Lebanon has had enough of sectarianism

The Lebanese people's legitimate demands must be heeded, and corrupt politicians held to account

Demonstrators carry national flags during an anti-government protest in downtown Beirut, Lebanon October 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
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From Tripoli to Tyre, Beirut to Baalbek, Lebanon is witnessing an historic moment as people from all social backgrounds, religions and sects have come together to denounce corruption, political inefficiency and the deplorable state of the economy. Since Thursday, thousands have taken to the streets after the cabinet announced a new tax on the popular messaging application Whatsapp. The measure was rolled back, but for many, this was the last straw. It was indicative of state capture at its worst, where the rich get richer and everyone else is burdened with overwhelming costs.

The protests continued, taking a wider stance against a political elite that has failed to save the country from successive crises. Decades of endemic corruption and mismanagement have run the Lebanese economy to the ground and left the Mediterranean nation with the sad title of third-most indebted country globally. It is also the country with the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. In July, the government passed what Prime Minister Saad Hariri described as the most austere budget in its history, a mandatory prerequisite to unlock $11 billion pledged by international donors at the CEDRE economic development conference last year. Since then, people have periodically taken to the streets to protest everything from the trash crisis that looms over north Lebanon and Beirut to the government’s crackdown on illegal labour and the shortage of dollars in the country, to which the Lebanese pound or lira is pegged. And while austerity hit the most vulnerable, the elites of the country were largely untouched.

In Shia-majority southern Lebanon, protesters attacked the headquarters of the Amal Movement, which is deeply entrenched in the region, while others gathered in front of the house of Amal leader Nabih Berri in the affluent area of Ain el Tineh in central Beirut, chanting “Thief! Thief!”. Protesters took down large posters of former prime minister Najib Mikati in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city and the metropolis that launched the Sunni politician’s career. Meanwhile, demonstrators burnt posters of Tony Frangieh, the leader of the Marada party, in his Christian stronghold of Zgharta. In a rare show of unity, each sect rebelled against its own leaders, many of whom have been holding the reins of the country for decades without improving the lives of the Lebanese. Mr Berri, for instance, has been speaker of parliament for nearly 30 years, while Mr Hariri has served twice as prime minister in the past decade.

While austerity hit the most vulnerable, the elites of the country were largely untouched

The sectarian political system that people are protesting against today was shaped 30 years ago with the Taif agreement, which ended Lebanon’s civil war. At the time, leaders established that in order to end 15 years of confessional infighting it was vital to maintain a sectarian balance within the political landscape. Ever since, a system of quotas was put in place stating that the Lebanese president must always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker a Shia. But today, this inflexible system of patronage has only helped sectarian-based parties to remain in power despite failing to provide citizens with basic rights such as access to electricity and water 24 hours a day.

On Saturday, Mr Hariri gave political parties 72 hours to come up with a solution. In response, some political parties have tried to hijack what demonstrators are calling a "revolution", claiming the protesters' demands as their own. Their call has been rejected by demonstrators. Meanwhile, the Christian Lebanese Forces, have withdrawn from government in what many see as an attempt to evade responsibility for the state's many failures. Some political factions have even retaliated against the very people they should defend. There are reports that armed members of Amal and the Lebanese Forces have assaulted protesters for speaking up against their leaders. Despite these setbacks, people have not given up and they have remained united.

The legitimate demands of Lebanon’s protesters echo those of the Iraqis demonstrators who took to the streets last week to denounce poor living conditions, unemployment and corrupt sectarian elites. They were met with brutal force, as snipers and military personnel was deployed, killing more than 100 people and injuring several thousands. Lebanese leaders must learn from events in Iraq and avoid violence at all costs. This starts by taking stock of the government’s failings and implementing anti-corruption reforms. It also means holding those who are corrupt and incompetent to account, before it is too late.