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28 October 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:30pm

Lebanon’s people are finally rejecting their country’s entrenched political elite

Widespread protests show the Lebanese people have had enough of the country's suffocating sectarian system of patronage. 

By Abbie Cheeseman

In the midst of the massive anti-government protests that have swept across Lebanon over the past 12 days, bringing over a quarter of the population onto the streets, something unexpected began to play out across the country.

From Tripoli in the north – an impoverished city often dismissed as a hotbed of extremism – to the Hezbollah bastions of the south, people were rising en masse, unafraid and apolitically, across the normally divided country.

Even Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, whose support in the south is normally unquestioned, has been unable to quell local support for the uprisings. On Friday, the charismatic leader of the group popularly known as the “Resistance” disavowed his support for massive anti-government protests – instead throwing his weight behind the political establishment and calling on his supporters to leave the streets.

“The people woke up,” said 18-year-old Rawan immediately after Nasrallah’s speech. In the southern city of Nabatieh, traditionally a Hezbollah stronghold, she explained why she planned to stay in the streets. “There’s so much pressure on people. They can’t take it anymore,” she said. “People renounced parties, they renounced the sectarian system. We came out as one people.”

These protests feel different, said 30-year-old Mustafa, who, along with two of his friends, had bought £250 of food to hand out to protestors. “It’s 2019, our lives don’t work in sectarian ways. We’re best friends, we’re three different religions. We’re showing the government the true face of the country and its citizens by doing this.”

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The political and religious divisions in the country have been decades in the making.

In 1943 religious leaders agreed to divide political power under a “confessional” system, whereby the various political offices and representation in parliament would be allocated along sectarian lines.

The system endured, uncomfortably, until Lebanon’s vicious 15-year civil war. Despite the trauma of the conflict, the agreement that ended the war cemented the sectarian system which has continued ever since.

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Over time, political elites within the state fostered strong patronage networks within sects, strengthening their own power and fortune but gradually eroding both the power of the state and its economy.

However, patronage networks can only function when political elites can offer financial support or jobs to their constituents and recently they have been able to offer neither.

With fuel, bread and dollar shortages causing strikes across what is already one of the most highly indebted countries in the world, much of Lebanon has been living under a blanket of economic suffocation.

The government’s ineffectiveness was further made clear earlier this month when it failed to prepare for devastating wildfires after a hot, dry summer.

Later the same week local media reported the government was proposing a flat tax increase on online call services such as WhatsApp in its 2020 budget. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

After a local activist group posted a call to take to the streets, protestors came out in their thousands. “We’re fighting because we want to work. We don’t have money,” said one young protestor in Beirut on the first night of the protests. “We just want to live.”

Another protester manning a roadblock last Wednesday said he was taking to the streets as, like much of Lebanon’s youth, he had no work. “If you have wasta (political connections), you have work. But I don’t have wasta,” he said.

As the protests developed. Lebanese across the country began coming together under a single flag, demanding a wholesale change at the top of the political establishment.

“For the first time in our history people are expressing their anger not with the green light of their political parties,” said Baria Ahmar, a journalist and activist. Established political parties, she said, “have been robbing the people for 30 or 40 years. But this time, the people will not trust them.”

With financing for patronage networks drying up, Lebanon has seen “the kind of economic conditions that we have not seen in many years, and so the rope just snapped,” said Bassel Salloukh, an associate professor of political science at Lebanese American University.

“The post-war political economy of sectarianism has reached a dead end.”

Though the political elites stubbornly refusing to relinquish their stranglehold on power, those who came out on the streets have already won, argues Salloukh.

“They’ve won because they have achieved something that a sectarian system does not allow, and this is a new imagining of the nation beyond sectarian identities,” he said.

Whether the protests, which are now in their second week, will achieve the overthrow of the government is yet to be seen, but the leaderless movement, for now, is not losing momentum.

Joey, a 27-year-old protestor in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, said he will keep protesting until the government falls. Whether or not that happens, something has changed. “We used to be scared before,” he said. “We’re not scared anymore.”

Abbie Cheeseman is a freelance Middle East reporter based in Beirut
Finbar Anderson is an independent journalist based in Beirut, who was a staff reporter for Lebanon’s Daily Star between 2017 and 2019, and has written for the Daily Telegraph, the Independent and Al Jazeera