A global take on Lebanon protests

Hundreds of thousands of protesters have poured into the streets of Lebanon. Penn Today speaks to two experts to find out why.

drone shot of Martyr square, showing the Lebanese flag in foreground along with Mohammad Al Amine Mosque and st. George Church in the background, during the Lebanese revolution

During the last two months, hundreds of thousands of protesters have poured into the streets of Lebanon, decrying what they say is a corrupt system that benefits the political elite but fails to provide basic services or stabilize the economy. Penn Today spoke to two experts on Lebanon, Marwan Kraidy, director of the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, and Lama Mourad, a postdoctoral fellow at Perry World House, to get their take on what sparked the protests, what the marchers seek, and what it means for the country and the region.

Kraidy is an expert in global communication and a specialist in Arab media and politics. Mourad specializes in comparative politics and the politics of migration, with a focus on the Middle East.

What spurred these protests?

Kraidy: The apparent trigger was the telecommunications minister saying they were going to tax WhatsApp calls, but something like that alone wouldn’t cause such massive and enduring protests. There was always political corruption in Lebanon, but there was a scaling up of corruption in the post-war period and with the Hariri family coming into power.

It really has to do with a buildup of one thing after another in the past few years. About five years ago Lebanon had a major garbage crisis. Soon after came issues of traffic jams and flooding. People begin to connect the dots that all of it was due to corruption. Politicians are fighting like the Mafia about who is going to get the biggest commission. When you hire a contractor who is beholden to a politician, most of the contract goes to bribes. What actually gets executed on the ground is below quality, doesn’t meet the basic standards, and just doesn’t work.

All these ‘bread and butter’ issues illustrated the actual impact of corruption and mismanagement on people’s daily lives. It was no longer an abstract notion of corruption that you could ignore, and people are very, very angry.

Mourad: The WhatsApp tax was part of a set of regressive taxes that focused on the lower middle class. Telecommunications costs in Lebanon are among the highest in the world because of the embeddedness and corruption of telecom with the state. About 84% of Lebanese use WhatsApp because it’s incredibly expensive to make phone calls. The outrage wasn’t about WhatsApp at all, it was actually about putting the burden of economic crisis on people who can least afford it.

But even more critical to the protests was a sudden outburst of wildfires in the weeks before the WhatsApp tax. The government showed shocking incompetence and mismanagement. They had firefighting helicopters but couldn’t use them because they hadn’t been repaired.

So, you had voluntary firefighting units from Palestinian refugee camps fight the fires, alongside the ill-equipped Lebanese firefighters. You had riot police trucks being used to fight the fires, highlighting the irony that the government had enough money to invest in the repressive apparatus of the state rather than in the public good.

As much as the fires showed the ineptitude and neglect of the government, they also showed the strength of citizen initiative. It gave people a sense of their own power and agency.

Who are the protesters and what do they want?

Mourad: The makeup of the protestors has changed over time. The first weeks of the protest had a strong presence of ‘deprived’ classes, essentially unemployed and poor classes. Increasingly, the protestors are of a more middle- and educated-class background, particularly in Beirut, but there’s still a wide representation of Lebanese society.

One thing that has remained the same is that protests are happening all over the country, not concentrated in the capital, as they usually are in Lebanon. You see protests from the absolute north, which is a very agricultural and rural working-class area, to the southern areas that Hezbollah and other main Shia parties control and are not normally places where you see large-scale mobilization.

There are central demands that everyone agrees on: the resignation of the government and a call for socio-economic justice. Costs should not fall on citizens; they should be taken up by the banks that are largely the drivers of the crisis and by the state itself.

The chant you have heard since Day 1 is that that all the parties and ruling elite are held responsible for this.

We’re also seeing a really strong presence of women, which is remarkable, and their demands center around feminist issues and issues of the right to pass on citizenship, which are intertwined.

How bad is the country’s economic plight?

Kraidy: The risk of financial collapse is very high. Rating agencies like Moody’s have downgraded the Lebanese economy, saying essentially, ‘Look, there is so much corruption. If you are going go and invest in a business in Lebanon, you’re going to spend half your capital on bribery.’

You have a very indebted country, and when you have corruption that’s preventing economic growth, you cannot pay the debt. The banking sector functions like a Ponzi scheme. People are putting their cards in ATMS machines and nothing is coming out because of severe bank restrictions. Citizens are very anxious, they’re very stressed, and that’s why they’re in the streets.

Mourad: The situation is bleak and getting worse by the day. There are capital controls in place that are not state sanctioned and not legal. Banks are limiting what average citizens can withdraw, sometimes only $300 a week; yet there’s widespread sense that those with political contacts have been able to take their money out. The fear right now is that large depositors have taken their money out of the country’s banks, and it’s just regular citizens who are having their money held hostage. Because there is no transparency in the banking sector, we only have a vague sense of the losses.

What has been the reaction of the government?

Mourad: Up until a few days ago, there was minimal outright repression, but efforts to discredit the protestors have been widespread despite some politicians claiming that they agree with the demands of the protestors. More recently, there’s been a more heavy-handed crackdown informally by political parties as well as by state security services. The major response, however, has been largely to try and wait things out without providing any real solutions or proposals.

Kraidy: The thing about Lebanon is there is free speech. It is dysfunctional, but it is nonetheless a democracy, so multiple viewpoints are competing for attention at all times, which prevents it from becoming a dictatorship. This partly explains the fact that after two-and-a-half months of protests, there has been only one casualty, as opposed to Hong Kong, Chile, Baghdad, where 80 people were shot in a single day.

How has the international community responded?

Kraidy: Right now the calming parties are the Europeans. Lebanon has a population of about 4 million people. On top of this you have at least 1.5 million Syrian refugees. The last thing the French, the Italians, the Greeks, and the Germans want is for things to escalate because where are these refugees going to go? To Europe.

The U.S. administration has made statements that basically they see this as an opportunity to weaken the roll of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics.

The U.S. matters a great deal, but the problem right now is the U.S. is busy with its own problems. And the French are having their own problems, like Chile, Algeria, Yemen, Hong Kong.

This type of unrest is everywhere because you have a global system built for the interests of the super wealthy, and people are realizing it.

I think we need to get used to the notion that the default mode is going to be instability rather than stability because it used to be that instability was treated as the exceptional crisis. I think what we are seeing now is that’s no longer the case.

What does this all mean for the region?

Kraidy: I think there is a consensus that things shouldn’t blow up because if things blow up in Lebanon the whole region gets sucked in.

Everyone has a hand in Lebanon. It is a proxy space for many conflicts and tensions to play out: The U.S. against Iran. The Saudis, the Israelis, the Russians, the French, the Turks are all involved, and there are big stakes. Historic tensions are exacerbated by the fact that Lebanon is going to be key to rebuilding Syria, so there are major economic stakes. So the Chinese are moving in economically, taking over some shipping and transportation infrastructures.

The rebuilding of Syria will be the contract of the century. You have an entire country that’s destroyed. You need roads, you need public transportation, you need schools, you need hospitals, you need electrical grids and cell phone grids.

How will this be resolved?

Kraidy: My hope is the protests get more organized and actually elect representatives. There are very interesting things going on in the capital. There are tents all around Beirut with people holding teach-ins about deliberative democracy and how to get rid of corruption—high-level conversations.

You have a new generation that’s agitating for a different kind of Lebanon, with post-sectarian politics. I think it’s going to be difficult because you have a very wily, very entrenched political class that knows exactly what emotional fibers to manipulate. So far, they have failed to take over and the protesters are holding steady.

If there are new parliamentary elections things may change, but, again, the danger is that you move from an extremely corrupt status quo to anarchy, and nobody wants that because there are enough people who remember the days of the Civil War. There are enough people who are cognizant of what happened next door in Syria and Iraq that I think there’s hesitation to push too far too quickly. These things take time.