Flashlights, rap songs and fire: Why is Lebanon protesting?

It started as a party six months ago. Thousands had gathered at the Sahet al-Nour square in the northern city of Tripoli in Lebanon. Waving flashlights in the air as DJ Madi Karimeh played ‘Lebanon Vs Ya Seif’ from his balcony. Videos went viral on social media as the Lebanese demonstrated a unique way of dancing in protest against the government.

Only six months later, protests have erupted across the country and central banks are on fire in Lebanon and Tripoli. Many are asking why and who are the young Lebanese that are protesting? 

Hana Fakhouri at a protest at Martyrs Square in Beirut.

Hana Fakhouri is 26 years old, unemployed and has been protesting on the streets of Beirut. She tells me about working in Four Seasons after she achieved her degree in hospitality management from a university in Switzerland.   

“I never saw my future in Lebanon. In 2015 I was on a vacation here after completing my degree and I got an opportunity to work with Four Seasons. I thought it would open doors for me to the rest of the world,” she said.

Hana fell in love with the Lebanese culture and the country’s natural beauty. However now, she has recently been labelled as a “hooligan” vandalising Lebanese streets.

Two years ago, her parents’ business shut down as the Lebanese economy started crumbling under a corrupt government. Her brother and sister are currently studying in London and she was planning to join them in April of this year as Lebanon stood on the brink of bankruptcy. However, the coronavirus meant this was no longer possible for her.

Perhaps, Hana’s despondency represents frustration boiling among the young, particularly for those who cannot escape the country either due to a Covid-19 lockdown or tightened immigration norms. 

Caught in the crosshairs of a corrupt government, with a militant Hezbollah, and a refugee uptick from neighbouring Syria, Lebanon’s economy has been in shambles. It is the third most indebted country in the world after Japan and Greece with a 176% debt to GDP ratio. And the impact has been felt on its currency. 

For two decades, the local Lebanese Pound (LBP) had been frozen and pegged at subsidized exchange rate of 1 USD = 1,500 LBP. This had helped the Lebanese to use the two currencies interchangeably. Since October, when Hana and her friends began protesting, Lebanese Pound has recorded a 70% devaluation at the Forex market with 1 USD = 7,000 LBP in a parallel black market. As banks reported a shortage in their dollar reserves from foreign remittances, they restricted local depositors to withdraw as little as $400 per month from their savings account.   

It is the third most indebted country in the world after Japan and Greece with a 176% debt to GDP ratio.

Now, for some, $400 a month might seem a lot of money. However, increasing inflation and a coronavirus lockdown has hit the country’s import capacity and resulted in food shortages. So much so that Lebanon had to import wheat from India besides Russia and Ukraine this year.

According to a report by Triangle, a Lebanese ThinkTank, food prices also increased by 55% from April 2019-2020. Imagine ordering a loaf of bread from Spinney’s for 4000 LBP. It is nowhere near buying the same loaf of bread for 10 million Zimbabwean Dollars in Zimbabwe. Yet, the Lebanese economy appears to be spiralling to a similar fate.

And, Hana is not the only one rejecting this fate. Local journalists, campaigners, activists and eminent public figures have been successful in organising centralised mass protests across Beirut and the rest of Lebanon. Yumna Fawaz is an investigative journalist, formerly with Al Jadeed, and has been instrumental in the formation of a social media group ‘Lebanon_Protests’

“As a journalist on the ground, I saw something of this kind unfolding for the first time in Lebanon’s history. People were tired of the corrupt government and the country’s conditions to the degree that they set aside differences due to their religion, beliefs and practices. People put up a united front against the government perhaps, for the first time in as many decades.

“And I believed that I had a duty to accomplish something which was greater than just reporting and investigating incidents on the streets. 

“I was afraid that traditional media would not reflect the whole truth and thus, I decided to create this platform with a group of colleagues to spread the message across the world,” she said.

Lebanon_Protests emerged as a platform speaking truth to power and evolved into a group of 100 volunteer journalists, graphic designers and videographers calling people on the streets.

Flyers were distributed on social media and messages were mass-forwarded on WhatsApp groups. Foreign correspondents for major news networks were notified about these protests in the hopes that the world would notice and intervene in its domestic crisis.

Perhaps, it reflects shades of activism or can be described as a new form of journalism? We don’t know. Regardless, the group has attracted about 5,000 followers both on Twitter and Instagram. And their collective demand for an overhaul in the regime pushed Saad Hariri, former Prime Minister of Lebanon, to resign from Office nearly two weeks after these protests began. 

Yumna Fawaz organising a media team centre near the Martyrs’ Square in Beirut

Hassan Diab’s new interim government has now been negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to secure a financial package to bailout Lebanon. Yet first, Diab must chart out the major structural reforms needed in Lebanon’s public sector services before the IMF would commit any funds.

In his IMF briefing on 25th February 2020, Gerry Rice, Director of Communications Department noted,  

“The size of the potential losses is quite large and the authorities are still discussing among themselves the choice of feasible options in terms of public debt sustainability and financial sector restructuring.” 

Once known as the crown jewel of the national economy Lebanon’s banks are paralysed into a climate of exercising favouritism and crony capitalism. It is known that 18 of the 20 commercial Lebanese banks have major shareholders linked to political elites.

According to Dr. Jad Chabaan, an economics professor at the American University of Beirut, MPs and ruling monarchies in the neighbouring Gulf controls 43% of assets in Lebanon’s commercial banking sector.

On 30th April in a nationally televised speech, Prime Minister Diab announced the government’s rescue plan that can be presented to the IMF. It sought contribution from those who had benefited from extremely high-interest rates on unsecured loans and those who stole public funds. However, in June, a government financial advisor negotiating with the IMF announced his resignation stating that the government had no intention of genuine reforms. Henri Chaoul said,

“I have come to the realisation that there is no genuine will to implement either reforms or a restructuring of the banking sector, including the Central Bank.”

Armed clashes have broken out between civilians and the military ever since. And a united front that first protested the government, now stands divided. Supporters of the Hezbollah clashed with those opposing the armed militia group. 

”People did not target a specific party per se, they demanded accountability from the whole government where all the parties and entities are represented.”

Hezbollah defines itself as a political entity but has been blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by the United States after the group retained its weapons since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990.

From draining Lebanon’s resources to help Assad continue his war in neighbouring Syria to dividing the country on religious and political lines, Hezbollah is running Lebanon from the pavilion.

But who are the Lebanese protesting against? The government, the Hezbollah or both?

“’Kelon yane kelon’” means “everyone, we mean everyone”. They are protesting against the entire government. People did not target a specific party per se, they demanded accountability from the whole government where all the parties and entities are represented,” said Yumna. 

With a middle-class Lebanese being pushed into poverty more people have taken to the streets against the present government. Banks were set on fire in Tripoli and the government has squared blame on young like Hana for “vandalising” Lebanon. Hana chooses her words carefully and says,

“Listen, I don’t encourage the protestors in what they are doing. But I don’t condemn them either. Yes, it was a party initially, but protests turn violent everywhere. What do you do when you are not heard?”