What began as anger against a "WhatsApp tax" has grown into a protest movement that crosses class and religionby Lizzie Porter / November 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…