Lebanon’s leaders under siege from people power

Lebanon’s leaders under siege from people power

Demonstrators carry national flags during an anti-government protest in the port city of Sidon, Lebanon. (Reuters)

Lebanon’s political mosaic is crumbling and the longstanding taboos are now fair game for millions of Lebanese of all sects, who have taken to the streets demanding the “overthrow” of the president, the government and lawmakers. The oligarchy that has ruled over Lebanon for decades, while overseeing the plundering of the state’s resources and the immiseration of its citizens, is now under siege.

What started as spontaneous, initially violent, protests against unfair taxes and the failing economy have become a popular censure of a dysfunctional system. The protests have turned into a peaceful and democratic festival where men and women, young and old, Muslim and Christian, Sunni, Shiite and Druze from all over this small but diverse country celebrate their unity as Lebanese and not as members of rival sects or ethnicities.

Not since the Cedar Revolution of 2005, when people revolted against the decades-old Syrian presence following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, have the Lebanese demonstrated such a sense of unity. This time the uprising has spread from Beirut to Tripoli in the north, to Sidon and Tyre in the south and even to Nabatieh — the heart of Hezbollah’s grassroots base.

Lebanon’s ruling overlords were taken by surprise, opting to blame others for failing to carry out economic reforms. Head of the Lebanese Forces party Samir Geagea called on Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign and later ordered his Cabinet members to quit the government. Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze community, called for dialogue and hinted that his ministers would also quit, before changing his mind. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose ministers have a majority in the 30-member Cabinet, warned PM Hariri against resigning and threatened to let his followers take over the streets. The popular response was unnerving: Nasrallah was booed by protesters, who chanted, “All of them means all; Nasrallah is one of them.”

Nasrallah’s ally, President Michel Aoun, had little to say to the protesters. Beleaguered Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, who along with his wife is accused of wide-scale corruption, vowed to hear the protesters’ demands, but not before letting his Amal Movement goons attack demonstrators in Tyre and Sidon. Foreign Minister and Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil initially accused the protesters of fulfilling a foreign agenda. He became the center of people’s wrath and ridicule.

Not a single leading politician was spared public criticism. People are demanding the removal of all the political elites that have ruled over their respective fiefdoms against a decorative facade of state institutions. People are fed up with massive corruption, cronyism, a sectarian-based political system, unemployment, especially among the youth, rises in the cost of living and failing public services, among others. They want more than the resignation of top officials — they want them to return plundered funds and stand trial.

For three decades, since the signing of the 1989 Taif Agreement, which formalized a quota-based power-sharing setup among Lebanon’s various sects, the country of about 4 million has been hostage to a self-serving oligarchy that has shared not only political power but accumulated wealth from public utilities and national resources. Today, Lebanon’s foreign debt has passed the $85 billion mark and its economy survives only because of a strong banking system and remittances from the 14 million-plus Lebanese in the diaspora.

Since its independence from France in 1943, this country of just 10,000 square kilometers has seen more than its fair share of regional and foreign meddling, civil strife and military interventions, against a backdrop of deepening sectarian and political rivalries. The civil war of 1975 to 1990 was punctuated by the Israeli invasion of 1982, which resulted in internal polarization, massacres against Palestinians and the eventual departure of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Lebanon.

The protesters want more than the resignation of top officials — they want them to return plundered funds and stand trial.

Osama Al-Sharif

The rise of Shiite resistance, first through Amal and later Hezbollah, became a major game-changer in internal Lebanese politics. Hezbollah’s Iranian connection and its heavily armed militia have led to the organization’s growing manipulation of various local players, finally resulting in its hegemony over the political system that we see today.

Lebanon’s contribution to the Arab world in terms of culture, progressive political ideas, media, music and art, cuisine, and business is unique. The ongoing protests — colorful, daring and largely peaceful — will undoubtedly inspire economically driven protests in the region. We have seen variant examples in Sudan, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan. But, as the political elites scurry to find a compromise that might calm the street, which seems unlikely, the challenge is to save Lebanon from chaos and collapse. The economic reforms approved by the government on Monday, important and necessary as they are, have been largely rejected by the protesters. It is a matter of credibility, or the lack of it, for millions of Lebanese. Hariri noted that he would be willing to support an early election, which is one of the protesters’ demands. For now, it seems the protests will continue and the army has stepped in to offer protection from partisan hooligans.

Hariri may be forced to resign, paving the way for an interim government of nonpartisan experts to prepare for new a general election. That is what the public wants, but some overlords will resist and opt to fight for their survival rather than succumb to the emerging power of the people.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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