A long report from Joey Ayoub on the protests in Lebanon.https://crimethinc.com/2019/11/13/lebanon-a-revolution-against-sectarianism-chronicling-the-first-month-of-the-uprising
How It All Began
For the people of Lebanon, the week of October 17, 2019 was among the most eventful in recent memory.
On the night of October 13-14, wildfires ravaged Lebanon and parts of Syria. We lost up to 3,000,000 trees (1200 hectares) in a country of 10,500 square kilometers (4035 square miles), nearly doubling the annual average of tree loss in just 48 hours. The government’s response was disastrous. Lebanon had only three helicopters, donated by civilians who pitched in, that were just sitting at the airport because they had fallen into disuse as the government had not maintained them. Although the government had allocated money for maintenance, it had “disappeared,” as so many funds do in Lebanon, into the hands of the sectarian upper class. The fires were eventually put out by a combination of volunteer civil servants (civil defense hasn’t been paid in decades) including people from the Palestinian refugee camps, random volunteers, aircraft sent by Jordan, Cyprus, and Greece and, luckily enough, rain. It could have turned out much, much worse.
Not satisfied with their own incompetence, Lebanese politicians started scapegoating Syrians, spreading rumors that Syrians were starting the fires and moving into abandoned Lebanese homes (Syrians are apparently fireproof). Some of them, like Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) politician Mario Aoun, complained that the fires were only affecting Christian areas, ignoring the fact that the Shouf region, where much of the fires happened, is actually a Druze-majority area. (See the Lebanese Politics podcast, episode 59.)
Rather than addressing the repercussions of the fires and preventing the next ones, the state exacerbated the situation. On October 17, the state approved a bill that would tax internet-based phone calls via services like WhatsApp. They framed this as an attempt to bring in additional revenue in order to unlock over $11 billion worth of “aid” promised at the CEDRE conference in Paris:
“The World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa Ferid Belhaj said that if Lebanon wanted to see any CEDRE money soon, it needs to get serious about implementing reforms.”
These “reforms” were essentially measures further punishing the bottom-tier economic majority while excepting the top minority.
Lebanon had already experienced a series of economic crises tied to corruption and national debt—the vast majority of which (approximately 90%) is owed to local banks and the central bank—resulting in several bank runs, fuel shortages, and strikes. Nearly $90 billion is concentrated in only 24,000 bank accounts in Lebanon, which is to say, something between 6000 and 8000 account holders in Lebanon have over eight times the amount of money that the government is hoping to “unlock” with CEDRE. Although many media outlets focused on the so-called “Whatsapp tax,” it was actually the combination of all of these factors and many more that inspired outrage.
On the night of October 17, thousands took to the streets of Lebanon, including Beirut, Tyre, Baalbek, Nabatiyeh, Saida, and many other places in spontaneous protests. The protests were so overwhelming that the state cancelled the tax immediately. That night, a woman named Malak Alaywe Herz kicked the armed bodyguard of a politician; the video went viral and, as in Sudan, a woman became a revolutionary icon. By October 18, parts of downtown Beirut were on fire and large parts of the country were completely shut down by roadblocks, many of which involved burning tires.
I had joined the protests in Beirut by then and have been going nearly every day since. As an organizer of the 2015 protests, who grew up in Lebanon and who has been writing about it since 2012, I could see right away that these protests were going to be different. I wasn’t the only one taken over by that rarest of all feelings: hope. On the contrary, it was everywhere. In this account, I will try to explain why these protests have already created irreversible changes in the country, changes that the ruling warlord-oligarch elites are struggling to reverse.