Lebanon’s protests in search of a second wind

Months-long anti-government movement enters an uncertain phase as protester numbers drop

An anti-government protester sits inside a tent as others block a road that links to the Martyrs square where they set their protest encampment, after it was opened by the security forces in the morning, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

“How does this benefit the revolution?” a young man wondered aloud as he cranked red balloons up and down in the Beirut sky on an odd-looking machine. The explanation accompanying the installation says the balloons are meant to help point to the beating heart of every protest but the man semmed only half convinced as he walked away.

Alongside a giant megaphone, multi-purpose benches and traditional Lebanese wood heaters, the balloon machine was part of an exhibition by a collective of local designers set up on Sunday in the heart of Beirut – the centre of Lebanon’s near four-month revolution.

"We are looking to breathe new life into protests," one of the designers from the BeirutMakers collective told The National.

In parallel, a “Lebanese creativity day” took place on Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square. Young men and women in brightly coloured traditional costumes danced as crowds milled around another exhibition of revolution-inspired paintings. In the early evening, a hip-hop band from Lebanon’s second-biggest city, Tripoli, took to the stage, calling on the audience to repeat the phrase, “Lebanon is rising up.”

epa08022977 Lebanese protesters shout slogans and carry the national flags during an anti-government protest at Martyrs' square in Beirut, Lebanon, 24 November 2019. Protests in Lebanon are continuing since first erupted on 17 October, as protesters aim to apply pressure on the country's political leaders over what they view as a lack of progress following the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on 29 October.  EPA-EFE/NABIL MOUNZER *** Local Caption *** 55659324

“We want to show that the revolution is still happening,” said Hayat Nazer, an artist who was busy building a heart sculpture out of used tear-gas canisters fired by security forces in recent weeks.

The crowd was undeniably smaller than the thousands turning out daily in mid-October. But the cheerful family-friendly atmosphere last weekend was a rare throwback to the first weeks of the protests, before numbers dwindled and violence increased.

For the first time since its independence in 1943, Lebanon has faced mass nationwide protests against the country’s entire ruling elite. Some of the country’s leaders have been in power since they led militias at the height of the civil war in the 1980s. The country is facing a severe financial crisis and experts are pushing for an IMF bail-out.

While Tripoli made headlines for its impromptu outdoor electro dance parties in the early days of the protests, the transformation of Beirut’s downtown has been significant. The city centre changed almost overnight from a half-empty glitzy neighbourhood dedicated to upmarket shopping and dining patrolled by private security guards into a bustling area brimming with open debates and the scent of street food and shisha pipes.

Reclaiming their right to occupy public space, protesters organised political and environmental workshops and talks. They even improvised a rave party in an abandoned cinema shaped like an egg that was under construction at the outbreak of the civil war in 1975 and had never been used since.

Downtown Beirut was largely flattened early in the long civil war, becoming a dividing line between the city’s east and west patrolled by snipers.

Picture taken 15 November 1976 of an avenue in central Beirut destroyed by year-and-half civil war. In early June 1976, Syria launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon officially to end the civil war and restore peace, but unofficialy, it became clear, to crush the Palestinians. During the course of the fighting there had been more that 50 abortive cease-fires and an estimated 60,000 people had been killed and some 100,000 injured. The Lebanese civil war erupted in April 1975. AFP PHOTO XAVIER BARON (Photo by XAVIER BARON / AFP)

In the years after the war, it was rapidly rebuilt by Solidere, private development company founded by then prime minister Rafik Hariri to cater to the country’s nouveau riche and wealthy tourists as peace returned.

High-end western brands replaced the traditional vegetable and flower markets where Beirutis used to do their daily grocery shopping. Gone were the street carts, hawkers and the local independent stores.

"The souks used to be the soul of Beirut. They are gone," sighed a Beiruti lady in her late 60s. She recounted how when the war started, she fled to the mountains with her family. "We watched the souks burn and cried."

Ziad Abou Jamra, deputy general manager of Solidere, defended criticism of how the company had redeveloped the city centre in an interview with The National. The company, he argued, had tried to preserve the city's spirit and cater to the public's needs as much as possible. "It's a company owned by shareholders, and we, as a management, have to answer to the needs of the shareholders ... We can't be all the way an NGO or philanthropists," he said.

Many Beirutis still remember enjoying Nejmeh Square outside Parliament in the early 2000s, when children would cycle there on the weekend and coffee shops and restaurants seemed affordable. But in the years after the assassination of Hariri in 2005, they shut down one after another as security measures closed off access to the pedestrianised colonnades, and the area became increasingly deserted.

That is why many were awed by the simple fact that thousands of Lebanese from all walks of life reclaimed this space throughout October and November. “It was a collective euphoria, an artistic explosion, and an extraordinary social mix,” said Georges Boustany, an entrepreneur and passionate archivist of Lebanon’s 20th-century history.

But a little over three months later, nearly all of this is gone. Indicators of the exceptionality of the moment – billboards showcasing Lebanese flags instead of the usual publicity, roadblocks all over the country – have disappeared, Nizar Hassan, a Lebanese political researcher, pointed out.

“It was a serious grassroots popular uprising, an exceptional phase for Lebanon. This cannot continue for a long time,” he said. A few days into the protests, Hezbollah called its followers to leave the streets.

Eventually, other protesters grew tired and returned to their normal lives. “It could not last,” sighed Mr Boustany. “We have now reached a plateau level. Lebanon receives international aid, or it does not. The latter could lead to a really bloody revolution.”

Except for the killing of one man at a roadblock in mid-November by an off-duty soldier, no protester has died at the hands of security forces.

After a spike in violence in mid-January, when protesters vandalised banks and riot police increased their use of rubber bullets and tear gas, many Lebanese seem to have decided to give the new government formed on January 23 a chance.

“People are wondering: ‘what can we have instead? Can you guarantee that if we take to the street today, we will have a better outcome tomorrow? No, we can’t,” said Mr Hassan.

Roughly one-third of Lebanese now live in poverty, according to the World Bank, which says this figure could rise to 50 per cent if economic conditions worsen.

In an attempt to appease protesters, traditional political parties allowed little-known figures to be part of the cabinet. But critics said nothing had really changed as the figures were still chosen by a several of the largest parties.

Power remained divided along traditional sectarian lines. Maronites, Greek-Orthodox, Armenians, Shiite, Druze and Sunni Muslims and other minorities all received shares of power. Early elections, which protesters called for at first, now seem unlikely.

Local authorities are keen to show that Beirut is back to business as usual. Last Wednesday, the heavy downtown traffic was nearly back to normal on Martyrs’ Square for the first time since October 17, two days after the first Parliamentary session in three months.

Unlike in November, protesters failed to stop MPs from entering Parliament. Only the most stubborn turned up to block the roads, a mix of politically aware upper and middle-class Beirutis and desperately poor young men from Tripoli with nothing to lose.

But their numbers were too low and security measures too strong to impact the session. An unprecedented number of concrete blocks had been installed to block every entrance to Parliament and riot police, as well as the army, deployed in numbers.

MPs shot past the small crowds in tinted-window SUVs.

“Downtown Beirut has truly become an area that is closed to the public and has turned its back on its initial calling, which is to be a melting pot for the people,” Mr Boustany lamented.

The concrete block walls were rapidly covered in graffiti, including the slogan “wall of shame” in numerous places. On social media, the Lebanese compared it to the Berlin wall that divided Germany’s capital during the Cold War.

One artist, Roula Abdo, painted giant hands parting the walls. Pictures of the mural, one of many she painted since protests began, quickly went viral.

This picture taken on January 28, 2020 shows a view of a graffiti-covered concrete barrier erected by Lebanese security forces separating Riad al-Solh square from the parliament headquarters in the capital Beirut's central downtown district. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

“I think the feedback was more important than others because the Lebanese need hope now,” she said. “As the revolution is going through a hazy phase and nobody knows what is going to happen, I thought that I would make a statement about how we should stay united to open these walls.”

Like many other supporters of the revolution, she argued that despite the current uncertainty regarding its outcome, it emboldened the Lebanese to speak up against their rulers. This, she said, possibly paves the way for more change in the future.

“The drive of the revolution was very spontaneous the first three weeks. People realised they could do something. Unfortunately, those in power managed to derail it a bit, but I truly believe that the Lebanese will go back to the streets when the time is right.”