Lebanese Protesters Return to the Street, but Many Are Looking for a Way Out

Since last year's hopeful demonstrations, Lebanon's crises have only compounded, and droves of young people are seeking brighter futures outside their homeland

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A burning protest symbol after a demonstration denouncing the naming of Saad Hariri as a potential candidate as the country's new prime minister, Beirut, October 21, 2020.
A burning protest symbol after a demonstration denouncing the naming of Saad Hariri as a potential candidate as the country's new prime minister, Beirut, October 21, 2020. Credit: AP Photo/Hussein Malla
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“We are the generation of October 17,” protesters declared when they took to the streets of Beirut on Saturday to mark a year since the outbreak of stormy 2019 demonstrations. Hundreds of people were injured and arrested, major confrontations ensued among security forces, Hezbollah supporters and frustrated young people, at the end of which the government of Saad Hariri fell, and Lebanon was left without a functioning government after two successive prime ministers failed to establish a government.

On Thursday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun tasked former prime minister Saad Hariri with forming a government. There is still no agreement as to how he will extricate Lebanon from the most severe crisis it has known since the civil war. The demonstrators turned the anniversary of the protest into a day of reckoning and accounting for failures and successes.

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On social and traditional media, hundreds of pieces were published expressing the frustration and despair that anything will change for the better in a country half of whose citizens live at or below the poverty line. In the success column, writers marked the toppling of the Hariri government, the unity of the protests that crossed religious and ethnic lines, the ages and gender of protesters, and the artistic creativity that flourished during the protests. The mockery and joy that came out during the period of the protests were hailed as an effective weapon.

“The joke of a government took down its own self-image and the sanctity of its symbols,” wrote Ziyad Tobeh on the website Daraj: “It’s true that we don’t have statues of leaders in the streets that we can smash, but the jokes fill their place.” In one quip, from the razor-sharp humor of the actor Ziyad Itani, who was arrested in the past for collaboration with Israel, he writes: “The protests and the blockages of roads are what caused the trains in Lebanon to shut down [Lebanon hardly has any trains], the cancellation of the launch of the satellite Cedar 3 and a reduction in the manufacture of Lebanese electronic equipment intended for export to Japan.”

Lebanese protesters rally to mark the one year anniversary of the beginning of a nationwide anti-government protest movement, in front of the devastated port of the capital Beirut, October 17, 2020.Credit: Anwar Amro/ AFP

In a more serious tone, columnist Josef Abou Fadel responded to Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces party, who tweeted: “We are with the revolution until it reaches its goals.” Fadel berated the veteran politician: "How are you suddenly with the revolution? After all, you have been a member of all the Lebanese governments since 2005,” he wrote.

Caricatures mocking the elite and political leaders flooded Twitter accounts and Facebook, and slogans were spray-painted onto the walls of public buildings read: “Everyone means everyone.” That is, get rid of the entire leadership and leave no one. “Where is the economy that ate up people’s savings and took their livelihoods. Where is the economic plan and who stopped its implementation? Where are the development plans and the investments,” people asked in film clips posted this week online, in which young men and women appear, students, lectures, lawyers and ordinary people, who lamented their devastated future and told of their plan to emigrate from Lebanon.

A protester sprays graffiti beneath the "October 17 torch" during a demonstration marking the one year anniversary of the beginning of a nationwide anti-government protest movement on October 17, 2020Credit: Anwar Amro/ AFP

According to a survey this month in Lebanon, more than 77 percent of those asked said they were starting the process of leaving the country or seriously thinking about it, more than in any other Arab country. On Facebook and Twitter, young people are asking about options for emigration, language tests, how to convert university diplomas to requirements in other countries. Official figures speak of a shrinking of the middle class from 57 percent last year to 40 percent this year. That is the class that is meant to spark the economy, and it is disappearing.

President Aoun also tried to take advantage of the protest anniversary to earn some political credit and settle scores with his critics and with the leadership that he described as "responsible for the damage done to Lebanon for decades and some of whom are still in control and act as in the past. These are the leaders that spoke in fine but empty slogans. These were disappearing promises that the Lebanese people saw no achievement from, promises that destroyed the present and the future and our stability.”

The speech, however, jarred with the protest movement leaders' understanding of the crisis. For them, Aoun is the person to blame. “This is a manifestation of Aoun’s cowardice, his weakness and his ineffectiveness,” one person tweeted right after the speech. Lebanon, and not only Lebanon, had expected to hear something concrete, at least an announcement of the name of the candidate for prime minister. But he made do with a general statement that he: “would continue consultations and I don’t rule out anyone.”

These remarks left the door open for Hariri’s subsequent designation as candidate for prime minister, despite differences with Jubran Basil, Aoun’s son-in-law. Basil was foreign minister in Hariri’s government and was one of the leading causes of its collapse. But even though the president tasked Hariri to form a government again, he will face the same difficulties as the previous candidates, whose efforts ended in failure.

Will this wind up being a government of technocrats or a government of ethnicity, as past governments have been in Lebanon? Will Hezbollah be a direct partner or will it play a role by assigning “expert” representatives to the cabinet? Will a prime minister be able to choose their cabinet ministers or will they be forced to appoint certain people?

Based on past experience the process of building a government can go on for many long months, time which Lebanon can’t afford right now. It must present an authorized government within a short period in order to begin to receive promised aid money, including a loan from the International Monetary Fund and to implement economic reforms to justify the receipt such loans. Any delay would cost Lebanon tens of millions of dollars a day due to the shutdown of the port of Beirut that was destroyed in the August blast in which about 200 people died and 300,000 were left homeless, as well as the accumulating interest on unpaid loans.

A protester holds a placard reading "Saad don't dream on it any more," denouncing the naming of former PM Saad Hariri as a potential candidate as the new prime minister, Beirut, October 21, 2020.Credit: AP/Hussein Malla

Added to these woes is tremendous public debt estimated at more than $100 billion and the erosion of foreign currency reserves, the freezing of imports and dramatic reduction in production due to the inability to import raw material, and an accumulative debt for public workers whose salaries have been delayed for months.

On the anniversary of the mass demonstrations, the protest movements have issued a new flag with the slogan “We Shall Continue,” in other words: the streets are destined to explode anew. But it appears that just like in Israel, the protest movements know what they want but not how to get new leaders. In Lebanon, they have at least succeeded in toppling government, but with each such instance they find themselves in deeper crisis and with the same elites from the same wealth and power structure. For now, it seems as though they can’t be uprooted.

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