And while Hariri is seeking international support for the reforms, protesters are calling for his government to step down. That’s because protesters see the suggested reforms as just minor tweaks to the status quo, and they have reached a point where they are aggressively challenging the failed economic systems that have governed Lebanon for decades. They don’t seem willing to accept less than major structural change. The question is what move they will make next.
A closer look at Hariri’s proposed reforms and why they won’t work
Most of Hariri’s proposed reforms would be implemented by current ministers and their staff, who have an interest in the status quo. The people are aware of this and no longer trust the system. In fact, recent Arab Barometer findings indicate that less than 20 percent of Lebanese trust government institutions, and 96 percent believe that corruption is endemic. The only institution that respondents reported trusting, at a level of 86 percent, was the military.
Some of the proposals could have been implemented long before 2 million people took to the streets. For example, Hariri has suggested reducing current ministers’ and parliamentarians’ salaries — among the highest in the world — by 50 percent. Even with this cut, government officials would remain comparatively well remunerated and have accumulated wealth to rely upon. A cartoon satirizes the concession: “Lebanese Minister burns $1.4 million dollar Rolex watch to protest the new 50% salary cuts.” (It actually shows his maid holding the burning watch as private bodyguards protect him.) Protesters have used suggestions such as this one to highlight the system’s shortcomings rather than accepting them as evidence of potential change.
For demonstrators, government salaries are a symptom of a deeper issue: extraction by elites of public resources and funds via government positions. Although Lebanon has almost no public transport and — since the 1990s — no functioning trains, the government budgets $8.46 million annually for the Public Transport and Railway Administration. Current politicians and their families own about a third of Lebanese banks and approximately 85 percent of national debt. Each public interest payment further enriches the political class.
Other proposals in the reform package focus on recovering looted money, protecting whistleblowers, and creating a national anti-corruption commission. Yet people are suspicious. The government has previously pacified public demand by creating a commission to investigate the fate of those missing during the civil war. Officials, however, stacked the commission with individuals who were responsible for the acts under investigation, making the investigation itself futile.
Protesters’ slogans speak for themselves
One slogan widely shared on social media says: “I want God, not their party. I want hope, not movements. I want strength, not forces. I want national sentiment, not Syria. I want books, not battalions. I want progress, not socialism.” The sign plays on each Lebanese political party’s name and portrays the parties as the antithesis to what people want.
None of the government demands address these simple messages, which underscore protesters’ targeting of a system they see as exploitative and debasing.
“All of you means all of you,” another broadly used slogan, emphasizes that Lebanon’s problems are not about salaries per se, but rather about the parties themselves and a system of institutionalized excess. Destroying party billboards in the southern city of Sour and writing graffiti on banks associated with elite families spotlight the general sentiment that party leaders almost always share priorities with each other rather than with the people who vote for them (or choose not to vote).
The government’s refusal to acknowledge critiques of the confessional system in proposed reforms comes off as tone deaf and self-serving. Demonstrators know, and researchers have demonstrated, that ostensible sectarian tensions in Lebanon are really the product of an institutional system that maintains elites’ dominance, rather than managing mythical “ancient hatreds.”
The reality is that average Lebanese citizens aren’t concerned with Sunnis and Shiites or Muslims and Christians. Rather, they are focused on their everyday survival. A third of the country, technically “middle income” by international standards, lives in poverty. Lebanon notoriously suffers from water and electricity shortages. The unemployment rate for recent graduates is approximately 40 percent. Many are encouraged (or, in dire economic conditions, forced) to rely on party patronage for lack of other options.
The cosmetic nature of Hariri’s proposed reforms has galvanized protesters and strikers. The big question for the coming week is whether they will organize enough to put forward a unified slate of their own suggestions based on a now-unified narrative centered on systemic, structural issues, anti-sectarianism and anti-racism.
Circulating lists extend beyond the government’s superficial proposals, demanding the return of public land from developers, the cessation of interest payments on public debt and the appointment of a transitional government led by technocrats. As a trust-building measure, some activists have suggested that officials return salaries taken between 2013 and 2018 (roughly more than $200 million), following an illegal extension of parliament. Given this starting point, it would, for example, be hugely telling if ministers resigned only to be replaced by members of their parties.
The second big question is whether politicians or party loyalists will attempt to sectarianize or co-opt the protests. Parties currently seem afraid of backlash; on Monday night, both Hezbollah and Amal denied any connection to men on motorcycles who attempted to drive into Marytr’s Square in Beirut with party flags, chanting sectarian slogans. This denial occurred after the men were stopped by members of the Lebanese military, footage that was widely shared on social media.
Finally, the military has informally signaled — via individual soldiers’ dancing with protesters, the halting of men on motorcycles, and what seem like deliberate leaks — that it will not move against protesters. Some demonstrators (and government supporters) have called for the military to step in to run the country, while others have roundly criticized this suggestion, referencing the rest of the region. Without the military, it will be incredibly difficult for the government to dislodge demonstrators, who appear to be in it for the long haul.
Faten Ghosn, holds the Melody S. Robidoux Foundation Fund professorship at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy.
Sarah E. Parkinson is the Aronson assistant professor of political science and international studies at Johns Hopkins University.