Lebanon: Time for changing the system

Beirut, Lebanon - The smoke can be seen from afar. The usual blanket of smog over Beirut thickened to a massive black cloud. Since the evening of Thursday, 17th of October, protests, revolts against the regime and riots, including burning street blockades, are taking place all over Lebanon (as of Sunday, 27th of October). According to Omar, who is one of the demonstrators in Beirut, it is the first time in history that the majority of Lebanese people are unified in one belief and take it to the streets. "Usually they [the regime] play the religions off against each other. [...] But now people have woken up and see that they are sucking our blood, so we need to get rid of the religions. It's enough."

The resistance was triggered by the government's publishing of financial reforms for 2020 that included a. o. increased taxes on gasoline, tobacco and social media like WhatsApp, the main communication tool in Lebanon. Shortly after the announcement on Thursday, a small group of protesters gathered in front of the parliament and claimed a revolution. One of them described it as "[...] a revolution against all political parties in Lebanon."
Citizens all over Lebanon have been mobilized via social media and organized decentralized demonstrations in Beirut, Tripoli, Baalbeck and other cities.

Protesters at Riad El Solh, Beirut, Photo: Giulia Brabetz

Despite the immediate withdrawal of the tax reforms by the minister of telecommunication, Mohammed Choucair, the protests spread out. In Beirut, they are concentrated on the Riad El Solh square and reach the parliament, which is protected by barbed wire and armed soldiers; as well as the neighboring street that is inhabited by the political elite.
The demonstrators refer to the politicians as liars and thieves. They demand a change of the system, a revolution. One of the most-heard slogans these days is: "The people want the fall of the system!"*

However, what are the concrete demands? On Sunday, an activist at Riad El Solh called for: "[...] equality for everybody! We expect the current ministers and everyone in the parliament to leave, to resign. [...] We want public healthcare and we want to feel like we are important. That is basically what we are fighting for."
Stefano, a protester in front of the parliament, wants the politicians to compensate for the mismanagement, corruption and misallocation of state funds in the last years: "We want our money! We have paid hundreds of millions of dollars and we did not get anything for it, not anything!"
Violent riots occured in many parts of Beirut with burning street blockades, state violence against protesters and destroyed shopfronts in the government district. On Thursday and Friday, military and police forces tried to contain the turmoils by employing tear gas, water guns and armed force. However, according to J., who is one of many mobilizers in Beirut, the demonstrators did not want to resort to violence: "We are afraid that people will break glass and coffeshops. We don't need that. We are not doing that!" Unconfirmed sources reported that the government paid rioters to mingle with the crowd and go on rampage.

Broken windows in the government district. Photo: Giulia Brabetz

It seems to be absurd that some tax reforms would be able to cause such large-scale excesses. Especially since protests against the failures of a corrupt and sectarian regime take place in Lebanon on a regular basis.
Yet, the current situation is different: According to a participant in the demonstrations, the country experiences the greatest protest since the end of the civil war and the first one that displays only the Lebanese flag. Usually, political parties, sects or other organizations utilize such public gatherings to propagate their goals. Unconfirmed sources mention tens of thousands of protesters being present on the streets of Beirut while the total population of the capital is estimated about 2,3 million people.

Lebanon is in the midst of an economical and financial crisis. Measured against the national output, the state has the third highest debt ratio worldwide (as of 2017). A weak infrastructure, mismanagement of international aid funds and the economical impact of the civil war in neighboring Syria leaves the country in financial dependency of the international community.
The first signs of an economical collaps already loom ahead: Lebanese inhabitans were unable to withdraw American Dollars in the last weeks and some shops started recently to file quotations only in Dollars which used to serve as a stabilizing second currency. This reinforced the general fear of inflation and an abrupt devaluation of the Lebanese Pound.

Burning garbage street blockades. Photo: Giulia Brabetz

The burning garbage street blockades symbolize one of the greatest problems of the Lebanese infrastructure: General waste disposal is privatized and since the closing of one of the biggest landfills in 2015, the various dumping enterprises failed to present a sustainable solution to the trash that piles up on the streets. Lebanon is literally sinking in its own waste.
In addition to that, the most severe forest fires since decades occured in different places two weeks ago and even encroached on residential areas. In the regions that were not directly affected, the events became noticeable through the government cutting electricity lines; hence, the people had to rely on private generators. This is nothing new for the Lebanese people because the governemnt enforces daily power cuts as part of the austerity plans.

Looking at these various difficulties and the government's failure to resolve or even address them, the message is clear: The people of Lebanon have had enough. They feel deprived of their dignity, trampled on by the political and economic elites and they want to be heard. Although the different groups in Lebanon rarely pursue similar goals, now they can agree on one thing: They want change!

Demonstration at Riad El Solh. Photo: Giulia Brabetz

*Quote was translated from Arabic to English by the author.


About the author

Giulia Brabetz ist Autorin und Übersetzerin bei Rawafed. Außerdem studiert sie die Geschichte und Kultur des Vorderen Orients mit dem Schwerpunkt Semitistik an der Freien Universität Berlin.

Sie interessiert sich für (menschliche) Kommunikation in all ihren Erscheinungsformen, vor allem aber für Sprachen, Kulturen und Musik.

Giulia Brabetz is an author and translator at Rawafed. She studies the History and Culture of the Near and Middle East with focus on semitic languages at Freie Universität Berlin.

Apart from that, she is interested in (human) communication in all its forms, especially in languages, cultures and music.



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