Decentralized nature of anti-government protests apparently making crackdown more difficult
Disrupting traffic and commerce, Lebanese protestors took to the streets for the eleventh straight day on Sunday to demand a change in government and an end to public corruption.
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s televised speech last Friday, in which he said demands for the government to resign were not in the best interest of the country, appear to have had little effect. Many Lebanese hold Hizbullah at least partially responsible for the country’s poor economy, blaming it for the large amount of money spent on the civil war in Syria.
The protests could worsen Lebanon’s already dire economic situation. All the banks in the country, including Banque du Liban, the Lebanese central bank, have been closed since the demonstrations began on October 17. Experts say this could soon lead to a shortage of cash vital to pay for imported goods, a cornerstone of Lebanon’s economy.
Joey Ayoub, a Lebanese writer, told The Media Line that “the protests were sparked by two things – the anemic government response to wildfires that destroyed a large number of trees, and the introduction of legislation to impose a tax on free online phone services like Whatsapp, which many people in the country use because they cannot afford traditional phone providers.”
The tax was canceled, but this did not mollify the demonstrators.
“Protestors are now calling for replacing the government. They want new elections and an end to the political sectarianism that has plagued Lebanon since the agreement that ended the country’s civil war in 1990,” Ayoub said.
“The sentiment on the streets is halas [Arabic for enough is enough],” he stated. “The situation is much more urgent than it was a few years ago. If it continues this way, you’ll have more people with literally nothing left to lose.”
Lebanon’s young adult population, particularly university students, have played a critical role in the demonstrations. The absence of students has led some universities to cancel classes. After Fadlo Khuri, president of the American University of Beirut, decided last week that school would reopen despite the protests, a group of faculty members released a statement expressing their solidarity with the students and saying they would not be holding classes.
“We cannot go back and teach our regular syllabi when the streets are the prime sites for learning. The streets are a classroom and the classroom is on the streets,” the statement said.
One student, Michel Chawich, told The Media Line that he is protesting “in response to the government’s failure to find solutions to an economic crisis that has been looming” for about a year.
“We want new people to be in the government, not those people who steal our money,” he said.
Ayoub said he did not expect the protests to end any time soon. As an organizer of mass demonstrations in Lebanon in 2015, he said “the decentralized nature of these protests makes them difficult for the government to squelch.”
He noted that protests in 2015 “were centralized and specific to Beirut, and the protestors were more or less middle class. Now, people are coming out every day to protest on the streets, and it is not organized. It is so much more difficult for the government to crack down on this – unless they decide to block the internet, which is where protestors are connecting with each other.”
Ayoub said the protests have made it impossible for Lebanon “to go back completely” to the status quo.
“I’ve been involved in protests since 2010, and this is the first time I can say something has actually shifted in a good way,” he said.
“I think the protests have lasted a long time,” he said, “because we are strong, we stand together, and we want the same thing: to have a better future and a better Lebanon.”