Once considered almost social outings, anti-government rallies now exude air of impatience, desperation
Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, who quit in late October amidst a rising wave of anti-government sentiment, has broken his silence and called for the swift formation of a new government to address the country’s dire economic conditions and mounting anger.
“Our government resigned in order to transition to a new government to address popular changes, but obstruction has continued for 90 days and the country is moving toward the unknown,” Hariri wrote on Twitter on January 20, adding: “The continuation of the caretaker government is not the solution, so let’s stop wasting time….”
Hariri’s tweets fall on the backdrop of protests that began on October 17 with the imposition a new taxes to help cover deepening debt.
The demonstrations remained relatively peaceful and even festive, but took a violent turn this weekend, with reports of close to 400 injuries on Sunday night alone.
Protesters smashed windows and burned barricades, and threw rocks and fireworks at soldiers and police. The security forces in turn cracked down with violence of their own.
“The amount of tear gas used last night was insane,” Nicholas Frakes, a mostly Lebanon-based freelance journalist, told The Media Line on Sunday, referring to Saturday night’s unrest.
“I was there on the ground,” Frakes said. “As the night progressed, dozens of tear gas canisters were thrown by security forces at demonstrators” rather than at the ground, the usual tactic.
It was a far cry from the almost jovial atmosphere of the initial protests, where friends and families gathered as if on outings.
“The party-like atmosphere was a short celebration of the fall of [the] government and a sense of national unity found by recognizing that we can take our destiny in our hands,” Mona Fawaz, a professor at the American University of Beirut, told The Media Line.
Yet things “dragged on,” she continued, “and the political class showed that it was more [entrenched], more powerful and ready to play the game of long-term erosion.” The result now is “more anger, more pressure” among demonstrators.
Dr. Dalia Ghanem, resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told The Media Line that frustration is mounting over unkept promises made by the political echelon.
“I think there is a clear radicalization, an exasperation… [among] protesters who, after 90 days, haven’t seen any concrete results….” she said.
Lebanese activist Diana Kaissy, who has taken part in many of the protests, agrees, adding that increasing financial pressures on the Lebanese people have spurred them to up the ante, explaining that in addition to initial demands for an end to sectarian politics and more transparency in governance, economic reforms are now squarely on the agenda.
“The demands are very basic demands,” she told The Media Line.
“We were calling for reforms three months ago. Now we’re calling for our basic rights, and this is when it turned violent. All our peaceful protests fell on deaf ears, so this is like revolution 2.0,” she explained.
“I’m not at all supportive of the violence, but again, who can you blame? People are literally hungry. There is real pain here,” she said.
Olfat Halabi, a Lebanese citizen who also supports the protests, took it further.
“We don’t have electricity,” she told The Media Line. “There are no job opportunities, even if you study at expensive universities. Professionals, like engineers and doctors, are sitting at home applying to move outside our country.”
Kaissy contends that despite the dwindling numbers of people who actually turn out on the streets, the protests have become stronger.
“It’s not a matter of numbers, it’s a matter of intensity,” she explained. “We had a bigger number before, but they were [drawn] mostly [by] the [social aspects] of the protests, I can tell you that.”
While the protestors have amped up their tactics, Fawaz argues that the authorities have done the same, which has negatively impacted the number of protesters who might have a moderating influence.
“There is a lot more violence from the police, too, and they are using very aggressive methods [like] rubber bullets at close range,” she noted. “All of this is intensifying the violence and pushing away those of us who typically played a calming role in the protests.”
“We are clearly in an escalation pattern [on] both sides. The security forces have shown no respect for their code of conduct [in light of] their brutal crackdown on protesters,” she said.
Jimmy Matar, a Middle East political researcher who focuses on Lebanon, adds that the police and soldiers are also in a tough spot.
“Security forces are being put in the front to defend elites who have denied them their rights, just like the rest of the population,” he told The Media Line.
Despite the drop in participants, Halabi argues that the protesters’ demands reflect what the population as a whole wants.
“Everyone needs an… opportunity for a good future,” she said. “All citizens deserve human rights.”
The future of the protests remains unclear, which, journalist Frakes argues, has been true from the very beginning.
“These protests were so unpredictable when they first started. No one expected them to keep going,” he said.
He cautions that the demonstrations could become even more dangerous if the government fails to address the financial struggles of the Lebanese people, as well as the political changes they demand.
“If things continue the way they are, with no solution to the economic crisis or a political solution for forming a government, people might continue to get angry,” he stated. “It might boil over.”