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Burning tires, brides and ‘Baby Shark.’ What you need to know about protests engulfing Lebanon

Fury at political elites has engulfed Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets across the country for anti-government protests, paralyzing its economy and blindsiding its government.

These are the largest demonstrations the country has seen since March 2005, when mass protests ended a decades-long Syrian military presence in the country. Sparked by a proposed tax on WhatsApp calls, the protests began in earnest Thursday night with demonstrators forcing road closures around the country.

Hours later, thousands of people poured into protest sites in nearly all of the country’s urban centers. “The people want the downfall of the regime,” protesters said, echoing the protest chant popularized by the Arab Spring. But in Lebanon, which was spared the effects of the 2011 Arab uprisings, the sentiment resonates differently. Rather than targeting a dictatorship, the country’s anger is aimed at a broad multi-sectarian political class that has ruled the country since Lebanon’s civil war, which ended in 1990.

People in Lebanon, buckling under the strains of a rapidly declining economy, are taking aim at crony capitalism. Decades of corruption and government mismanagement by the country’s sectarian leaders have come at too hefty a price, Lebanese protesters say. And after decades of being pitted against one another, people across Lebanon’s confessional divide appear to have now banded together to rise up against sectarian overlords.

“It’s a breakthrough in the modern history of Lebanon. This is the first time we see such a huge crowd without any political parties clearly involved,” said Rima Majed, assistant professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut. “This means there’s very clear discontent and anger in society.”

But there is also a sense that Lebanon’s popular uprising could be steering the country into the unknown.

“What I’m worried about is the future, because when it’s spontaneous and grassroots, it needs to be organized, and we really don’t have replacements (to the political class),” said demonstrator Peter Ward. “But at least it sends a signal. But I think that the signal needs to be quite strong, because we don’t have a political alternative.”

“In that sense, mobilizing in such a magnitude is impressive, but this cannot be sustained much longer without proper organizing,” said Majed.

Why are people demonstrating?

Lebanon’s economy has rapidly declined in the past decade. Political insecurity brought on by Syria’s uprising-turned-civil war as well as an influx of refugees exacerbated an already flimsy economic situation. For years, the country’s infrastructure has steadily decayed. Widespread corruption and government mismanagement chipped away at the country’s resources. Talented young people emigrated in search of better opportunities abroad, and inequality has steadily risen.

Around a third of the country lives under the poverty line, according to the World Bank, although the country is considered an upper-middle income country.

As the public debt ballooned, its debt-to-GDP ratio trailing only Greece and Japan, the government sought to pass a series of austerity measures. Thursday, it proposed enforcing a tax on Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) calls on mobile phone applications such as WhatsApp.

It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Protesters rushed to the streets, burning tires to create barricades that would close major roads around the country. Members of the working class and middle class united under banners that suggested it was “game over” for the country’s ruling class.

Protesters hurled insults at politicians across the sectarian landscape. And when the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri fast-tracked ambitious economic reforms, protesters appeared unmoved. As Hariri announced his 17-point program Monday afternoon, protests across the country only became larger. Calls for his government’s resignation grew louder.

How has Hariri’s government reacted?

In a televised speech after the first full day of protests Friday, Hariri chided political adversaries in his government for obstructing reforms and gave his Cabinet a 72-hour deadline to come up with economic solutions. Monday afternoon, he delivered.

The government approved an ambitious program that slashes officials’ salaries by 50%, levies large taxes on banks’ profits, scraps further austerity proposals and seeks to stem big financial losses in the electricity sector, along with other reform measures. The government also passed a long-awaited 2020 budget, with a deficit of 0.6%.

The budget could unlock billions of dollars in pledged international donations, possibly offering the country a reprieve from its deep-seated economic problems.

But the reforms did not appear to appease protesters, reinforcing what many of them have been saying over the past five days. Trust in the governance of political elites has collapsed. People on Lebanon’s streets do not believe the government has the wherewithal to implement its plans.

Addressing the protesters, Hariri said: “You must know that what you did broke barriers, and shook all parties, movements and leaderships, and the most important barrier that was broken was the barrier imposed by blind loyalty to sectarianism.

“God willing, this will be the beginning of the end of the sectarian system,” said Hariri.

Comic relief

Even as the streets have simmered with anger, a carnival-like atmosphere has often dominated the protests. The festivities have produced scores of funny social media videos.

One of the most viral of these showed a group of protesters singing “Baby Shark” to a frightened child in a car. It was a heartfelt moment that caught on in the protests. Later, between chants and cries for “revolution,” protesters would sometimes break into “Baby Shark.”

There are many moments of comic relief like this. In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, a DJ played to large crowds in the city center. Protesters joined hands in the middle of Beirut’s Martyr’s Square to dance the traditional Dabke. Some couples even celebrated their weddings among the crowds. At times, it was easy to forget the gatherings were part of a nationwide protest, not a street festival.

It is comic relief that punctuates an otherwise tense situation. But it also shows a devil-may-care attitude that betrays a fact that is difficult to ignore. Few people can predict what happens next.

It’s a situation that can easily backfire, said Majed: “My sense is that a lot of people are afraid of political void. A lot of people are afraid of the economic situation getting worse.”

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