Since October 17, hundreds of thousands of protesters have mobilized across Lebanon, calling for an end to corruption, sectarianism, and the broken political and economic system. The mass demonstrations, largely branded as “al-thawra,” the Arabic word for revolution, were triggered by plans by the Lebanese government to tax WhatsApp calls. The tax, advanced in the aftermath of the government’s inadequate response to one of the country’s worst environmental crises, was presented by officials as an austerity measure to reduce the country’s exorbitant national debt, currently estimated at 150 percent of gross domestic product.
In response to the nationwide protests, the government quickly scrapped the new taxation measures. But, as protesters have made clear, the movement is not just about reversing austerity measures; it is a collective struggle against political elites and the system responsible for the country’s political and economic woes. It is no coincidence that one of the earliest slogans sung across the country was the same one shared around the Arab world during the Arab Uprisings of 2011—“al-sha’ab yurid isqat al-nitham” (the people want to bring down the regime).
In the context of Lebanon, references to the regime relate to the intimate consolidation of sectarianism and clientelism in the country, which has centered political and economic power in the hands of a small number of sectarian elites. That is perhaps why it is another slogan—”kelon ya’neh kelon” (all of them means all of them)—chanted by protesters that best captures the revolutionary spirit and distinctiveness of this movement. The denunciation of the entire political class is nothing short of revolutionary as it transcends sect, region, generation, and traditional allegiances to political dynasties and parties.
Given the unprecedented nature of the situation, the international community may feel unsure of how to respond. An important consideration is that any response that does not take into account the depth of the issues and the protestors’ rejection of the government and greater political system, risks repeating the mistakes in responding to the Arab Uprisings in 2011. So, what can the international community (especially donor countries which are sustaining the government) do in such circumstances without infringing on the country’s sovereignty and inadvertently tainting the grassroots reputation of the movement in Lebanon?
What Makes This Uprising Unique
Answering that question requires closely examining the uniqueness of the moment. Lebanon has experienced numerous popular movements in its modern history, but none as distinctly focused on re-hauling the entire system like the current protests.
Most notably, in 2005, after the assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, hundreds of thousands mobilized in the nation’s capital to demand justice for the assassination and the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. The movement, dubbed the Cedar Revolution, generally focused on the withdrawal of the Syrian presence in Lebanon; intentionally steering clear from challenging the main political elites and families in Lebanon, known as the zu’ama. If anything, the Cedar Revolution saw the reinstating of controversial civil war figures with strong patronage networks in the country, like the current President Michel Aoun who was in exile in France, and the leader of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, who was released from prison.
The Cedar Revolution, bolstered by international pressure from the governments of France and the United States, succeeded in securing the withdrawal of Syrian troops. It did not, however, lead to a liberation of the economy or political system from traditional elites. Divisions between the main political parties regarding their relationship with Syria fueled a zero-sum polarization of the country into two main camps: the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition and the pro-Syrian March 8 coalition. In between these two camps, alliances switched between different members, underscoring the significant influence of personalities in Lebanon’s political system and the very visible prioritization of personal ambitions over political, economic, or social agendas.
Unlike the March 14 and March 8 protests, the current thawra has not thus far experienced such cleavages. Additionally, the ongoing protests are decentralized, with large numbers also mobilizing outside of the capital city and in regions that have historically been either strongholds of March 8 or March 14 coalitions. The unity and decentralization of the protests points to the collective anger and disillusionment with the governing system, as well as the specific condemnation of each of the dominating parties and their leaders. There are no exceptions; no political parties or their leaders have been spared from accusations of corruption, mismanagement, and hegemony. These dynamics represent a historic opportunity for the building of a sustainable, inclusive, and grassroots-led democracy.
The Government’s Response
Despite the energy of the ongoing protests, the government shows little signs of conceding its power. Initially, Prime Minister Saad Hariri evaded the issue of his resignation, proposing instead a three-day grace period for the government to discuss economic reforms that he believed would adequately address the grievances of protesters. His proposal offered lipstick reforms like supporting calls for early elections (without agreeing to resign or take appropriate measures to reform the voting system designed to preserve the political hold of elites in the country), cutting the salaries of ministers by 50 percent, and relying on the central bank and banking sector to reduce the country’s deficit.
In no uncertain terms, Hariri’s package was universally denounced by demonstrators. Perhaps it is the rejection of Hariri’s reform package that best exemplifies the dangers of framing the current protests as a knee-jerk response to tough austerity measures. The heart of the issue is that a significant portion of the population no longer trusts the elites, ministers, and party leaders to either honor their pledges, implement any serious reforms, or govern the country into the future. In short, the revolution is challenging and contesting the legitimacy of the government.
The grassroots movement is thus likely unwilling to accept anything short of a complete and comprehensive re-hauling of the country’s political infrastructure—from its reliance on sectarianism, to the gerrymandering of voting districts and adoption of voting laws laced with hidden technicalities specifically engineered to favor the political collations of the zu’ama, among other structural barriers that have cemented the control of the ruling class and hindered previous democratization efforts.
How the International Community Can Support
While any changes to the country’s political system should be determined by the Lebanese themselves, the international community can play a role in ensuring a successful and stable transition. The question is whether donor countries will support the protesters challenging the illiberal order or the existing government. This is a critical question, as it is unlikely that the current government would be able to sustain itself, or its political clout, without continued economic aid and foreign direct investment from donor countries.
Lebanon’s dependence on foreign aid is particularly concerning as it is suffering from one of the world’s largest national debt ratios and is on the verge of a calamitous economic crisis. Well aware of the dependency of the Lebanese government on this aid and its alarming national debt level, donors who gathered last year in Paris at the Conférence économique pour le développement (CEDRE) and pledged around $11 billion, have largely conditioned its receipt on austerity measures to cut the country’s negative balance.
At this point, economic austerity will do little to remedy the corruption issues and deficits of trust between the people and the government. The Lebanese government has been unable and unwilling to use public funds to seriously invest in the country’s public infrastructure. Protesters have lamented the abysmal state of public services—be it public transportation, the healthcare sector, the insurance industry, the preservation of cultural and historic landmarks, the protection of environmental grounds and waters, public education, waste and sewage management, internet services, or gas and electricity. While the government and ruling elite continue to present themselves as the vanguards of stability, the massive trash crisis (that has yet to be properly resolved) and the recent environmental crisis underscore the scale of the problem and the inability of the government to meet the needs of the people. As new research into the country’s record of governance and public services puts it: “Lebanon’s ruling class seemed to have perfected the art of not governing… Old and new faces stand united to accomplish one goal: stay in power as cheaply as possible, at the expense of any aspirations toward broader prosperity.”
Again, foreign aid, especially following the CEDRE conference, is likely the last lifeline of this government. Faced with the reality of continuing to support a government the people clearly mistrust, perhaps there is an opportunity for international donors to support nationwide calls for the formation of a new government, the launching of free and fair elections, and a revamping of the entire political system. Donor countries and the broader international community can both pressure and encourage the Lebanese government to respect and comply with protesters’ demands for them to step down and dismantle the elite-controlled and sectarian electoral system. The approach during the Cedar Revolution—with diplomatic support from Washington and Paris and United Nations resolution 1559—is instructive in this regard.
The UN could support by providing an independent team to monitor any elections and safeguard the implementation of necessary democratic procedures. Relatedly, donors could adjust conditions for aid packages, loans, and foreign direct investment to incorporate improved transparency mechanisms tailored to curbing political corruption and encouraging national spending aimed at strengthening public institutions, uplifting deprived areas and neglected populations, and reducing wealth disparities in the country. If possible, future stimulus packages could be conditioned on the formation of a new government, following the above recommendations.
To circumvent any attempts to frame the revolutionary movement as being overrun by foreign meddling or being hijacked by “international exploitation,” it is important to remember that it is the government in Lebanon that is tied to international aid and dependent on foreign governments, not the protesters decrying its illegitimacy. Any action taken by these international donors is not about courting interventionist liberation; it is about donors reevaluating how their aid and diplomatic support is sustaining a corrupt and broken political system.
A final role that the larger international community can play, especially the UN, is protecting the safety and freedom of demonstrators. There already are reports of human rights abuses and the detention of protesters by security forces have been documented. As the protests endure with little resolution between the government and demonstrators, reports of violence towards protesters by security forces as well as non-state groups suspected to be affiliated with the governing political parties continue to grow. International pressure to allow peaceful protests will go far in reducing human rights violations and protecting civilians from intimidation and harassment, facilitating the release of anyone detained for protesting, and safeguarding the public’s fundamental right to assembly, free speech, and political expression.
A New Partner for the Future
To be clear, Lebanon shows no indication of following a similar trajectory to Muammar Qaddafi in Libya or the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Its political system is very different, and it is unlikely that a nationwide military crackdown by the army would take place in the country. It would, therefore, be wrong to try and frame the current uprising in Lebanon as a carbon copy of protests in Egypt, Libya, or Syria, or to downplay them as a mere response to harsh austerity measures.
The one parallel that needs to be drawn with the Arab Uprisings in 2011 is the collapse in legitimacy of the political system. There can and will be no return to the previous status quo. Certainly, the struggle for Lebanon’s future is one that will primarily be determined by Lebanese actors. Recognizing the sovereignty of Lebanon and respecting the grassroots character of the ongoing protests does not mean, however, that the international community has no role to play. Donor countries are already involved through their aid and support, and concrete steps to curb that support in favor of efficient, fair, or democratic governance will go far in forcing the government to concede. Ultimately, however, the diverse, inclusive, and resilient movement consolidating across Lebanon has demonstrated that it is the only partner that can bring together all the country’s citizens and chart a path to greater stability, justice, security, and a sustainable future.
Fadi Nicholas Nassar holds a PhD from the War Studies Department at King’s College London.