BEIRUT — Ninar Elkak ran through the streets of downtown Beirut Friday night with tear gas burning her eyes. Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces had just released the chemical agent on a crowd of thousands, including children, and Elkak struggled to breathe as she sprinted away. Despite the possibility of a violent crackdown that is all too familiar in the Middle East, she and thousands of others returned to the streets the next night—and have again every night since.
A recent college graduate, Elkak said it’s nearly impossible to find a job in her field of business administration and marketing. Her plight is not uncommon in Lebanon, where the unemployment rate among persons under 25 was 37 percent in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available.
Elkak, 24, is one of the many young Lebanese people who have decided they must either leave Lebanon—where they can hardly survive, let alone pursue their dreams—or try to change Lebanon. “There’s a saying in Arabic, I’m out of tears,” she told me. “You’ve been crying so much for the situation, tear gas has nothing on you anymore.”
Last Thursday, Beirut announced a slate of new taxes, including on WhatsApp voice calls, to ostensibly help the nation out of a fiscal crisis. But the decision ignited has mass protests across the country, everywhere from Beirut to Tripoli, where people have blocked major highways and effectively shut down the country. Their demands are simple: more jobs, better salaries, and a takedown of the current government, which is accused of self-dealing and enriching itself while the nation’s economy crumbles and its job market diminishes.
By Sunday, more than one million people had protested, in the largest mass demonstration in Lebanon’s history.
“The folks on the streets of Lebanon remind us that citizens have power,” said Wendy Pearlman, a political science professor at Northwestern University. “When they come out in mass, they create pressure. And they force politicians to respond.”
Indeed, come Monday, Prime Minister Saad Hariri responded with sweeping reforms. He promised to halve the salaries of some former and current officials and and place a moratorium on new taxes. But protesters say that isn’t enough. The fact that former officials even get a salary while ordinary people starve is unjust. They won’t stop until the entire regime in power steps down.
“The situation that we’ve been living in is hell,” Elkak said. “No electricity, no clean water, no future, and not to mention the pollution. The politicians are taking our money while we, the people, starve. There’s no trust anymore. We need new accountable professionals that we can trust.”
It’s an attitude that appears to be widespread across the Middle East. The people of Egypt, Libya, and Syria revolted against their governments in the 2011 Arab Spring; Iranians against theirs in 2017; and just this month, Iraqis sparked mass protests against the nation’s high rates of unemployment, corruption, and poor public services.
But what makes the Lebanese protests so unique is that they are not only led by millennials, like Elkak, but they cut across religious and sectarian lines. In a country that has long been divided by religious political parties—Christian, Sunni, Shiite and Druze people have found a surprising unity in their dissatisfaction with the status quo. They’ll no longer tolerate the impossibility of finding a job in their field. They’ll no longer tolerate only seeing their father two months out of the year because he can only work overseas. And, unlike their parents’ generation, they aren’t scared of politicians’ threats.
For decades, the people of Lebanon have been oppressed by a corrupt government and dysfunctional economy. Now, the younger generation is responding with an uprising—and the rest of the country is following their lead.
Lebanon’s deep-rooted political and economic dysfunction stems back to the end of its 15-year civil war. In 1989, Lebanon created a sectarian-based government that was designed to create an equal balance of power between Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites. But, over the course of time, these groups created multiple political parties that competed to win over the same elite constituencies, but hardly sought to improve the lives of ordinary people.
What’s more, Lebanon’s infrastructure was destroyed in the war. That led the government to borrow money from local and international banks to rebuild. Under a perfect scenario, that would have an optimal way for Lebanon to revitalize itself. But Lebanon was caught in a web of corruption in which Lebanese officials have diverted funds to themselves and their own political parties.
Now, Lebanon’s unemployment rate sits at 25 percent, according to the Ministry of Labor, wages are low, and the nation’s infrastructure is still depleted. That’s made it even more difficult for the country to provide its people with basic goods and services. For example, Lebanon still lacks 24-hour electricity. Most people rely on generators—which the government regulates and thereby makes money on. Equally disconcerting, the country’s debt is more than 85 billion dollars, and foreign traders aren’t accepting Lebanon’s currency, so it’s losing value.
By promising to increase taxes last week, the government is essentially tried put a band-aid on the gunshot wound that is Lebanon’s deep systemic flaws. The protests, in other words, are a cathartic explosion of the Lebanese people’s long-held frustrations—and a demand to dismantle Lebanon’s oligarchy.
“That’s the interesting thing about the political system in Lebanon,” Pearlman told me. The political elites “act like they are defending their group against other groups. But the truth is that they’re all in collaboration, they’re all the ones who are upholding the status quo. The political elites argue amongst themselves for who gets a bigger piece of the pie that is the state. And citizens are starving. They get crumbs, if anything.”
Crumbs aren’t an exaggeration. Pedro Douaihy, who lives in Zgharta, has to work three jobs—18 hours a day, six days a week—to provide for his wife and five-year-old son. The 36-year-old goes from passing out parking tickets and delivering fast food, to driving a truck of chickens to butchers overnight to earn $275 a week. Now, he plans to move to Venezuela—one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world.
“It’s very unsafe. You can’t even walk in the street because they kill you just to rob you,” Douaihy said. “It’s so bad here, that I still prefer Venezuela.”
Lebanon’s disastrous economy and government can be seen by merely walking down the street. Garbage fills the roads, homes lack reliable electricity, and the infrastructure is falling apart. At the same time, the government is failing to protect the nation—and its most precious natural resources.
Last Monday and Tuesday, more than 100 wildfires broke out across the country—one of the largest wildfires in Lebanon’s history. The government failed to contain the flames, resulting in two people dying and massive plots of farms and greenery destroyed. Lebanon didn’t have adequate firefighting aircraft, and had to wait for Cyprus, Greece, and Jordan to help.
But it’s the young people who will have to live with the current generation’s mistakes. That explains why they are igniting this movement. Meanwhile, they are using social media to their advantage—as a tool to share the locations of protests and to urge others to join. The uprisings have even reached the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Europe, where thousands of Lebanese expats have held solidarity protests.
The younger Lebanese generation is more educated and progressive than its parents and ancestors. It has grown up in a more globalized world, but without the benefits of globalization. It’s ready to discard the antiquated ways of its government.
“For me, the most significant part of all this is the barrier of fear is gone with everyone,” said Gino Raidy, a 29-year-old Beirut resident. “That shroud of distrust and existential fear of each other is dissipating. For me, emotionally, that’s what I’m extremely grateful for. What united everyone across political ideologies, backgrounds, social classes is their common hatred and refusal of the current ruling class.”
Raidy, who has more than 45,000 followers on Instagram, has been encouraging his peers to join him. After Hariri’s speech Monday, Raidy posted: “We’re not going anywhere till something concrete is done. We’re done with your lies. How do you expect us to believe that you will stop corruption when all of you are the ones that are corrupt! LEAVE!”
Indeed, the Lebanese people aren’t going anywhere. Until they see their leadership replaced and their system of government fundamentally reformed, they are determined to keep mobilizing. In their eyes, they don’t have a choice. A revolution might have just begun.