Imagine living without electricity or water for hours a day, governed by unthinkably corrupt politicians who often don’t provide basic services like trash removal because they’re too busy fighting about who gets the biggest cut. You watch helplessly as the sectarian warlords who lead your country enrich themselves while imposing taxes on you that make the cost of living practically unsustainable, seeing your national institutions grow ever more dysfunctional, while the economy teeters on the brink of collapse — all because a small group of very rich old men have long divided the spoils of power while allowing the state to crumble.
That’s what life in Lebanon has become.
Legally divided between four major sects, Sunni and Shia Muslim, Christian and Druze; the Lebanese government has barely functioned for years. Until current president Michel Aoun was elected in 2016, Lebanon was leaderless for over two years due to infighting. Many of these power brokers also have their own armed militias, including the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah, which has skillfully maneuvered into becoming the most powerful military and political force in the country.
Since the Lebanese Civil War ended in 1990, these leaders have exploited sectarian loyalties and tensions to keep Lebanon continuously divided so they can maintain their hold on power and access to funds. As one of the famously oft-quoted Beirut taxi drivers once put it to me, “I drove a lot of politicians around, back when the economy was better. I’d watch them fight with each other on TV, then drop them off at nice restaurants and see them drink and laugh together.”
“They were laughing at us,” he said with a bitter smile. “The idiots who believe them.”
The general attitude of the Lebanese people has always been weary resignation to a broken system. Voter turnout for elections is generally very low, electoral fraud commonplace, and the same people always seem to win. Political powerlessness has long been a defining feature of Lebanese society.
That unexpectedly changed on October 17, when massive, multi-sectarian demonstrations broke out in Beirut, triggered by a tax issued on the messaging platform WhatsApp, the primary form of communication in the country. The tax sparked a fire that had been quietly building for years, and although it was soon repealed in the face of such intense backlash, once the fire was lit, it continued to burn.
Over three weeks later, the protests are still going strong, and have spread to other major cities in Lebanon, including areas typically loyal to parties like Hezbollah. Some demonstrations resemble raves, while others are more restrained, but they are remarkably consistent in messaging. The resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on October 29 was a sign that the protests are having an impact, but the ruling elite seem unlikely to willingly relinquish power anytime soon. Still, every day, thousands of people take to the streets and chant the same phrase: “All of them means all of them.”
I spoke with people in the cities seeing the largest demonstrations to ask why they’re protesting, and what they hope to accomplish with this historic movement.
Assaad Thebian, 31; lives in Beirut.
What was your reason for joining the protests?
I’ve been protesting as an activist for ten years now in order to reach a civil society in Lebanon. Then my fellow countrymen went down to the street to make the same demands I’ve been asking for years, so I just found myself automatically drawn to be part of this revolution.
What do you think was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of getting people out on the street?
It was the first time that we actually felt the severity of the economic problems we’ve been facing. There was a shortage in supply of some very basic items, and then came the forest fires, to which the government was not able to respond properly. It was only because of the bravery of some civil defense workers and other independent activists that they were able to stop the fires … And then [people] woke up to the idea of new taxes on them. I think this made them just reach a tipping point where they finally understood the system is a failure.
Why do you think this is different from other protests Lebanon has seen?
This is a leaderless movement that has been in the streets for 20 days nonstop so far … The politicians will give us a lot of crap like always. The moment they think the streets have rested, they will start trying to ignore the demands. This time, no. This fight is not about weeks or months. We need to be patient; we need to be persistent and we need to take care of each other, because the state is going to try its worst cards against us in order to normalize things so that they can stay in power.
Hussein, 21; lives in Nabatieh.
Can you tell me why you’ve been protesting?
I’m a recent graduate from university and I know for sure I’m going to put my certificate on the wall and not be able to use it to get a job here. We are a new generation. The politicians are blaming us for partying and dancing in the streets. What do they want, for us to hold weapons and shoot like they do? We are a generation of information and knowledge. We don’t need another war in Lebanon. We just need peace and our rights to be granted.
What if there’s a power vacuum afterward?
The politicians are telling us that if they resign, corruption will happen more, and more people will be poorer. We’re telling them, what is worse than this situation we’re living right now? We are in 2019 and we don’t have electricity and water, and they are stealing all our money.
Are you going to keep going until something changes?
Nothing is going to stop us at this point. We don’t need the political parties; all the parties know is war and violence. We want to be led by people who work for Lebanon. I want our voices to be heard by everyone, all around the world.
Carmen Moughraby, 19; lives in Baalbek.
What do you hope to accomplish locally with the protests?
In Baalbek, health conditions are deteriorating. We hope to improve standards and medical supplies in hospitals. There should also be a better trade market for the farmers because most farmers in Baalbek are not able to sell their harvest.
What inspires you most about what’s happening?
Even though some thugs tried to turn Lebanese against each other, we were aware that they were just trying to stop the revolution. Sectarianism no longer has an impact on us. We were able to successfully pressure the government because of the stubbornness we have long been known for. The formation of the next government depends on whether we Lebanese revolutionaries agree or not, and that never happened before in the history of Lebanon.
Are you thinking of a plan beyond the protests?
We should concentrate on the protests and advance step-by-step. It will take a long time. but if we organize the revolution, things will eventually change.
Yahya Mawloud, 36; lives in Tripoli.
What role have you been playing in the protests?
I’m part of Tahalof Watani (“My Nation’s Coalition”). We are a political pressure group. We ran 66 candidates in the past election. Unfortunately, only one won, but we got 59,000 votes all over Lebanon. In Tripoli, I was running against a candidate from [Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s] Future Movement. At that time, I was hearing people saying the same things they are saying now, but they were in denial … it wasn’t easy to convince them that Hariri didn’t have solutions, but now they believe, because they see so many others believe it as well.
What do you think it will take to restore faith in the electoral system?
We need serious reform, because if they keep doing the same things, even if more people vote for us, we would not be sure the results are legitimate. We’re not revolting against the whole system, we just think we need to change within the system available. We need to win more seats in the parliament so we can have our say. At the end, this is in the hands of the Lebanese; if they will vote for us, or they will vote for their traditional sectarian parties.
What’s your response to people in the government who are saying this movement is being organized and funded by foreign countries?
That is bullshit. If they have evidence, let them go to court. We are not above the law like they are. We are not protected by any other countries, or the international community. This is my job, and this is the job of every Lebanese. Some people can assist by giving out water; or donating sound systems. Everyone is doing what they can. I have a 5-year-old boy. I want him to live here, and to have a good life in Lebanon. I still believe in this country.