What’s Up With Lebanon’s WhatsApp Revolution?

Photo credit: Shahen Books via WikiMedia Commons

By Gareth Smyth

Nearly half a century after Gil Scott Heron proclaimed “The Revolution will Not be Televised,” Lebanese television stations are divided by their owners’ agendas over the country’s protestors. Some have offered blanket coverage, while others have kept up the usual cookery programs, soap operas, and music videos.

Decisively eschewing Gil Scott Heron’s advice, those on the streets have filmed every move on their Smartphones. Some declared a “Whatsapp Revolution,” named for the messaging application owned by Facebook—this in recognizing that protests were sparked by proposed tax increases including levies on social media.

Opinion-writers meanwhile have variously proclaimed the end of Lebanon’s confessional political system, a region-wide rejection of the Shia Muslim group Hezbollah and its ally Iran, or a class-based uprising against a capitalist elite. The Lebanese diaspora has also found ways to support the protests from abroad, often in the name of youth.

Is everyone right? Can one just have a Revolution as personalized as a social media profile?

Agreement that inequality and corruption in Lebanon are blatant and pervasive has suddenly spread even to those who have benefited most over many years. But after that, little agreement exists on the causes of Lebanon’s woes, far less on the solutions.

Protestors say they are proud their movement has no leaders, no-one who can “sell out” in negotiations with the authorities. “Leaderless,” they have displayed ingenuity and organizational flair: blocking roads annoyed citizens and disrupted business, so protestors moved to government institutions. They have also highlighted private operators exploiting with impunity the publicly-owned sea front, gathering at Beirut’s glitzy Zaitunay Bay, over a week after demonstrators in Tyre, south Lebanon, set fire to the Rest House, a government-owned seaside hotel associated with Nabih Berri, the parliamentary speaker and leader of Amal, a Shia Muslim party.

Lebanon’s economic model was established by the post-war governments led by the late Rafik Hariri, prime minister from 1992-1998 and 2000-2004. Hariri, a Sunni Lebanese billionaire with Saudi nationality, set a path of heavy government spending that was supposedly sustainable given overseas investment, regional peace, and support from the country’s vibrant banking sector.

The resulting high bank interest rates benefited those with large deposits, fueled booming property prices, and crippled productive industry.

The expansion of public debt—now one of the world’s highest at 150 percent of GDP—and the squeeze of employment opportunities, especially for skilled graduates, result from Hariri’s policies, later continued by his son Saad. These are important factors driving the current unrest. Put simply, those without work are reluctant, or unable, to pay higher taxes to reduce the government’s deficit.

If Lebanon’s economic model owed most to Rafik Hariri, its political model was a compromise. A reformed version of the post-independence confessional system, which divided parliamentary seats and government positions among the country’s 18 recognized sects, was agreed in the 1989 Taef accord backed by Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United States and Iran.

Whereas Taef envisaged a gradual move towards a non-confessional system, the sect and militia leaders who now assumed peacetime office had no reason to reform what delivered riches to them and their families. Arguably, this also gave them an incentive to keep the peace—which was good for “business”—and this helped after 2011 to keep the Syrian conflict from spilling over into Lebanon, even when Hezbollah intervened to support president Bashar al-Assad.

Hezbollah always kept its distance from the state, helping preserve its reputation for being “clean” and for self-sacrifice in resisting the Israelis, first with the 2000 Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon and then in meeting the 2006 Israeli invasion. Hezbollah saw no reason to challenge Lebanon’s political structure as long as its “right” to hold arms was not challenged.

But while corruption swallowed up government coffers—European donors and Transparency International suspected even aid for Syrian refugees was pilfered—there was paltry investment in basic infrastructure like electricity and water. Since the war ended in 1990, there have been no new railways, and pre-war ones were never rebuilt, their land often just taken over by strong-armed operators.

Lebanon lacks urban planning, or parks. There have been no significant campaigns of public education—whether over plastic bags, recycling, road safety or health. Tobacco smoking is one of the world’s highest levels, with 37 percent of adults in 2015: 36 percent of adults are physically inactive, and despite the virtues of the Mediterranean diet 31 percent are obese.

Downtown Beirut remains in the hands of Solidere, a “temporary” private company that Hariri founded back in 1994 and whose managers were appointed disproportionately from Hariri’s native Sidon. Downtown was designed as a playground for the wealthy, especially visitors from the Gulf seeking up-market malls and hotels as well as bars and young dancing girls. Residential skyscrapers along the seafront, sold mainly as second or third homes, blocked out the sea-views of Beirutis.

None of which in itself produces a reform program, or fleshes out the demand raised by some for a government of technocrats. Nor does it explain how fresh elections would produce a parliament that would be radically different from the current one.

Lebanon’s confessional system has traditionally been justified as a means to prevent any one sectarian group gaining a majority in parliament and enforcing its preferences on others: this, it has been argued, underlies Lebanon’s social liberalism, and its press and religious freedoms. Arguably, no other Middle Eastern country boasts such variety.

Do most Lebanese prefer to ditch this system? And if they do, might they agree on what might replace it? Might, for example, one-person one-vote exacerbate sectarian divisions rather than reduce them?

The notion of a unified “street” is abstract. The 2019 Arab Youth Survey found 66 percent across the Middle East agreeing that religion played too big a role in the Middle East, while 59 percent regarded the U.S. as an enemy. It also found a marked divide in the Levant—Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Iraq—between 51 percent who saw Iran as an enemy and 49 percent who saw Iran as an ally.

“Listening to the people” means different things to politicians with conflicting agendas. After all, neighboring Syria’s eight-year war, in which 500,000 have died and 10 million been displaced, began with pro-democracy public protests. Both Egypt and Libya had an “Arab spring.”

An upbeat piece published this week by the website of the Carnegie Middle East Center, based around interviews with protestors by Issam Kayssi, acknowledged that previous mass demonstrations in Lebanon, in 2005 and 2015, were “ultimately monopolized by traditional sectarian politicians.”

Undaunted, Kayssi continues with optimism: “In 2019, the popular movement has thus far rejected electing leaders…Its demands are clear, so no leaders are required..it seems like each person who has gone into the streets feels personally responsible for the success of the protest movement, and will not back down until its demands are met.”

Yet whatever protestors may feel, economic pressures are building. How long can the government go on spending far more than it takes in? The World Bank this week suggested that recession in 2019 might be worse than the 0.2 percent contraction forecast, and warned the number of Lebanese in poverty could rise to half the population from a third, and that unemployment of under-35s, already 37 percent, could jump sharply.

“Lebanon does not have the luxury of time to waste to redress issues that need immediate attention,” the bank said in a statement after its regional director, Saroj Kumar Jha, met Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun on Wednesday 6 November. “With every passing day, the situation is becoming more acute and this would make recovery extremely challenging,” Jha said.

Gareth Smyth, who has reported from the Middle East since 1992, was the chief correspondent of the Financial Times in Iran from 2003-2007.

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