“For once, we’re united”: How protestors in Lebanon are rejecting sectarianism

What began as anger against a "WhatsApp tax" has grown into a protest movement that crosses class and religion

November 06, 2019
Protestors in Beirut gathering in October
Protestors in Beirut gathering in October

Three times in the past three years, 47-year-old Mona Salam has opened a small shop selling foodstuffs and clothes. All three times, the shop has failed—a result of Lebanon’s stagnant economy. Those failures have had an impact on her mental health—she now relies on her family to cover living costs, and antidepressants to get through the day. “We have reached a point of no return,” she told me last week, as she joined protestors on Martyrs’ Square in central Beirut. Sung verses of the Lebanese national anthem ring through the night air around us.

Mona’s situation—financial struggles and the mental health toll—is not uncommon in Lebanon. It explains some of the reasons why since 17th October, she and hundreds of thousands of other people have been demonstrating across the country.

The marches were initially sparked by a now-dismissed plan to tax internet-based voice calls. But even before that, bigger issues—the dire economy, rampant state corruption, and environmental disasters—had combined to create large-scale misery, anger and frustration.

Schools, universities and banks were shut for nearly two weeks and protestors blocked roads, sometimes being forcefully removed by the security forces. Supporters of powerful political parties, including the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, have attacked protestors.

Last Tuesday, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned under pressure from the street. Now, President Michel Aoun—an octogenarian former army general—has said that any new government must be chosen based on competence, rather than political allegiances. People’s demands need to be listened to, he insists.

It’s not clear yet if they will be. Protestors say they aren’t giving up, and are demanding a complete overhaul of the political system, including a cabinet of technocrats and early parliamentary elections, plus the return of stolen public funds.

"We're not going to stop now"

Protests aren’t a new thing in Lebanon. But now, they are crossing sectarian and class lines. They are taking place across the country, from central Beirut to small villages in the far south. From management consultants to casual labourers, from Maronite Christian to Shia Muslim, Lebanese communities who have long been governed by divide-and-rule politics are united in their disgruntlement.

“All the political parties and sectarianism of the system needs to go down because for once we’re united. For once, Mary is sitting with Fatima, for once Mohammed is sitting with Elie—for once we are really talking to each other,” said protestor Perla Joe Maalouli, referring to the sectarian divisions that traditionally divvy up everything from names to social circles in Lebanon. “They need to give us a chance. We’re going to fight for it. We’re not going to stop now.”

Lebanon is not the only country in the region engulfed by protestors demanding change. In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have been taking to the streets to demand absent services like water and electricity, job opportunities, and new leaders.

In both Lebanon and Iraq, people are calling for an end to rule based on religious divisions—often using smart black humour. One banner in Baghdad mimicked the funeral announcement posters typically seen around residential districts when someone dies. The deceased: sectarianism. In Beirut, protestors staged an imitation public hanging. The victims were identified as “sectarianism” and “1975,” when Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war began. Elsewhere, Algerians are demonstrating ahead of a presidential election next month. Syrians are protesting both rule by Salafist extremists formerly linked to Al Qaeda, and the Assad regime. Their current juncture is not a black-and-white, either/or choice between the two.

In all of these countries, people are opposed to ruling elites, widespread corruption, and social injustice. People are focusing on new kinds of nationalism: not the faux-pride long exploited by dictatorships and elites, but a real sense of forming their own identities. It is a reminder that despite the territorial defeat of ISIS, there are so many more—very pressing—concerns that grind people down on a day-to-day basis. No jobs. Intermittent water and electricity supplies. Little sense that their leaders care about them—and worse, are the sources of violence and oppression, not a remedy to them. Without these basics, people will continue to be angry and frustrated.

They will continue to take to the streets to make that clear, even if it’s a daunting, sometimes dangerous task. “It’s a big fight—we’re fighting the government, the system, and we’re fighting militias,” said Perla Joe Maalouli, the protestor. “You don’t know who’s against you, and who’s with you.”