A New Lebanon

How the Lebanese uprising is helping a divided nation form a cohesive national identity.

BEIRUT — Sharif Abdunnur was six years old when he saw his first dead body. It was during the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war, and he was playing soccer outside his Beirut home. When he heard an explosion, he ran toward it, but was knocked over by a second blast. Several people nearby were killed, leaving blood and body parts all around him.

“To a lot of us who grew up here, the bombings, assassinations, and shootings were kind of par for the course,” the 41-year-old professor recently told me. “We all grew up in the basement shelters, we all grew up next to the freedom fighters, we all grew up next to weapons.”

And they all grew up taking sides. The people of Lebanon have been divided across political, religious, and sectarian lines for decades. But last month, they all began uniting over their shared contempt for their corrupt government. Amid the largest wave of mass protests in the nation’s history, Abdunnur saw a teaching opportunity.

He took his media ethics class at the American University of Technology to the streets of Beirut, where he wanted to show his students that protesters—no matter their political affiliation—were just like them.

Until, suddenly, hundreds of Hezbollah and Amal supporters began beating protesters, including women and children. A few blocks away, the militants started burning downtown storefronts and destroying public infrastructure. In a way, the ambush taught the lesson for him.

“This is what all 18 political parties and sects [in Lebanon] do—they breed hate for others,” said Abdunnur, who told me he was kicked in the face, throat, head, and back. “I’ve been trying to teach my students that here are people on the street … there’s no hate or fear. I’m trying to get them to wake up and see that this fear mongering is just a way for the politicians to control them.”

Indeed, there’s a clear message behind the Lebanese uprisings: people are done allowing the regime in power to scare or divide them as a means to maintain its corruption. But the people have a long road ahead—especially as Hezbollah supporters, and the Lebanese army, use violence to crack down on protests. As a consequence, world powers have gotten involved. The U.S. froze all military aid to the Lebanese army, including a package worth $105 million, which analysts fear could allow Russia and Iran to gain greater footholds in the country.

The mass demonstrations began October 17—after the Lebanese government announced a slew of new taxes. Over the last three weeks, millions of protesters have shut down roads and forced banks, schools, and businesses to close. Simply put, they have put the entire nation on pause. Their goal is to paralyze the country until the government steps down. They have already seen some success: last week, 13 days into the uprising, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned.

But protesters say they won’t stop until they get an early election and the chance to choose new leadership. The rest of Lebanon’s high-ranking government officials, though,have refused to follow in Hariri’s footsteps. Hezbollah, an Islamist group that’s gained major political and military power in Lebanon, is against a new government. Lebanese President Michel Aoun has urged protesters to accept a compromise of governmental reforms. There is a very real possibility that the situation could escalate into a civil war, or temporary power vacuum.

That said, Lebanese protesters are already creating tangible change in the character of the country. For the first time in Lebanese history, Christians, Shiites, and Sunnis have united. Even more impressively—they have done so through peaceful protests. Demonstrators are playing national songs, dancing in the streets, and calling on their own political parties to step down. Their buzziest new chant is: “all of them means all.” They have formed a newfound national identity that is proving to be powerful.

“For the first time in the last 40 years of living in this country, I can say there is a Lebanese identity,” Abdunnur said. “Not a Lebanese Christian or Lebanese Sunni or Lebanese Shiite identity, but an actual Lebanese identity. This is groundbreaking because even if the revolution fails, it does not create immediate change, it has created a social change that’s absolutely unstoppable.”

Hariri’s resignation threatens to destroy Lebanon’s 30-year-old governmental system—which political groups, like Hezbollah, rely on to maintain power.

In 1990, when Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended, the country created a sectarian-based government to give equal power to the country’s three main religions. The president has to be Maronite Catholic, the prime minister Sunni Muslim, and the parliament speaker Shiite Muslim. But over time, the leaders representing these groups created multiple political parties that have focused more on competing for power, helping their allies, and pocketing money, rather than improving the lives of ordinary people.

For instance, salaries of government officials rose more than 7.5 percent each year in the past decade, according to a 2018 McKinsey report on Lebanon’s economy. The government also spends 46 percent more on public servant salaries than peer countries like Jordan and Romania. At the same time, it generates 10 percent less revenue.

Lebanese protesters

Meanwhile, the government fails to provide clean water, trash collection, and reliable electricity to its people. Critics say the government refuses to provide 24-hour electricity so it can profit off back-up motors. In fact, 40 percent of Lebanon’s electricity is produced by private generator companies, which make nearly $1 billion a year. Equally concerning, politicians live visibly lavish lives while the Lebanese people suffer from a high unemployment rate, which reached 25 percent in 2017.

Yet, in 2011, when Lebanon’s neighbors were so fed up with their governments they started the Arab Uprisings, the Lebanese people stayed silent. Dr. Tamirace Fakhoury, a political science professor at Lebanese American University, believes they were simply hopeless that anything could change. Citizens therefore continued to follow the same old warlords and their families—who made empty promises while the country crumbled.

Recently, however, they’ve awoken to just how much the corruption affects their daily lives.

“The Lebanese have always had problems and have been exposed to major political and economic problems, it’s this disparity in gaps that has become so visible right now,” Fakhoury told me. “The trash crisis, reports on corruption … they no longer believe that political parties or the establishment can provide a solution.”

Peter Joe Abou Fadel has bruises all over his body. The 19-year-old American University of Beirut (AUB) student has been demonstrating since the very first protest. Twice, he’s been beaten by Hezbollah militants and the Lebanese army. Regardless, he continues to sleep in a tent on the street so he can demonstrate from morning to night.

His determination stems from one reason: he doesn’t want to leave Lebanon. He says 50 percent of his high school class had to leave the country to create better futures. But he doesn’t want to raise his future children anywhere but his home, which he insists has the most beautiful landscape and warm-hearted people.

“If you go to any person in Lebanon and say, ‘Can I sleep at your place?’—even if you don’t know them—they’ll be like, ‘It’s your house too,’” he tells me. “I went to Switzerland, I went to Prague, I went to so many countries in the world, I hiked in all of them. The beauty of the nature here is incredible. If only we could work and build our futures here, too.”

That’s why Abou Fadel and his peers aren’t backing down—even from Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organization. The Iran-backed group, which was founded in 1982, has cemented itself as a mainstream political player; it has the majority of parliament seats and a large Shiite Muslim following. Its leader, Hasan Hasrallah, has made it clear he opposes a new government. Experts say that’s because Hezbollah needs Lebanon’s current political system to maintain power.

In fact, some interpret the Trump’s administration holding all military assistance to Lebanon as primarily a message to the Iranian proxy. Karim Makdisi, an associate professor of international relations at AUB, interprets the move as an insistence that a new government should not include the group.

“They’re sort of saying that, if these guys remain in some kind of position of power here, then you can expect more cuts, more sanctions, we’re going to make your life more miserable,” Makdisi said. “This is a good chance to put on pressure and somehow do what they’ve been trying to do—which is isolate Hezbollah.” In July, Washington imposed sanctions on three senior Hezbollah officials to ramp up pressure on the organization.

Still, this isn’t about the United States. The heart of the revolution rests in what’s driving Abou Fadel and the millions of other demonstrators from resisting the powers that be in Beirut.

For decades, Lebanon has been used as a pawn in other countries’ political games. But what’s springing in Lebanon is not an opportunity for other actors to gain power. It’s the opportunity for people to get their country back. In the process, they are starting to form a new national identity.

It’s still early. We don’t know what, exactly, that newfound identity will look like. But we know this much: the Lebanese people will be the agents of its creation.

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Lisa Khoury

Lisa Khoury is a Washington Monthly contributor. Previously, she worked as a producer and assignment editor for Spectrum News in Buffalo, and has written for ABC News, Al Jazeera, Vox, HuffPost, and the Buffalo News.