In Lebanon, people power dictates conditions on ruling elite


Lebanon’s political mosaic is crumbling, and the long-standing taboos are now fair game for millions of Lebanese of all sects who have taken to the streets demanding the “overthrow” of the president, the government and the lawmakers. The oligarchy that has ruled over Lebanon for decades, while overseeing the plundering of the state’s resources and the immiseration of its citizens, is now under siege.

And what started as spontaneous, initially violent, protests against unfair taxes and failing economy has become a popular censure of a dysfunctional system. Now the protests have turned into a peaceful and democratic festival where men and women, young and old, Muslim and Christian, Sunni, Shiite and Druze from all over this small but diverse country celebrate their unity as Lebanese and not as followers of rival sects and ethnicities.

Not since the Cedar Revolution of 2005, when people revolted against decades-old Syrian presence following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, have the Lebanese demonstrated such rare sense of unity. This time, the uprising has spread from Beirut to Tripoli in the north, to Sidon and Tyre in the south and even to Nabatieh, the heart of Hizbollah’s grass-root base.

Lebanon’s ruling overlords were taken by surprise, opting to blame others for failing to carry out economic reforms. Head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Jaajaa, called on Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign and later ordered his cabinet members to quit the government. Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze community, called for dialogue and hinted that his ministers will also quit before changing his mind. Hizbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, whose ministers have a majority in the 30-member cabinet, warned Hariri against resigning and threatened to let his followers take over the streets. The popular response was unnerving: Nasrallah was booed by cheering protestors who chanted: All of them means all; Nasrallah is one of them!

His ally, President Michel Aoun, had little to say to the protestors. Beleaguered Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, who, along with his wife, is accused of wide-scale corruption, vowed to hear the protestors’ demands, but not before letting his Amal Movement goons attack demonstrators in Tyre and Sidon. Foreign Minister and Aoun’s son-in-law, Jubran Basil, initially accused the protestors of fulfilling a foreign agenda. He became the centre of people’s wrath and ridicule.
Not a single leading politician was spared the public criticism. People were demanding the removal of the entire political elite that has ruled over its respective fiefdoms against a decorative façade of state institutions. People were fed up with massive corruption, cronyism, a sectarian-based political system, unemployment, especially among youth, rise in the cost of living and failing public services, among others. They wanted more than the resignation of top officials; they wanted them to return plundered funds and stand trial.

For three decades, since the signing of the Taif agreement in 1989, which put forward a power-sharing set-up among Lebanon’s various sects under a quota system, the country of about four million had become hostage to a self-serving oligarchy that shared not only political power, but accumulated wealth from public utilities and national resources. Today, Lebanon’s foreign debt has passed the $85 billion mark, and its economy survives only because of a strong banking system and remittances from more than 14 million Lebanese in the diaspora.

Since its independence from France in 1943, this small country of 10,000 square kilometers wedged between Syria and Palestine has seen more than its fair share of regional and foreign meddling, civil strife and military interventions, against a backdrop of deepening sectarian and political rivalries. The civil war (1975-1990) was punctuated by the Israeli invasion of 1982, which resulted in internal polarisation, massacres against the Palestinians and the eventual departure of the Palestine Liberation Organisation from Lebanon.

The rise of Shiite resistance, first through Amal and later Hizbollah, became a major game changer in internal Lebanese politics. Hizbollah’s Iranian connection and its heavily armed militia have led to the organisation’s growing manipulation of various local players, finally resulting in its hegemony over the political system as is the case today.
Lebanon’s contribution to the Arab world in the form of culture, progressive political ideas, media, music and art, cuisine and business is unique. The ongoing protests, colourful, daring and largely peaceful, will undoubtedly inspire economically driven protests in the region. We have seen variant examples of that in Sudan, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan. But as the political elite scurries to find a compromise that might calm the street, which seems unlikely to work, the challenge is to save Lebanon from chaos and collapse.

Hariri may be forced to resign, paving the way for an interim government of non-partisan experts to prepare for new general elections. That is what the public wants, but some overlords will resist and opt to fight for their survival rather than succumb to the emerging people power!

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman


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