On the first day of Lebanon’s mass protests, they were described as the WhatsApp revolution, sparked by new taxes on calls made through the app. On the second day, they became the “kick queen” revolution, when a picture of a woman kicking a policeman in the groin went viral. By the fourth day, they were the DJ revolution, as more than a quarter of the 4m population thronged the streets, swaying to blasting music from volunteer DJs.
In this explosion of long simmering anger, a society that often seeks escapism to forget the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s collectively shouted that it had had enough of the corrupt and inept political class that has ruled ever since. My only surprise is that it has taken so long for the anger to spill on to the streets.
There’s been a fair share of rioting, looting and road blocking that have ground the country to a standstill. But even in the roughest of times, the Lebanese love a celebration and so, over the past week, they have raged against corruption and nepotism in a festive atmosphere.
People of all ages have borrowed a slogan of the 2011 Arab uprisings that translates as “the people want to bring down the regime”. The protests have been spontaneous, lacking leadership or organisation and, remarkably for a society divided along sectarian lines, they have been devoid of a sectarian tinge. Sunni and Shia, Christian and Druze have united in their opposition to decades of mismanagement.
If only there was a regime that could be brought down. But Lebanon is not a typical Arab state. It has a large measure of democracy but Christian and Muslims sects govern in an uneasy power-sharing arrangement. To bring down the regime would be to overthrow a whole political class. It would mean dismantling the sectarian system and building a national secular state. That is a worthy dream but not one that is likely to be realised anytime soon.
I think of Lebanon, my home country, as ruled by a group of mini dictators, who use patronage to capture the sectarian loyalties of their constituencies. Those who appear to rule, moreover, do not necessarily hold the levers of power. Although the prime minister, Saad Hariri, is a leader of the Sunni Muslim community, and Michel Aoun, the president, heads a Maronite Christian party, the Iran-backed Hizbollah, the Shia party that participates in government, is by far the most powerful group.
These mini dictators don’t impose their will so much as ignore the concerns of the wider public. The economy is teetering on the brink of collapse, with public debt reaching 150 per cent of gross domestic product and large repayments looming. But the appetite for corruption remains voracious.
That is why decades after the end of its civil war, Lebanon still feels as if it is emerging from conflict, with its economy battered and its public services neglected and dysfunctional.
Though the intensity of the protests has taken the political class by surprise, no leader seemed shocked. When the party chiefs have spoken over the past week, they have endorsed the grievances, telling the people on the streets that they are right to be angry.
Yet the politicians are scared, too, as they should be. No revolt of this size in the region has ended with the status quo unchanged. The Arab Spring led, with a few exceptions, to civil strife; the more recent uprisings in Algeria and Sudan are ushering in more hopeful change. The last time the Lebanese rose up in similar numbers, in 2005, their protests were against Syria, accused of assassinating Rafiq Hariri, a beloved leader (and father of the current prime minister). Those protests forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops.
One week in, Lebanon’s current mass demonstrations have concentrated minds. The cabinet on Monday signed off a series of reforms at lightning speed. No new taxes would be introduced, salaries of past and current ministers and parliamentarians would be slashed in half, banks would face new levies, waste and corruption would be contained. These are the right moves. But they may be too late. Once unleashed, popular revolts aren’t usually tamed with promises of good behaviour.