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Sun, 17 Nov 2019 12:21 GMT

Lebanon's Peaceful Uprising

Politics

James Watt

Tue, 05 Nov 2019 10:35 GMT

It has been fascinating to follow civil society's discourse and debates since the first mass protests on 18 October throughout Lebanon. The immediate triggers for the protests are well known - further taxation, including one on using WhatsApp. Few Lebanese are prepared to pay to use the costly mobile networks, their charges inflated by high taxation. Personal communications have become one of life's essentials, even more so when there is little else you can afford. The larger causes of the protests are equally well publicised: the corruption and inertia of the ruling political class, and its unending failure to respond to an economic crisis that is becoming unbearable. 

The protest movement remains essentially leaderless. Its demands simply emerge, thanks to the banners and placards and slogans carried by the huge numbers of individuals who go down to the streets to demonstrate. The process is instantly magnified by photos capturing and sharing the best of these on individual smartphones, and by street-generated news and comment carried on all varieties of social media. These also reach the passionately patriotic Lebanese communities around the world. Never has national solidarity been more widely expressed. The rich crop of jokes and satirical memes puncture and destroy the claimed authority of politicians who are simply not getting the message. There are a surprising number of these. Some deliver admonitions from a lofty height, to be met with derision and contempt: it would have been better to say nothing. Others hint darkly at a repressive response. The least imaginative warn of American and Israeli plots, only to be greeted with even more exasperation: those tired excuses for corrupt abuse of power really have had their day. Nothing proves the point more clearly that those making them are not going to be part of the future.  

The only language acceptable to the mass of citizens is that of action. The Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, was an easy target, bearing nominal responsibility for leading the government. In practice he was unable to make the paralysed political system, with its entrenched corrupt interests, show any sign of movement. Or even any recognition that the economic crisis, let alone the political one, needed radical and courageous solutions, as the crowds in the street are demanding. Mr Hariri's resignation last week was the right thing to do, breaking the unsustainable gridlock. He would return as Prime Minister if given a workable reformist Council of Ministers. This kind of government has been prevented by the entrenched interests for decades, with power lying (at least procedurally) in the hands of the President. It is the first test that Lebanon has to pass. It will be followed by greater tests: convincing the people to give a reformist government a chance. Convincing the lenders to keep lending meanwhile. And convincing powerful actors, including Hezbollah, to allow changes to be made. 

For now the cry from the protestors is "All of them - all!" Meaning not one of the despised present political class should have anything to do with reform or the future. Reform needs to be radical and above all fair. Not a shred of trust exists in those compromised by supporting the old order. Rolling back corruption, and holding to account large numbers of those who have practiced it, will be a bruising and lengthy experience, requiring real commitment. New figures will emerge that have credibility. The country needs honest technocrats. But above all honest political thinkers too, and ones who can communicate with the radical mood of the uprising. Lebanon has always respected its independent-minded, older thinkers, whose lifetime of principled conduct has given them renown and moral authority. Any movement demanding change will take them as a point of reference. The heavy work of uniting the reform movement around actual progress, though, will fall to younger leaders.    

In Sudan this process has happened, and the old guard have accepted to work with reformist civil society, however cautiously. In Lebanon, something similar may be the outcome, though the history in either case is different. For now, though, the protesters rightly believe that pressure has to be maintained, and the worst offenders among the old guard have to be shamed and sidelined. 

Sudan and Algeria are the closest parallels for what Lebanon is experiencing. The confessional basis in Lebanon's constitution makes Iraq a natural comparator: a combination of massive corruption, neglect of the people's basic needs, an imposed sectarianism, and the overbearing interference of a powerful neighbour has also led to massive protests. But these have been met with crude violence and in turn have provoked violence. In Lebanon the Army has made clear it will not repress peaceful demonstrations, and where it can it has protected them from thugs sent by some of the political old guard. In this way Lebanon now does not feel like Syria in the spring of 2011, where Damascus authorities had a reputation for brutality towards its citizens. Nor is Lebanon struggling to escape outright tyranny: just to claim for its intelligent, educated, generous-spirited people a future it deserves - fair, respectful and prosperous, free of abuse and hypocritical claims. And a state in which religious beliefs continue to flourish freely, but which ends the sectarian basis of its political order   

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