I’ve never been so torn in my life. My daughter needed me, but I wanted to join them desperately — not as a journalist but as a citizen. The protests started after the government tried to impose a tax on free WhatsApp calls. But they quickly grew into something larger — an uprising against a corrupt political and economic system only interested in keeping people divided.
I was glued to the TV, listening passionately to the crowd’s chants. I never thought a demonstration could change things, but this was different. Were they chanting “The president’s rule makes the country suffer hunger”? “Down with the government of Saad Hariri, the partner of Michel Aoun”?
Now I could hear them from inside the hospital. First there were hundreds, then thousands, their anger targeted to the banks and their allied politicians. “All of them, all of them, Nasrallah is one of them,” they chanted. “Down with the government of Saad Hariri, the partner of Michel Aoun.”
It was the sound of Beirut breaking one of the biggest political taboos since 1990. They were criticizing Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, whose name is not mentioned without being preceded by “master.”
It did not take too long before the Riad el-Solh Square, in the center of Beirut, went from hosting a mere demonstration to becoming the epicenter of an uprising. I’ve longed for this moment since the end of the civil war in Lebanon.
The nurse at the hospital saw how conflicted I was, so she smiled and said she would look after my daughter so that I could join the uprising. When I got to Riad el-Solh Square, all of Lebanon was there — liberals; leftists; working-class people; university students; followers of Hezbollah and the Amal movement from Dahieh; Sunnis, Druze, Christians.
This is no longer about a tax — this is a revolution against the regime. But beyond that, it’s also a movement against the sectarian political system.
Unlike the wave of demonstrations of the Arab Spring, the Lebanese people who have filled the streets night after night are not revolting against one autocrat or one party. Lebanon is ruled by a system of parties with conflicting interests, but they all agree on one thing: maintaining the sectarian divisions to protect their agendas. The system is toxic, but it ensures the leaders’ control over their followers. These strongmen rule the country — with the help of the powerful banks that have financed them — benefiting from the economy while the middle and lower classes remain divided. This is not new — it’s been the reality since Lebanon’s founding.
It led to a kind of stability and prosperity until 1975, which came at the expense of Muslims, so the situation became explosive. The same system re-emerged after the war, as part of then-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s economic project. The regime’s mechanisms continued to work, but this time at the expense of Christians, who lost the war in 1975. Shiites and the Free Patriotic Movement gained power after the assassination of Hariri. Unlike the years before the civil war and the years of Hariri’s economic boom, there was no economic vision that could maintain the continuity of the sectarian system.
Hezbollah lacks an economic project, and the president’s party has also played a part in driving Lebanon into debt (estimated at 155 percent of gross domestic product). In the absence of an economic vision, sectarian rhetoric has escalated.
Now the country’s resources are depleted because of Hezbollah’s decision to join the war in Syria, and international lenders are demanding payment. The state’s solution? Impose new taxes on the people.
When people are unemployed, hungry and frustrated, sectarianism and patronage are not enough to maintain control. Posters of Rafik Hariri, a Sunni idol, have been torn. Pictures of Aoun, the renowned Christian leader since the ’80s and the country’s president, have been burned. And now feared Hezbollah is also the target of the people’s ire.
There have been promises of reform, but it will be hard to put the system back together. Something new is being born. A nonsectarian Lebanese identity is coming into focus.
I returned to the hospital to be with my daughter at around 3 a.m. The nurse said her temperature increased while I was away. Yet, I did not feel very guilty. Forgive me, my little one. I know she’ll understand. Your mother took to the streets to demand a better future for you.