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What is Lebanon’s ‘thawra’ (revolution) about?
In the last twelve months Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon have been experiencing widespread but leaderless protests which are adding to the already febrile geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and North Africa region.
The protestors of the ‘thawra’ in Lebanon like their counterparts in the ‘hirak’ in Algeria share common grievances, based off the deep-seated, structural anger that remained unresolved following the 2011 Arab Spring. This time however the protestors in these countries are eager to avoid a repeat of the chaotic overthrows of regimes that led to the civil wars in Libya, Yemen and Syria.
Since October 17th 2019, the Lebanese people have been peacefully protesting in the streets against government corruption and the grave economic crisis in which Lebanon currently finds itself. The protests started shortly after Prime Minister Saad Hariri's government attempted to increase taxes on tobacco, petrol and even WhatsApp, which prompted nationwide anger against the country's economic problems, inequality and corruption.
Faced with increasing levels of national debt and fears of a devaluation of the Lebanese pound , there has been widespread reports of shortages of hard currency and basic necessities within Lebanon proper.
In response to the surge in protests in October, the Hariri government immediately withdrew the proposed WhatsApp tax, but the civil unrest continued with demands for further changes, specifically forcing government ministers accused of corruption to stand down. On October 29th, in the face of fierce political opposition Saad Hariri offered his resignation as Lebanon’s prime minister, citing his failure to appease the mass protests as the principal reason.
The government then rushed to introduce a new set of reforms which would reduce politicians salaries, invest in power plants and tax banks, but thawra protests have continued into 2020 in major Lebanese cities.
Despite Saad Hariri’s resignation, the thousands of people in the thawra movement have not been appeased and continue to take to the streets, chanting ‘thawra, thawra’ (revolution), waving flags, singing and dancing in Beirut’s Martyrs square. The protests have led to the closure of schools, shops, banks and petrol stations. Violence escalated with clashes between police and anti-government protestors on December 16th 2019 after security forces fired tear gas against protestors and the Hezbollah and Amal supporters.
What the ‘thawra’ protests hope to achieve
Lebanon is one of the most expensive countries in the Middle East, where essential commodities including bread, food, petrol are increasingly in short supply. The Lebanese population likewise deals with daily power cuts, a lack safe drinking water, limited public healthcare, youth unemployment, and poor quality landfills.
The thawra protests which started with a focus on the WhatsApp tax, now demand improved basic services, including infrastructure, healthcare, transport, and a constant energy supply as Lebanon’s electricity only supplies half of the electricity need. Successive governments since 2011 have repeatedly failed to meet the basic needs of the Lebanese and the 1.5 million refugees sheltering from the war in Syria, and like in Algeria, there is widespread sentiment for socio-economic and political change.
Protestors are also demanding change regarding the discriminatory nationality law, so that Lebanese women can pass their citizenship to their offspring which is currently forbidden. This law impacts the ability of those children to access public healthcare, certain professions, or loans as they are considered as foreigners.
The protest movement also seeks the dismantlement of the complex political system in place since the end of the 1990 civil war, in order to create a new non-sectarian cabinet which can improve the country’s fighting against corruption and cronyism. The political system in Lebanon is shared between the main religious communities (the Muslim Sunni, the Muslim Shia and the Christians) which each holding certain powers and roles, and each having a balance and equal voice. This power-sharing structure, crucial to ending the civil war, has exacerbated interference by external powers in the region such as Iran, whose support of Hezbollah has hindered Lebanon’s governance model.
Looking ahead to 2020
This is the first time in Lebanon’s history where the deep sectarian divisions have come together to protest the government, with people from all sectors of Lebanese society and religious beliefs involved. The protestors, have for the moment at least, put aside their sectarian divisions, which have been used to marginalize and create terror, replacing it with a sense of national Lebanese identity which cannot be threatened.
Following the resignations of PM Hariri, talks to form a new Lebanese government have been deadlocked. Hariri has stayed in caretaking role, whilst parliamentary consultations have been delayed as the three communities have been unable to agree on a Sunni Muslim candidate to take Hariri’s role. This is because the Christian parties will not back Hariri’s candidacy once again and a candidate for all the parties has yet to be found.
The post-civil war power-sharing system in place has previously created a deadlock situation with the election of President Michel Aoun in 2016, which is why protestors are calling for a reformed political system.
Hassan Diab, a university professor and former education minister, has been nominated by the Shia movement and appointed following a majority vote to become Prime Minister, which accommodates the demands of the protestors. However, if the Sunni parties do not back Mr. Diab, forming a new government and acquiring capital assistance from Western countries to help Lebanon will be hindered by even further political instability.
Even with the prospect of a new Prime Minister, the Lebanese people have continued protesting Mr. Diab’s nomination. Nevertheless, the key questions now are how long will this leaderless revolution continue, will it be able to achieve its demands of political reform and will foreign states intervene in Lebanon’s domestic affairs, creating yet another sectarian fueled conflict in the Middle East?
Gida Malafronte is a graduate student of International Relations and Global Studies from Nottingham Trent University, UK. Her areas of interest include the Middle East and North Africa and security aspects.