What's going on in Lebanon?

  • 25 Oct 2019

A week-long anti-government demonstrations pushed the country's president to offer negotiations, which were turned down by the protesters.

An anti-government protest in downtown Beirut on Monday ( Reuters )

Located on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean between Israel and Syria, Lebanon gained its independence from France in 1943. Despite being one of the smallest countries in the region, it has played a crucial role in shaping the politics, trade and security of the region. 

It has a young population with a median age of 31 and comprises a diverse range of ethnic and religious groups. 

Lebanon has overcome a crisis after crisis since its independence from French colonialism. It was also embroiled in years of civil war which ended in 1990. Ever since the country focussed on fixing its economy.

Although Lebanon is apparently one of the most stable countries in the Middle East —  as it holds the reputation of being the highest debt-to-GDP ratio owning country— in reality, it still struggles to provide the most basic needs such as potable water, electricity, health care and education.

Demonstrators wave flags in southern Lebanese city of Sidon on October 18.(AFP)

Political Situation

Lebanon has been dealing with the impacts of massive refugee inflows in the past few years. High levels of violence in neighbouring Syria and economic pressures stemming from structural imbalances and lack of infrastructure has prevented the country from addressing growing social concerns, such as income inequality, corruption, unemployment and job losses.  

According to the World Bank, Lebanon has borne the brunt of Syrian crisis with 200,000 Lebanese being pushed into poverty. There are at least 1 million people living in poor conditions in the country and the number is likely to reach 1.2 million by next year.  At least 250,000 to 300,000 Lebanese citizens are estimated to have become unemployed in the last five years, and most of them are unskilled youth. 

Growing public anger morphing into countrywide protests 

The demonstrations began last week when the government announced new taxes, including a $6 monthly fee on calls on free messaging apps such as WhatsApp. 

Lebanese voters initially demanded that the government revoke the “WhatsApp tax”. But the demonstrations quickly outgrew their genesis and became indicators of mass dissatisfaction with the Lebanese ruling elite.

In a Twitter thread about income inequality in Lebanon based on her research paper, economist Lydia Assouad notes that "the top 1 percent richest adults receives approximately a quarter of the total national income, placing Lebanon among the most unequal countries in the World." She adds “the bottom 50 percent of the population is left with 10 percent of total national income.”

Assouad sums it up by saying, “Lebanon's protests can largely be explained by the extremely high levels of inequality in the country.”

A Lebanese woman holds up a sign demanding that the country's ruling elites pay up on the sixth day of protests in Zouk Mosbeh, north of Beirut, on Tuesday(AFP)

What do Lebanese protesters want?

The proposed tax hikes on phone calls on free apps such as WhatsApp has been shelved, but that has not been enough to satisfy protesters. 

The Lebanese  protesters are hopeful. Speaking to media, as he films volunteers cleaning up the streets on his mobile phone, Suheil Hamdan, 49, says "This is where corrupt lawmakers and ministers in our country belong -- in the bin bags," a cap on his head to keep off the sun.

I won't leave the street until all our corrupt lawmakers and ministers are in prison," he adds.

Apparently, the protests have taken the form of anti-governmental remonstrance. 

The Lebanese army clashed Wednesday with protesters(AA)

The political reaction

Lebanese President Michel Aoun stated his will to meet protesters yesterday to find "best solutions" for the country’s current crises. He also offered a change in the government. 

"My call to demonstrators: I am ready to meet your representatives that carry your concerns to listen to your specific demands. You will hear from us about our fears over financial collapse," the president said. 

"Dialogue is always the best for salvation. I am waiting for you."

Although the president struck reconciliatory tone, he has kept insisting on arguing that the government could not be toppled from the streets while he was referring to a reshuffle in the government. 

The president's offer was rejected by the groups who gathered in central Beirut on Thursday. 

The future of negotiations looks bleak as protesters want the ruling party to resign from power.