In the past, demonstrations have typically been concentrated in Beirut and have never simultaneously encompassed every region. The 2005 protests, for example, that ended the Syrian occupation were restricted to the capital. Similarly, demonstrations in 2011 and 2015 were helmed by civil society movements drawn heavily from the Beirut middle and upper classes. So what explains the spread of the current protests throughout the country?
Who is protesting?
This month’s protests, in contrast with those in the past, include large numbers of working-class Lebanese from outside the capital who support establishment parties and figures. Demonstrations have extended into Tripoli, where some of the country’s wealthiest Sunni elites compete fiercely for votes; and Saida, where Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement maintains high support. Protests also erupted in the southern cities of Nabatiyeh and Tyre, strongholds for the two largest Shiite political parties, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. Unrest in these regions is surprising given prior intolerance for criticism of party leaders Hasan Nasrallah and Nabih Berri, yet the latter has even been called out by name as a “thief.”
While unprecedented, these protests have deep local roots. The Lebanese government has long treated its urban periphery with heightened financial neglect. Party-sponsored clientelism has traditionally shored up governance pitfalls by funding and administering social services such as health care, education and even local infrastructure. To dissent means risking being cut off from crucial party-provided services or punished through violence and social sanction. People are taking to the streets despite these risks.
How decades of neglect bred dissent in Lebanon’s periphery
After the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990, the government concentrated its reconstruction efforts on Beirut and neglected other areas. Research indicates that the postwar government devoted an overwhelming portion of public expenditures to the greater Beirut region. Even the country’s rolling power outages — a key grievance cited by protesters — disproportionately affect the periphery. While Beirut sees roughly three hours of planned outages per day, residents of most other regions experience upward of 12 hours, forcing them to rely even more heavily on privately owned generators.
Concentration of resources within Beirut leaves other cities unable to attract the investment needed to combat rising urban poverty. In Tripoli’s district, about 46 percent of city residents live under a poverty line of $4 per day, compared with a 29 percent national average. A six-year violent conflict from 2008 to 2014 led to a huge hit to Tripoli’s economy from which it’s still struggling to recover. Christiana Parreira’s fieldwork in the city indicates that state investment following the violence was minimal, substituted with international aid and elite-sponsored patronage organizations like Azem Wa Saada, run by former prime minister Najib Mikati.
South Lebanon, meanwhile, was once one of the poorest regions in the country, but it saw significant postwar development due to party patronage in the form of employment, education and health care. Kelly Stedem’s fieldwork shows that Hezbollah members, for example, receive health-care services at as low as 10 percent of the cost of nonmembers in Nabatiyeh. Amal, on the other hand, has primarily co-opted state institutions like the Council of the South as its own. In both cases, access to these services is mostly reserved for members or supporters. That people are protesting mainstream elites and parties is even more powerful given their role in everyday governance.
Local roots of backlash against political establishment
Common threads of dissent unite protesters across Lebanon, but their roots also differ across cities. In some areas, critiques center on neglect and corruption, while in others, complaints relate to the heavy-handed nature of parties’ presence. In Tripoli, lack of consensus on key issues between powerful elites has resulted in paralysis, with the mayor and vice mayor ousted this July in a vote of no-confidence. In the absence of a functional waste management facility, a mountain of trash towering over the city stands to collapse into the sea and cause an environmental catastrophe.
In other areas, protests represent a backlash against parties that make access to basic public services contingent on loyalty. In Saida, Prime Minister Hariri’s Future Movement has had a virtual lock on city politics since 2010. While the local government is generally well-regarded, Parreira’s work shows that residents also associate it with corrupt practices that drain the central state. Contracts given to private companies to provide municipal services, for example, are alleged to be allotted on the basis of political favoritism, rewarding elites in the process.
Nabatiyeh and Tyre, meanwhile, have been tightly controlled by Hezbollah and Amal since the civil war. Stedem’s research demonstrates that support for these parties is intimately tied to security, as Southern Lebanese view Hezbollah as their primary protection against foreign aggression. The presence of security threats, and these parties’ claim to protect supporters from those threats, has previously quashed most criticism of the parties. Yet Southern Lebanese are increasingly concerned with their shrinking economic opportunities and, like Saida, are beginning to tie local parties — arguably the most powerful in the country — to government incompetence.
Where will the protests in urban centers lead?
Hariri has promised reforms including levying a tax on banks, slashing ministerial salaries, revitalizing the crippled electricity sector, and discarding the Ministry of Information. These are not, however, satisfying protesters’ demands; many argue that decades of inaction cannot be reversed within a month. Throughout the country, however, people are poorer, and going back to work may become more of a priority. Counter-protests, seen already in South Beirut and Nabatiyeh, may also disrupt anti-systemic energy.
Whether mobilization will continue is a separate question. Regardless, these protests have laid the groundwork for an opposition to Lebanon’s political establishment that is united across both class and sect. And it’s happening on a nationwide scale, a critical indicator of the potential for long-anticipated political change.
Christiana Parreira is a PhD candidate in political science at Stanford University and a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative.
Kelly Stedem is a PhD candidate in the politics department at Brandeis University and the Crown Center for Middle East Studies.