Beirut is alive with the sound of protest. It’s just gone 8pm on a hot and humid night in early September and hundreds of demonstrators have surged through a makeshift barricade, heading towards the Grand Serail and the centre of government.
A young man wrapped loosely in the Lebanese flag urges the crowd forward. Here and there pockets of demonstrators chant loudly, their slogans repeated incessantly as firecrackers mimic the sound of gunfire. A few metres away, a young woman with wild bushy hair walks backwards at speed. “Thawra,” she shouts. Revolution.
The police watch impassively. They are clumped together in lines securing key buildings, funnelling the crowd down Riad al-Solh towards Waygand Street and once again into Martyrs’ Square, where earlier thousands had gathered to protest against the chronic failings of central government. There is no access to Nejmeh Square and Parliament, leaving a thousand or so to congregate outside the offices of LibanPost. There, accompanied by drums and the waving of flags, they chant and sing. In the near distance sirens puncture the night air. Nearby, lights thrown from emergency vehicles dance across the restored façades of Downtown.
What kind of Lebanon do you want?
“A Lebanon I would never think about leaving,” replies Sarah Shaar a few weeks later. She is at home in Saida when we talk. Every now and then she stops, sips from a cup of Turkish coffee, and resumes.
“Many have grown accustomed to the lack of governance in our country and don’t expect change. However, when the garbage crisis arose there was a new issue that our generation saw in the making. It was a reminder of how greedy our politicians truly are, and this time it’s not one particular party that’s under the spotlight. The people of Lebanon, who have been bred to hate the person of the opposing sect, have come together under one cause to remove the garbage from the streets and from the seats of political power.”
It’s a few days after the latest round of demonstrations when we catch up – demonstrations that have been held against widespread corruption, the government’s failure to solve a garbage collection crisis, and the sectarian nature of Lebanon itself. Although areas of Downtown remain cordoned off, especially those around Parliament, Beirut appears relatively calm.
“I want a Lebanon that goes back to what it was 50 years ago,” says director Edwin Harb Kadri. “When Lebanon was the leader of the free-thinking intellectual Middle East. When it was a regional and worldwide example of people from different religions and schools of thought living together in peace and prosperity.
“Now, we don’t have the grounds, the means, the backing to do what we want to do and what we do best. They say misery, violence and other dramatic lifestyles give you creativity. True, but in the long run it kills you. The state and its neanderthal system is killing us. The political structure is outdated and time has shown that it doesn’t work. It was doomed to fail, and this is precisely what bothers me. When a car is test driven and a flaw is found, you recall all the cars and fix it. The Lebanon we know has failed time and time and time again and it hasn’t been recalled.”
At the heart of the ongoing civil protests is an almost overwhelming discontent with Lebanon’s political reality. Garbage piled high in the streets and left uncollected is merely a visible embodiment of government corruption and political dysfunction. No electricity, no water, no security, no president. This is Lebanon today. Garbage is but one element.
It has been more than 14 months, for example, since the kidnapping of 40 Lebanese military and security personnel by Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State during fighting in the town of Arsal on the Syrian border. The government’s inability to negotiate the release of the 25 soldiers still held captive illustrates – in the minds of many at least – the government’s repeated failings of its own citizens. As such, protests against government inaction resumed on 4 October, with the families of those held hostage blocking many of Beirut’s main arteries, including airport road, Riad al-Solh Square and the main thoroughfare through Raouche.
Further demonstrations by activists affiliated to the We Want Accountability and Go Away movements have demanded cuts to MPs’ pay, claiming they have received billions of pounds in salaries since they extended their own terms of office without election last November. As one Lebanese law student quoted by Al-Monitor stated on Facebook: “We can no longer find the word ‘election’ anywhere, except in the dictionary. Perhaps it is just a word from an ancient and obsolete language. At best, we might come across it in the courses we took about constitutional law, but it is definitely a strange practice for Lebanon”.
The murder of Georges El-Rif, who was stabbed to death in broad daylight in Gemmayze on 16 July, has also highlighted a culture of impunity in the country. The perpetrator, Tarek Yatim, was later apprehended, but El-Rif’s death shone a light on the country’s lack of justice and accountability. Remarkably, his murder was watched by the energy minister Arthur Nazarian from his balcony, while it later emerged that arrest warrants had previously been issued against Yatim, a bodyguard for Société Générale de Banque au Liban chairman Antoun Sehnaoui. Why Yatim wasn’t already in jail was one question posed by blogger Elie Fares, writing in A Separate State of Mind: “He wasn’t in jail because this country is not a country, but a jungle where animals like Tarek Yatim run wild, unafraid of retribution because we don’t have a functional justice system and we don’t have a functional security apparatus to make sure such assholes are where they’re supposed to be: behind bars, away from people who just want to make a living, drive to work, go home to their kids and families, and just live.”
Three months later, Fares is patiently talking to me via email. “I can’t wait to leave,” he says. “Stone age mentalities, sectarian thinking, love of the status quo, fear of changing what you know for the sake of what you need… There’s just so much that limits you from the get-go here, regardless of your own personal potential, be it with jobs, opportunities etc. Even in the political sense, it’s near impossible for the youth to have a shot at power.”
Do you have hope for Lebanon?
“No. I’ve written quite a lot about this. I get fleeting bursts of it, but mostly it’s a no. The protests are failing. Nothing will happen. Politicians will keep on playing house with increasing inefficiency as the country crumbles around them and people will continue not to care.”
Photograph: Karim Mostafa (karimphoto.com)
“Many have left the country looking for better opportunities and higher standards of living, although always with the dream of coming back if the country becomes more stable,” admits Shaar. “Some of those who haven’t left yet are looking for a way out. Some are looking for a way to change the country and bring people closer together.”
Those seeking to change the country from within are Lebanon’s greatest hope. Those who love their country and see within it great potential. Many have been injured and/or detained by the authorities and all no doubt, like Fares, seek a secular civil democracy without militias and with equal rights for all.
Amongst those detained but later released after 11 days was Pierre Hachach. He faces charges of incitement to violence, which he strenuously denies.
“If the government remains corrupt, then automatically the civil movement will grow,” says Hachach. “For us to win will take a long time, but now there is a situation in every home where the civil movement is taking place in the minds and the conscience of the people. Some of them still benefit from the system, but the conscience is with the civil movement. And we are aware that we can change the system.”
Although recent events paint a negative image of Beirut, the Lebanese have always had a love/hate relationship with the city. The only difference now is that the garbage crisis has brought with it the threat of disease and has made Beirut increasingly unliveable.
The list of confrontations has also steadily grown. On 8 October, security forces used water cannon and tear gas to disperse protesters attempting to gain access to Nejmeh Square, the home of Lebanon’s parliament. On 20 September, fighting broke out between pro-government and anti-government supporters during an otherwise peaceful rally. On 16 September, hundreds gathered in Riad al-Solh Square to demand the release of protesters detained during clashes earlier in the day, while on 1 September around 30 activists broke into the Ministry of Environment and demanded the immediate resignation of the environment minister, Mohammad Machnouk. Amongst those beaten by security forces was theatre director Lucien Bourjeily.
On 29 August, an estimated 10,000 people protested peacefully in Martyrs’ Square, although elements later attempted to break through security barriers near the Grand Serail, the headquarters of the country’s prime minister. The movement has continuously sought to distance itself from protesters engaged in violent clashes with the police.
Following demonstrations on 22 August, the country’s prime minister, Tammam Salam, promised to take action against police who had used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon to disperse demonstrators in a display of excessive force. Yet the use of such force has continued. “I was beaten up, tear gassed, assaulted, and so were most people down there while we were asking for the most basic of rights,” says Kadri, who has since moved to Barcelona to study for a masters in film. “But that’s also what made it beautiful. That we all went together, believing in each other.
“The problem in Lebanon is that the state of corruption we’re in has been around for as long as the independence of the country itself. That’s a notion that everyone in this country grows up with. So it’s understandable that many people weren’t that keen on protesting, or going down to Martyrs’ Square. Because for them things don’t change. But they do. And they did on 22 August when, for the first time in it’s history, Downtown Beirut had 10,000 people chanting the same hymn: Lebanon.”
The romance of protest, however, has arguably been short-lived. Although demonstrations have continued since July, numbers have dwindled and disputes over direction have arisen, while the movement as a whole has found itself accused of lacking political clarity. It is also arguably a middle class movement devoid of popular support.
“Those organising the demonstrations today may have all the right ingredients, but they face a well-entrenched and corrupt elite with many supporters,” wrote John Bell, director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid for Al Jazeera. “The latter are an underestimated problem: they are regular citizens with reflexes that maintain the status quo. The reality may be that street demonstrations are more reflective of the disease than the cure. People get fed up and they signal loudly that something is wrong. However, there is a large gap between demonstration and the reform of political systems. The system may need a shock, but sustained and sustainable reform is the real game. Demanding that vested interests create necessary space is fine, but voting them out may be more effective. As Maya Baydoun, a Lebanese journalist, said: ‘The day that Lebanese youth start ridding themselves of worshipping their leaders and warlords, and start electing representatives based on merit not religion, then and only then will Lebanon become a developed country.’”
As Kadri says, change just doesn’t happen in a day. “And believe me the jig is up,” the director adds. He has made three short films in support of the protests and knows that sustaining momentum is key. “Corruption became taboo. It’s just a matter of time before the tables turn.”
Can the civil movement succeed?
“Of course we can succeed. In the long term,” replies Hachach. “People suddenly woke up. Everybody knows what is good and what is right, but Lebanese people thought there was no chance to change. Now we have a chance and we have serious hope. If I didn’t believe in Lebanon I would have left a long time ago, and I’m not alone. There is a very big chunk of people who believe that we can change. That’s why we are still living here, that’s why we are always against the corrupted system, that’s why we love Lebanon. And now we see that we have a chance and we don’t want to lose it.”
“The protests are, for the first time since the beginning of the Civil War, an unapologetic, naked, uncensored demonstration of what Lebanon’s society is really capable of,” adds Lana Chukri. “We are regretfully living political corruption that for years nobody ever thought they had the right to discuss, let alone demand to be fixed. The protests have changed that. They have allowed a non-sectarian space for the Lebanese people to finally be able to make demands that they are unashamed to ask for, as they shouldn’t have had to ask for them in the first place. They have realised that today, in 2015, we have the mentality of the first world yet are categorically scraping the surface of not even the third world. For the first time, in a long time, that mentality has shifted.
“We have realised, and accepted, that every penny we are paying to live, we are barely surviving in. For the first time, in a long time, the protests have allowed us to be angry. To be unafraid. To be loud. For the first time, in our history, the protests have brought together people of all religions, backgrounds and social statuses into a space where finally questions are being asked. The right questions are being asked. A space where regardless of police brutality, will not be cleared until those questions are answered.
“These protests are anything but negative. They are uncomfortable, yes. Because they beg people to be open and honest with themselves for once. Because they beg people to desert a social construct that they had been used to for decades. Because they beg people to become leaders and not followers, and those are all huge responsibilities. Because they beg people to stop accepting the bare minimum and boasting about how great our country is. No, we can actually be great, and with that kind of mentality, it begs people to realise that maybe the politicians and thugs and warlords they have been dictated by for years are very, very, very wrong.
“Honesty can be uncomfortable, but they are positive. These protests are honest and they will eventually, if continued in momentum, break the ‘norm’ of this amnesia we have been living in, and scrape the way for new beginnings. Lebanon will and can change. It just has never tried to before.”
* Published in Emirates Man, November 2015
Top photograph: Karim Mostafa (karimphoto.com)