Lebanese protesters demand overthrow of broken system

Beirut blasts convince more and more that they live in a failed state

 Anti-government protesters rally in Beirut, Lebanon. Photograph: Nabil Mounzer/EPA

Anti-government protesters rally in Beirut, Lebanon. Photograph: Nabil Mounzer/EPA

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Lebanese citizens have again rallied in central Beirut to protest after the explosions at the city’s port that destroyed entire quarters of the capital at a time of acute political and economic crisis. The protesters have taken up an Arab Spring slogan: “The people want the fall of the regime.”

They demand not only the ousting of the ruling class, but the uprooting of the divisive and corrupt sectarian system of governance imposed by France before independence in 1943.

Beirutis of all backgrounds and creeds joined in the monumental task following the explosions of clearing rubble from the city’s streets, shops and homes and aiding the injured and elderly and people with disabilities. Volunteer Husam Abu Nasr told Agence France-Presse: “We don’t have a state to take these steps, so we took matters into our own hands.”

This labour in itself amounted to a form of protest against politicians accused of mismanagement, graft and neglect.

Failed state

Tuesday’s devastating blasts have convinced an increasing number of Lebanese people that they live in a failed state and their only salvation is to protest until the political elite is ousted and made accountable, the sectarian system is abolished, a new electoral law is enacted and fresh elections are held.

Activists argue that a revolution is required.

According to Lebanon’s “national pact”, the president must be a Maronite Catholic Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the parliamentary speaker a Shia.

Ministries and posts at all governmental and administrative levels are allocated to figures from faith communities who depend on and service patronage networks. Clientelism and corruption permeate politics, banking, commerce, industry and public and private institutions in the country.

During his visit on Thursday to Beirut, French president Emmanuel Macron promised no aid money will “end up in corrupt hands”. Chatham House expert Lina Khatib told CNN that such foreign support must be conditioned on “transparency and accountability” and said Lebanese people want funds funnelled through non-governmental and international organisations.

Protest flashpoint

Last October, thousands of Lebanese launched a largely peaceful protest movement in Beirut which quickly spread countrywide, with the impoverished northern port city of Tripoli becoming a flashpoint.

Prime minister Saad Hariri subsequently stepped down in January and was replaced by Hassan Diab, whose task was to form a technocratic government, initiate reforms and secure financial aid to rescue Lebanon’s bankrupt banks and halt the downward slide of the economy.

International donors had previously pledged $11 billion if Lebanon initiates key reforms and tackles corruption. Donors warn that there will be no money until these demands are met.

Fearing the loss of their grip on power if even modest reforms are carried out, and losing their freedom if corruption is prosecuted, Lebanese politicians have procrastinated. The economic crisis has deepened. The Lebanese currency has lost 80 per cent of its value, while unemployment rose to 35 per cent, and nearly 50 per cent of the populace slipped into poverty.

Demonstrations, interrupted with the advent of Covid-19, resumed in April. They intensified, and defied Covid-19 lockdowns and curfews. Activists attempted a sit-in at the energy ministry to protest against daily power outages only hours before the explosions cut electricity to most of Beirut.

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