Since Thursday night, Lebanon has witnessed one of the largest countrywide protests in recent history. Major highways and roads across the country have been blocked with burning tires. The streets of Beirut’s lavish downtown district — often a symbol of the country’s rampant wealth inequality — are filled with shattered glass and tear-gas canisters. Unlike mass protest movements in the past against the government, these protest appear to be extremely spontaneous.
A significant amount of media coverage has minimized these protests as solely a response to a cabinet decision to charge people $6 a month for WhatsApp phone calls to generate some $250 million annually to balance the budget. Entertaining as this may sound, it leaves a huge part of the story out of the picture.
People in Lebanon have been gritting their teeth for almost a year after the government announced that austerity measures would be inevitable to save the country’s flailing economy. These reforms would also unlock a pledged $11 billion in loans and grants from the international community.
Lebanon, often inaccurately seen as a rare exception of stability in the region, has one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world and continues to struggle to provide the most basic of services, including electricity, potable water, and adequate public health care and education. While many cope by paying extra for additional services, those who can’t afford to do ask politicians for money, loans or services in exchange for loyalty at the ballot box. Following a brutal 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, patchwork measures, including a currency peg to the U.S. dollar, are still in place to this day. This is the context for the frustration witnessed on Lebanon’s streets.
And earlier this week, Lebanon witnessed one of the largest wildfires in its history. Amid the chaos, two people died: a man volunteering to put out the fires in the mountainous Chouf district and a woman who was run over by a fire truck in southern city of Sidon. Lebanon’s three firefighting aircraft were nowhere to be seen, as more than 100 fires raged across the country. The government struggled to contain the fire, relying on riot police water cannons, military helicopters and assistance from nearby Cyprus, Greece and Jordan, as Lebanon reportedly hasn’t kept its own aircraft maintained in about a decade.
But the real heroes of that catastrophe were volunteer firefighters, who have been urging the Interior Ministry to provide them a salary in recent years, and local initiatives by ordinary people. People from across the country rushed to affected areas with water, food and other essential goods for victims and firefighters, while local establishments housed those who lost their homes.
The somber mood following that natural catastrophe morphed into anger over the government’s sluggish response and what they say is negligence. Scientists say the forests that adorned Lebanon’s mountainous terrain could take a few decades to resemble what they once were.
If the Lebanese government is cutting its budget due to wasteful spending but unable to guarantee basic services that protect the most economically vulnerable communities or Lebanon’s natural riches, then where is the money going? That’s a conversation many in Lebanon have been having and speculating about for decades, with journalists and activists alike paying the price for trying to dig deeper into corruption allegations through interrogations and trials.
Patience wears thin. In addition to budget cuts impacting ministries, pensions of public-sector workers and even Lebanon’s only public university, the government has pushed for a series of regressive taxation measures, compounding economic woes. Other measures, such as progressive income taxes, have been out of the question, with a government made up of wealthy business magnates, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a billionaire.
This is why many were outraged after court documents from South Africa revealed last month that he spent some $16 million to cover up an affair in Seychelles back in 2013. Many unpaid workers in his construction and media companies were particularly furious, viewing this as a slap in the face. This week, there has been plenty of reason for all of this brewing outrage to come to a head.
Lebanon’s government, a semi-democracy based on a sectarian power-sharing system, has resorted to all sorts of measures to win votes and quell dissent, from bribes and free dinners to sectarian discourse in order to exploit post-civil war trauma. But like with their economic policy in recent decades, how long can Lebanese leaders keep this up?