Despite Disaster After Disaster, Lebanon’s Calls for Change Go Unheard

Protests in Lebanon in 2019 ousted a prime minister, but a year – and a devastating explosion in Beirut later – he's back in power again.
February 11, 2021, 1:06pm
Despite Disaster after Disaster, Lebanon's Calls for Change Go Unheard
A Lebanese protester in Beirut in the aftermath of last August's huge explosion. Photo: AFP via Getty Images
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A decade after the seismic events of the Arab Spring, those who took to the streets reflect on what happened next.

For the past year and a half, the Lebanese people have been hit by a string of cascading crises that has only underlined what they have long known: the country’s political system is irretrievably broken.

A devastating economic collapse, COVID-19, unpopular taxes, and above all, the catastrophic chemical explosion in Beirut last August, have fuelled mass anti-government protests, channeling widespread public rage at the corruption and incompetence of the country’s political elite. 

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These complaints are nothing new in Lebanon. Ten years ago, at the height of the Arab Spring, protesters had taken to the streets demanding reform of the country’s confessional system, where political representation is allocated along religious lines. In 2015, people took to the streets again, demanding an end to years of failed governance and political dysfunction.

But even after the 4th of August explosion at Beirut’s port killed more than 200 people and destroyed a huge swathe of the capital last year, there are few signs of the accountability, let alone political transformation, that protesters have been demanding.

Saad Hariri, the prime minister who resigned in the days after protests first broke out in October 2019, was reappointed to the post a year later, after getting the support of a thin majority of members in Lebanon’s parliament. For many Lebanese, there couldn’t be a clearer indication that the country’s political class is deaf to the will of the people.

“It’s extremely insulting to see Hariri back,” said Jean Kassir, a Lebanese independent journalist. “It’s really painful to see him back… and after half the city was completely blown up.”

Meanwhile, lawyers say that despite official promises of a thorough investigation into the Beirut blast, caused by the ignition of a huge stockpile of highly explosive ammonium nitrate which had been negligently stored at the port for years, there was no indication that the country’s leaders would be held accountable.

Smoke rises at Beirut's port in the aftermath of last August's devastating explosion. Photo: Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images

Smoke rises at Beirut's port in the aftermath of last August's devastating explosion. Photo: Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images

“We have very serious concerns about the investigation into the blast,” said Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer at Beirut-based research and advocacy nonprofit Legal Agenda.

“Up until now, none of the ministers have been interrogated as suspects, and there seems to be no intention to actually sue and accuse the high political leaders who were responsible for this blast.”

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Nor were there any signs of security forces being held to account over deaths and injuries to protesters, she said.

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Protesters on the streets of Beirut, demonstrating against the government and political elites, last August. Photo: STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“Up until today we haven’t seen any accountability for all this violence that we saw on the streets.”

As the country continues to struggle through a crippling currency crisis that has wiped out the life savings of many Lebanese, the only glimmers of hope have come from the country’s youth. In the days after the Beirut explosion, while the state was conspicuously absent from disaster relief efforts, the city’s residents, especially young people, took up the slack.

“It’s really sad to see our government is doing nothing towards these people,” George Mourad, a young volunteer, said in the days after the blast.

“[Members of the public] tell us: ‘You, the young people, you are the government, you are the ministers’,” he said. “We will do the work to change this country.”

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Photo: Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images

Meanwhile, in recent student elections at three major Lebanese universities, secular student clubs have won a landslide of votes in recent elections, in what observers hope could point to a weakening of the sectarian system that has shaped Lebanon’s dysfunctional politics for decades.

But for many left struggling to survive in Lebanon’s broken system, escape seems the best option.

“They starved the people, until there was no longer any left, that’s my opinion,” said Marwan Al Sai, a fisherman at Beirut’s waterfront, referring to the currency crisis that had seen the country’s wealth evaporate.

“My opinion is half of the people will emigrate, they will leave. And the ones who want to resist and stay? The other half is going to have to survive with what’s left for them.”