While the speech of the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, is broadcast from a loudspeaker in Riad al Solh, the square in front of the government headquarters, Rana is showing the flyer she has in her hands.
“He’s basically making a list of our demands,” she explains. “It would be great if we could believe it, but we can no longer trust this political class, it is time to move from promises to facts. We are staying here,” she concludes, determined, while the shouts of “Thoura” (“Revolution”) rise up from the crowd.
For the sixth consecutive day, downtown Beirut was invaded by tens of thousands of protesters on Tuesday night, who are firmly intent on continuing the spontaneous and peaceful protests which have shaken Lebanon since Thursday. From Martyrs’ Square—where the Mohammad Al-Amin mosque stands, built thanks to a donation by the current prime minister’s father and former Prime Minister himself, Rafiq Hariri—all the way to Riad al Solh Square, people are shouting slogans against the whole political class.
The same few names have marked and influenced the lives of generations of Lebanese, who are now calling for a change. None of the politicians are being spared by the protesters, but if one were to make a ranking of the names which appear in the slogans most often, one would find, in no particular order: Hariri, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, President Michel Aoun (who is also Bassil’s father-in-law), the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah (who is hardly ever criticized out loud), and the President of the Parliament, Nabih Berri, who has been in office since 1992.
The anger of the Lebanese has risen up against all of them. For years now, the people have had to face the rapid deterioration of their purchasing power, poor and increasingly expensive public services, rampant unemployment and a recent shortage of US dollars (the currency that is propping up the Lebanese pound). The squares are draped in the colors of the Lebanese flag alone, not those of any political party: “unity” is the watchword of the demonstrators.
They don’t want to fall into the trap of sectarianism, which lies at the basis of the Lebanese political system. Symbols of political affiliation, which here coincides with belonging to particular religious communities, are banned from the protests. “It does not matter what religious faith or community we belong to, we are united by the economic crisis and by the hope of a change,” a woman says. “I am over 30 years old, and this is the first time I feel I belong in this country. I know that this protest will probably not lead to an abrupt removal of this ruling class, but we are changing something, and perhaps we will start on the path to a more radical change.”
The fall of the government, a technocratic interim government to lead the country through early elections, and the restitution of property taken away from the citizens—these are some of the demands for which signatures are being collected at a table in Martyrs’ Square, where music and slogans mix together in what looks like one big party, in which everyone is taking part: families with children, elderly people, many young people and artists who are improvising performances. They are distributing water bottles, there are tables with food and drinks, small groups are sitting together smoking shisha. However, one should not be misled by the festive air of the protest: behind the dances and the songs there is much anger and despair.
“For thirty years now, they always make the same promises and nothing has changed,” says Ahmad, 39, with a precarious job. “We must resist for at least a week, they have to feel that we’re breathing down their necks. On Friday, they tried to stop us by force, but the next day we returned in even greater numbers, and [on Sunday] there were very many of us, maybe a million. We do not want violence, we are not looking for confrontations: we want to protest. We want to finally be free to speak, and we want them to stop shamelessly robbing us.”
The dissatisfaction cuts across the whole of Lebanese society. Corruption has been on display in such a blatant and arrogant manner that it has created a rift between the people, especially the younger generation, and the parties/political movements representing the religious communities they belong to.
Being part of these communities once guaranteed jobs, housing and benefits, but now no longer does. The breaking point has been reached: while the politicians’ thefts used to be tolerated in exchange for beneficial provisions, now that the country is on the verge of bankruptcy, the days of tolerating such behavior are over.
From the point of view of those now shouting “Revolution,” everyone is equal, and for many people the revolution also means an end to sectarianism. This is a long and difficult road: while most are protesting peacefully in Riad El Sohl Square and Martyrs’ Square, on Monday night other groups tried to go into the streets waving the flags of Amal and Hezbollah, with the clear intention of breaking up the protests by force. The Lebanese army stopped them from doing so, but it is a sign of the enormous pressure against this mass protest movement, which shows no signs of stopping.