Lebanese marchers target public facilities in protest against the government’s foot-dragging in forming a new government
Lebanese demonstrators continued their mass protests on Thursday in front of a number of public facilities in the capital, Beirut, including the Palace of Justice. For the second straight day, protesters, including students, surrounded the Education Ministry, blocking all of its entrances.
Demonstrators previously blocked highways and major arteries throughout the country from north to south, vowing to keep the roads closed until an “independent” government is formed. In addition, they called for a general strike.
“The closure of public facilities didn’t just include the Education Ministry but the electric company and its generators in more than one area. Also the schools, whose students are participating in the protests,” Nada Nassef, a Lebanese political activist, told The Media Line.
Nassef said activists were escalating their demonstrations to protest the government’s foot-dragging in forming a new government. “Initially, we closed the main roads and demanded the overthrow of the government, which happened. However, no date has been set for the constitutional consultations [necessary to form a new government] so we had to escalate the situation.”
She emphasized that, constitutionally, after the resignation of the country’s prime minister, the president must hold consultations with parliamentary bloc leaders and then appoint a new head of government. “What we demand is simple: a government of six to 12 ministers, and far from all political parties. We won’t leave the streets unless we achieve our demands; we are not carrying out half a revolution.”
Nassef likened corruption in Lebanon to the domino effect: If one tile falls, it topples all the others. “If one of them [the corrupt people] falls, the rest will fall in turn.”
Protests in Lebanon began on October 17 against government corruption, mismanagement, sectarianism, and foreign influence, in response to a proposed tax on use of the WhatsApp messaging platform. The government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri faced massive criticism, pushing it to resign on October 29.
Rabih Damaj, a Lebanese journalist and writer, confirmed to The Media Line that Lebanese protesters were not only demanding the resignation of al-Hariri – though this was a way to resolve the government crisis – but of all corrupt politicians and parties.
“The demand for Al-Hariri’s resignation was a tactic aimed at removing the old government and forming a new, technocrat government,” Damaj explained. “The political elite in Lebanon, as well as the demonstrators, including the students and the social-media generation, as they call it, want this kind of government.”
He stressed that what’s happening in Lebanon is civil disobedience; the majority of citizens refuse to be ruled by the existing sectarian political parties. “The new generation is aware and educated. They demand a state in which they have full civil rights, not sectarianism. For instance, a person shouldn’t have to belong to a certain sect in order to get a job, as happens here.”
Damaj heavily criticized the government’s handling of the protests. In his view, the Lebanese leadership severely underestimated the protesters’ power, and could not understand how they managed to shut down so much of the country, including its public facilities. “They are being closed because of the corruption cases that have come to light, which show that many within the government are involved, including school headmasters,” he said.
President Michel Aoun has announced that 17 corruption cases were referred for investigation and stressed that no one involved, including current and former officials, would be excluded.
Former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has refused to appear before the prosecution, which seeks to question him in a case involving the alleged illegal spending of $11 billion during his term as prime minister, between 2006 and 2008, as well as the waste of foreign aid money.
“The officials don’t fear the judiciary, as they are protected by the heads of their religious communities,” Hisham Jaber, a Lebanese political and strategic analyst who served in the army, revealed to The Media Line.
Jaber said that there is collusion between the political and religious classes to shield corruption in the country. “For 30 years, corruption has been rampant in Lebanon, but since Rafic al-Hariri was put in power [as prime minister, from 1992 to 1998], the country became ruled by five major religious denominations: Maronite, Sunni, Shiite, Druze and Orthodox.”
Since then, Jaber said, nobody managed to counter the dominance of these religious denominations, which spread corruption in Lebanese society and government departments at all levels, resulting in about $300 billion being “stolen” from the country.
“The revolution in Lebanon today is historic as most revolutions support a leader, while this one supports the people in-need and demands proper citizenship rights,” he said. “But my biggest fear remains that the revolution could be penetrated by international, regional or even local parties, to serve foreign agendas.”
Jaber stressed that meeting the protesters’ demands was very important and that there should be a transition period of six months until elections are held under a new election law. This law would treat Lebanon as a single constituency with proportional representation, unconstrained by sectarianism.
“The president wants to end the crisis but he’s under tremendous pressure, from inside and outside his party, which affects his decisions negatively,” Jaber said.
Additionally, he emphasized the need for an independent, apolitical judiciary. “When you start seeing officials being held accountable and, if found guilty, imprisoned, we’ll have a real state.”
In a move few saw coming, the Trump administration on Friday announced that it has suspended security aid to Lebanon, including $100 million earmarked for the Lebanese army. While details are sparse, it appears that the order originated with the US National Security Council and the White House Office of Management and Budget.