The country is entering the second week of an uprising over inadequate public services, endemic corruption and painful austerity measures, despite the government's adoption of an emergency reform plan.
On Tuesday, Lebanese citizens rallied nationwide for the sixth day in the biggest wave of anti-government protests in years amid widespread frustration at deep-seated corruption and austerity measures.
Protesters have kept the country on lockdown blocking main roads and many banks, schools, universities and local businesses have remained shut.
Hundreds of thousands have taken the streets all over Lebanon since last Thursday, after new taxes were announced including a $6 per month levy on WhatsApp and other mobile messaging applications. Although the tax was scrapped, rallying crowds have grown steadily with demonstrators turning their attention to wider grievances with the government, most crucially corruption, embezzlement and poor public services.
“The WhatsApp tax was the straw that broke the camel's back,” Lina Mounzer, a Lebanese writer, uttered in shock. “We pay for electricity and water twice, we don’t have healthcare, hospitals won’t let you in unless you pay huge sums upfront, students cannot pay the high university tuition fees, there are no public spaces, there’s no room to breathe. And now you’re going to tax us on WhatsApp?”
Returning from protests on the main Martyrs' Square in Beirut, on Monday, the writer described the atmosphere as “exhilarating” with people spanning “all cross-sections of society” side by side in a country where political movements and their supporters are normally divided along sectarian lines.
“What’s happening is beautiful, I just get emotional thinking about it,” she exclaimed. Protesters are explicitly saying they have had enough of the sectarian system ruling their lives, she explained, though they are well aware it is an “impossible stranglehold to get out from under”.
Lebanon has long had a political system designed to balance power between the country's main religious groups.
Well before the proposed tax on WhatsApp, discontent had built up after an austere budget was passed by parliament in July. The state budget, aimed at reducing the country’s inflated deficit, was met with criticism for mostly curtailing public spending and raising taxes while failing to address structural problems. Measures included cuts in public-sector wages, salaries and pensions.
“The government is trying to cut a lot of public spending while big chunks of the population rely on public sector jobs for living,” Kareem Chehayeb, a Lebanese journalist and human rights researcher, noted. “At the same time, corporate taxes are extremely low and there’s no accountability towards the private sector, banks and their share of taxation.”
He said there were funding cutbacks in many state institutions and the budgets of key ministries are being slashed.
“If they want to cut down the budget, why are they following mechanisms that harm the average citizen rather than the wealthy?” the independent journalist questioned, hinting at the disproportionate burden of the new measures on low-income working people, which is likely to further worsen their living standards.
Furious at a political class that has failed citizens for decades, the Lebanese are united against the ruling elite, which they hold accountable for the dire economic conditions, and remain above the sectarian divides.
The striking feature of these countrywide demonstrations, as observers have noted, is that they have been widespread and spontaneous, not led by any of the parties that have long dominated politics, which explains the size and geographic scope.
Commenting on the protest movement, Graeme Bannerman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute (MEI), highlighted the importance of this large-scale mobilisation. He said: “It’s all over the country, all the communities seem to be participating, it’s a movement of action against the ruling elite.”
He said that dissatisfaction had been growing for a long time as the country is going through “the most serious economic crisis” it has faced since the end of the civil war.
The mass street mobilisation, the largest seen in Lebanon since 2005, prompted Prime Minister Saad Hariri to address the nation on the second day of protests and give his cabinet partners a 72-hour deadline to approve his plan. The main political parties agreed on Sunday to the package of economic reforms proposed by the premier as people gathered in Beirut and other cities on what was said to be the biggest day of rallies.
In an effort to defuse public anger, the government announced on Monday the long-delayed set of reforms that include halving the generous salaries of ministers and politicians, a programme of privatisations, and a decision to scrap new tax hikes.
Demonstrators siad the reform package was not enough, demanding all the politicians to step down and expressing distrust and frustration with perceived government corruption.
Many of those gathered chanted "Revolution, revolution" and “We want the fall of the regime" after Hariri's televised announcement.
“People gathering in the streets argue that if the cabinet was able to come up with these reforms in 72 hours, where were they in the last decade or so?” Chehayeb said. “The majority of them want the government to go, they are saying ‘stop buying time and resign’.”
Bannerman expressed great concern about the potential fall-out if the regime fell, foreseeing that the country would likely descend into an even worse crisis. “If the government goes, Lebanon may end up in a big financial crisis while putting an executive back in place”, the MEI scholar said.
On the other hand, he continued: “The Lebanese mobilising are totally fed up with an entire lifetime where an elite has been doing well versus the largest part of the population who hasn’t been able to make ends meets.”
The government committed to implement reforms that would help reduce its debt to secure $11 billion in aid pledged by international donors last year.
Lebanon has one of the world’s heaviest public debt burdens, which accounts for around 150 percent of GDP, as a result of years of economic mismanagement and corruption, pushing the country on the brink of economic collapse.
The Lebanese economy is struggling with a high debt, low growth, and a greatly deteriorated state infrastructure. There are frequent disruptions in electricity and water supplies and rubbish often piles up on the streets. Poverty is rampant, unemployment among the under 35s has hit 37 percent, and wealth is extremely concentrated in the country, with one of the highest levels of inequality in the world.
Ultimately, the ongoing protests are a stance against long-standing corruption, nepotism and privilege.
“People feel they’re giving the government a lot of money, which is being misused, and get nothing in return in terms of public services. So they think what’s the point of paying taxes?” Chehayeb said.