Lebanon’s Sectarianism Generates Protests

Amidst the Syrian war, the Turkish invasion, and poor political (in)action in the region, people have turned against economic and social injustice. In Egypt, we have seen this recently in the small outbreak of spontaneous protests in major cities. These were quickly shut down, with suspected state-led cyber-attacks intercepting and putting out the spark.

However, in neighbouring Lebanon, the situation is far more different. Large-scale protests took place last time in 2015-2016 with the You Stink movement starting off on the environmental catastrophe and the lack of governmental action to address the waste management and rubbish collection problem, following the country’s main landfill shutting down. These demonstrations, however, were eventually hijacked by sectarian interests and party politics.

Image from AFP| JOSEPH EID

The situation at the moment, however, feels quite different. Last week, it was governmental inaction, once again, that prevented the state from putting out wildfires around the country. Immigration from Syria due to the ongoing war is on the rise, with the existing infrastructure unable to provide shelter and support for refugees and asylum seekers. Simultaneously, the government introduced increased taxation, including a daily WhatsApp fee for Lebanese users.

Image from Al Arabiya English

Breaching Sectarianism

Saad El-Din Rafik Al-Hariri, the current Prime Minister, has constantly appealed to his political rivals to stop blocking governmental action. The presence of a large opposing coalition in parliament blocks motions raised by the government, thus bringing normal state functions to a halt. As such, Hariri’s requests cannot be easily accommodated. He was re-elected in May 2018, though it took him about 9 months to form (or better, give birth to) a government.

This is because of sectarian politics. With the Prime Ministerial post reserved for a Sunni Muslim, the fact that Amal and Hezbollah’s (who are both Shi’a) coalition won the majority of seats last year made it an almost impossible task for the Hariri government to assume smooth executive functions.

This time, we witnessed the burning of sectarian symbols, including Amal’s and Hezbollah’s, as well as violence, fires around major cities, arrests, and in some cases even death. The legendary phrase Ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām (Arabic: the people want the fall of the regime), a favourite phrase during the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world is among the guiding slogans of these protests.

Image from REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

Spreading the Word

Lebanon is certainly witnessing a series of events that are led by predominantly non-sectarian, secular elements. A closer inspection at the current state of the movement at first glance indeed shows that people are united against taxation, the sectarian apparatus, exploitation, and the lack of appropriate services, including healthcare. The average Lebanese citizen finds health insurance too expensive, thus access to such services is restricted by default.

Disseminating the information appears relatively easy. Televised broadcasts and news sources offer the various angles of the protests. In a recent televised speech, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah spoke out against the protests, claiming that the priority was to tackle the financial crisis. Despite this act in favour of the government, organised events are still tweeted and reshared on social media. Digital platforms and forums have greatly benefited the protesters in gaining more support quickly from the masses.

Digital governance is weak in Lebanon. Most elite figures have social media accounts in their attempt to engage with the wider public. However, they fail to actually reach out to the people. Tweets recording meetings at fancy carpeted rooms claiming to discuss the economy fall on deaf ears. Indeed, protesters have constantly stressed out that they feel the government is robbing them.

The Aftermath

Even if the protests succeed, then what? Assuming the protests manage to bring the government down, there is no mechanism in place to ensure that social, political, and economic change will take place. The protests are a start at delivering change, but without proper structure, the final outcome will not necessarily be desirable. Just like the 2015-2016 protests, these have also started as spontaneous social movements.

Nonetheless, what greatly differs at the moment is the lack of a strong sectarian presence (for now). If a power gap is created, then there are no guarantees that no other sectarian entity will step up to take the reigns and guide the movement once again wherever it suits it.

Simultaneously, the elitist nature of governance in Lebanon inhibits drastic change. It is rather likely that the present structure will remain, since leading posts such as those of the President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of the House are always fixed. This was clearly seen in Hariri’s case, where the Shi’a-led coalition was not granted the Prime Ministerial post.

Finally, societal and economic injustice will unfortunately not immediately cease with the potential collapse of any regime. Healthcare issues, poverty, and the lack of access to reliable services still persist, given the structural nature of these problems. As such, getting rid of the executive (i.e. the government itself) will not be enough. A solid plan should be drafted in order to strategically alleviate these problems.

The frustration of the people, however, is not to be disregarded. Evidently, there is a serious problem. Sectarianism has eaten Lebanon away. It is a recurring element in a fragmented society that has had enough.

By Petros Petrikkos