demonstrators chanted obscenities in unison.
Despite the sustained movement, the government has done little to address protesters’ demands. While Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri resigned at the end of October, many of the ruling elite have suggested that he should stay on as caretaker prime minister to form a new cabinet. This past week, the name of former finance Minister Mohammad Safadi, a wealthy businessman, was floated as a possible interim prime minister, but protesters largely balked at the suggestion chanting “thief” in the streets as they viewed him as part of the current corrupt system. He has since withdrawn his candidacy, and endorsed Hariri.
Other leading politicians have continued to push for Hariri to stay on, but such a decision would likely only incite more frustration from the demonstrators. Many have said that the government’s actions show just how disconnected the leaders are from the daily reality the Lebanese population is facing. A high-level staff member for Hariri told Newsweek that the former prime minister was not currently taking interviews or giving statements.
“I see a deadlock. The ruling elite is inherently incapable of reform, let alone understand its meaning,” Khashan said. “The protests are unlikely to subside.” He described the situation as a “stalemate.”
Chehayeb agreed with that assessment. “There’s definitely a stalemate,” he said, pointing out that many politicians, including President Michel Aoun, have become critical of the protests. Last Tuesday, Aoun said in a televised interview that Lebanese demonstrators should “emigrate,” vowing “they won’t get into power.” The statement only emboldened the movement, with demonstrators marching toward the presidential palace.
Despite the tensions, and the killing of a protester by security forces last week, the movement has remained largely peaceful. “It’s rather remarkable I think how people have not resorted to violence in light of some of the things that have happened,” Chehayeb said. Although he said he didn’t believe protesters would turn to violence, he said there were signs that the military and police were becoming more aggressive.
Khashan said it was unlikely that the military would crack down to harshly, however. “It is the order of the day of the army to avoid clamping down on protesters,” he asserted.
For now, the Lebanese demonstrators seem prepared to stay in the streets and push for their demands. “Compared to before people are definitely more steadfast and I think that’s something I can definitely guarantee,” Chehayeb said.
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