A year ago, mass protests broke out across Lebanon, with demonstrators blocking roads and motorways to demand an end to systemic corruption, sectarian rule and rising unemployment.
Since then, the financial and economic situation in Lebanon has only gotten worse. The currency, still falling, has devalued by over 80 percent, and poverty continues to rise across the country. What’s more, recorded COVID-19 cases are peaking, and the country’s health services are starting to become overwhelmed.
If all that wasn’t enough, much of Beirut is still a wreck following the explosion on the 4th of August, when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the capital, killing 202 people and injuring over 6,000.
Protests are now, unsurprisingly, a regular feature throughout Lebanon’s major cities. And without a functioning government since the explosion, the reforms that are needed to unlock international aid seem impossible.
The situation is becoming increasingly desperate, with things particularly bleak for young people. Demonstrations are becoming more intense as the army responds with increased violence, with reports of military personnel firing live rounds of ammunition in the direction of protesters.
More and more young people are giving up hope and looking for ways to leave the country. A recent Arab Youth Survey found that as many as 77 percent of young people in Lebanon have considered leaving the country. To understand why that is and what changes young activists are pushing for, VICE News spoke to several young people at a recent protest.
VICE: Why is protesting important?
Roy: We have no other solution than this. We tried. We have been on the streets [for a year]. They keep on attacking us. Even after the explosion – the worst thing that happened this year – [the government] did not care about us. No one went down to the street to see if the people were OK, to see if the people needed anything. So we are doing our best to always participate, protesting on the street.
What do you hope will change?
The first thing that should change is the bad politicians. They are criminals. We are hoping to make Lebanon better. A huge number of people – friends and family – are leaving Lebanon; they don’t want to be here. This hurts me, this hurts everyone. We are doing our best to say that we still have hope. I wish to make this dream come true that we can live in a peaceful country. At the moment, we are living day-by-day. We don’t know when we are going to die. The first thing I wish is that this revolution works out.
VICE: Why are you protesting today in front of the military court?
Yara: We want to fight the military system that has illegally taken over. The situation at the moment has given the military total freedom. They could just arrest me right now, without seeing my papers, without giving a reason why. Because of the economic crisis and because of the explosion, we can’t risk getting arrested right now. What else can we do? Protest is the only way we can express ourselves. Even social media is being monitored all the time. We feel oppressed. We feel like we don’t have a voice. We’ve been on the streets for almost one year now – we feel like no one is listening to us.
Do you think things are changing?
We need to work at keeping the revolution alive, because if you don’t go down to the streets, then this is gone. But at the same time, it’s hard to do that when everyone is exhausted because of the economic crisis. People from very poor areas can’t protest because they would have to stop working, and if they stop working, they would starve.
What do you hope for your future?
I’m actually leaving soon. I’m going to apply for my masters, because there’s no future here. You have to take the job opportunities outside that can help us grow as humans. I’m definitely going to come back. I just hope this country will be safe, because it is not safe. If you don’t die because of the security forces, you could die from people who are firing off guns because they’re sad, or you die in an explosion, or you die because you can’t afford food.
VICE: How long have you been protesting?
Farah: I’ve been here since the 17th of October, the beginning of the revolution. I want what all Lebanese want: early elections, independent courts, all the things that we were asking for before. It’s been the same for 30 to 40 years. Those in power are refusing change. And I want change.
What’s it like living in Lebanon?
I can’t pay for my studies because of the economic situation here. My father has a huge tumour in his leg and can’t pay for an operation. We have no security, or hospital to go to. He is 62 years old – he has nothing to do except work, and there is no work in the country. So I’m not going to uni, and he’s not going to hospital. How much worse can it be?
Will you stay in Lebanon?
As long as there are other people who are willing to stay and fight, I won’t leave.
VICE: Why are you protesting?
Jean: We’ve stayed silent for too long about the militarisation of all aspects of public life since the COVID outbreak, and most importantly, after the August 4th explosion, when Beirut was put under the state of emergency. We think this is a very dangerous turn of our regime, and we need to be extremely loud in opposing it. Even if it doesn’t seem as bad as other Arab countries, we believe that if we allow such behaviours to continue, we might very soon see something that looks like a police state.
Do you feel safe being here?
I don’t feel safe. I know the people around me, I trust my comrades, the people that are here. As you can see, there are twice the number of soldiers compared to the number of demonstrators – it is very telling of their logic.
Do you think the soldiers understand the revolution?
I don’t think so. Obviously the soldiers are only the face of the problem, they’re not the root cause. The root cause is much deeper – it has to do with how our state and security forces are built. Nonetheless, they are making a choice, and this choice, in my opinion, is completely opposed to the historical path that we want to go through as a revolution.
What’s next for the revolution?
To be honest, at this stage I just hope we’re able to survive as we are. That our comrades are not forced to leave the country, that we’re able to sustain the political structures that we built. I think we’ll be able to make them grow, and then we can seize the upcoming opportunities that will come to us.
For me, what’s at stake is a full collapse of everything that we have built around us. Including those structures of opposition, those alternative platforms that were really growing for the past ten years, culminating on the 17th of October uprising.
Those who can stay and can be politically active are the lucky ones – we have the privilege to do so. And that is really sad. I hope we’re able to sustain this as long as we can, then come back stronger eventually.
VICE: Why do you feel the need to protest?
Paul: Because I know I won’t find work here. If these politicians stay, I’m going to leave, like my brothers and sister, who’ve gone to France and Canada. I only have a Lebanese passport. It’s hard to go and find a job when you don’t have good grades, because here in Lebanon we can’t find any jobs.
What’s it like living in Lebanon?
Lebanon is so much fun. I enjoy living here. But, you know, the economic crisis has affected everyone. Over 50 percent of people are beyond poverty. That hurts me so much. I can eat today, but maybe tomorrow I couldn’t. That’s why I’ve come to the street to ask for my rights.
Why is protesting a good thing to do?
We have to protest, because we don’t want our president to stay as our president. We don’t want any of them. They are living their best lives – they have money, they have yachts, airplanes. There are people here who don’t have money to buy a sandwich to get through the day.
VICE: Why are you here today?
Lorna: We’re here because of the excessive police brutality that has been happening, and how the country has been deteriorating from the explosion and even before that – the economic crisis and the COVID situation. The government is always depending on its man-power in the armed forces and the Internal Security Forces to silence and oppress us so that we don’t rebel against the system that is killing us. A system that is depriving us of any life or stability.
So many people are being driven to suicide, facing unemployment and medical issues. I think the brutality is a tool of suppression and oppression that is constantly being used by the government to show people that they’re stronger than us, that they have this authority. Even on social media we can’t express our political views without being called for an investigation, so they’re just trying to shut us up to get their way.
Have you been threatened at previous protests?
Yes, physically, of course. We’ve been subject to tear gas so many times. One of my friends was arrested, [taken] into the police station, beaten up. We really don’t want to do it. I wish I didn’t have to protest. I wish I could stay at home and have my basic human rights. But the reality of the situation is that there are so many things that are going wrong, and we have to say that this is wrong and we need an alternative.
What do you hope for the Lebanese people?
I hope that the next generation won’t be forced to spend their time just crying for help or asking for something that should be there when they’re born. I don’t ever want to see the next generation – my children, or even after that – be scared to live in their own home. I know so many people who don’t feel safe inside their own homes.