Lebanon’s leaderless October Revolution calls for tangible changes

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By Zoe Mize

November 11, 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy –– On October 29, 2019, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri stepped down. The ongoing street protests known as the “October Revolution” that led to Hariri’s resignation were triggered by the announcement of a tax on digital phone calls, including those made on the popular messaging service WhatsApp. The protests, however, have tapped into a much deeper well of resentment against what is seen as a corrupt and sectarian government.

“All of them means all of them,” chanted the protesters as thousands swarmed the streets of Beirut. The chant refers to the persistence of corruption across all sectors of the government. Despite Hariri’s resignation, there is no single “bad guy” whose removal will engender a fundamental shift in Lebanese politics and solve the problems faced by the Lebanese people.

According to SAIS Europe’s Conflict Management professor Francesco Moro, the protests are, “inevitably connected with an enduring political crisis.” The WhatsApp tax is simply one of many grievances. It is a symptom of economic problems worsened by Hezbollah’s decision to join the war in Syria. 

Hezbollah’s decision to support the Syrian regime has led the government to turn to excessive borrowing to fund the effort. The increase in government debt has sowed dysfunction in the provision of public services. A week before the protests, wildfires tore through the Lebanese mountainside, offering a particularly cruel example of the poor state of public services: The government’s fleet of fire-extinguishing helicopters were out of service due to a lack of maintenance. The fires burned essentially unabated, resisted only by volunteer firefighters. 

Since the advent of the sectarian system that emerged after the end of Lebanon’s civil war, the government has been divvied up between religious sects, with parliamentary seats appointed by quota. The same parties, notably Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, and the Free Patriotic Movement, have consistently dominated the Lebanese political system.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, though not a government official, has risen as an important political actor. He has expressed sympathy for Hariri and called for the rapid formation of a new government. Recently aligned with Hezbollah, the Amal Movement is represented by the Speaker of the Parliament, Nabih Berri. President Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, faces popular criticism for aligning with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime after initially rising to power on an anti-Syria platform.

Among the protestors’ many demands, reorganization of the government appears to be the most plausible change agent. Many have called for an independent technocratic government in place of sectarian proportionality in parliamentary elections. The sectarian system has created what Professor Moro calls a “redefinition of political equilibrium, of which these protests have been the normal output.” The sectarian regime has thus far shifted the burden to the people. The protests represent an attempt by the people to have their needs addressed.

A unique characteristic of the protests is their lack of leadership. People from all classes and religions have gathered to protest side-by-side. Such a wide-ranging movement begets the question of whether a single, unified agenda is plausible.  

Based on what the scholarly literature suggests, Professor Moro believes that there are two pathways by which the movement can evolve beyond protests: through a harsh state response that pushes the disparate protestors towards violence or through political “bricolage” which could unite the various fragmented groups under one political agenda. Although Professor Moro contends that it is unnecessary for protests to intensify to the point of larger scale political conflict, he cautions that “we should be aware [that] the past is powerful, and we know that a past of violence is a good predictor of future violence.”

What does the future hold? Lebanese SAIS MA Elza Harb has been following the protests through updates from her family. With no end in sight to the protests, she says, “people are getting antsy, because they can’t go to work, they can’t go to school.” Harb agrees with Professor Moro that the protests could bring government intervention or perhaps be unified through a well-positioned political leader. While Harb can’t predict an easy resolution for the Lebanese people, she is in awe of their movement. “When the people get involved [like this], they have a real stake in it.”

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