In the first days of Lebanon’s revolution, protesters laughed as they chanted, buoyant in the thrill of the enormous crowd. The afternoon of October 18th in Beirut was warm and bright. Rheem Dahduli was protesting in Riad al-Solh Square, in front of the Grand Serail, the Lebanese Prime Minister’s headquarters, with her best friend, Dana Hammoud. The protests against government corruption and austerity measures had started the night before and had quickly spread across the country. “We get nothing we pay for,” Hammoud, who has a red-tinged black bob and huge, deep-set brown eyes, said. “The electricity is always going off, the water is always going off. Our basic needs are not met. Khalas! (Enough!) We’re sick of this.” Hammoud has been interning in advertising and retail since returning to Lebanon this year, after finishing a master’s program in Italy. Dahduli is earning two dollars an hour working at a cosmetics store—she wore pale-yellow eye glitter and orange blush—while she finishes her undergraduate thesis.
Around them, people created a forest of miniature green cedars waving in the center of Lebanon’s red-and-white flag. “This is a revolution for the people,” Hammoud said. “It’s not political and it’s not sectarian. There are no flags but Lebanese flags. The whole country is united.” Protesters sang the national anthem and chanted “Thieves! Thieves!” By Sunday, it was reported that more than a million people had joined demonstrations in more than seventy cities and villages. Everywhere that protesters gathered, they did so in an unprecedented rejection of sectarian identities. Lebanon’s government has been divided along strict religious lines for three-quarters of a century. Now protesters were calling for that government to step down.
Lebanon last had protests of this size in 2005, after Rafik Hariri, who had recently resigned as Prime Minister, was assassinated in a truck bombing that killed twenty-one other people. The Cedar Revolution that year called, successfully, for the withdrawal of Syrian forces, which had been occupying the country for almost three decades, and for the establishment of a tribunal to investigate Hariri’s death. The resultant Special Tribunal for Lebanon, appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General, has yet to present a judgment, but it has issued indictments, charging members of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah with Hariri’s assassination and the killings of a number of other anti-Syrian politicians and journalists.
Lebanon’s latest Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, was named the leader of Rafik Hariri’s Future Movement party when his father was killed. He was first elected Prime Minister in 2009. Since then, Lebanon has experienced several political crises, as the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia, in 2010, to Yemen, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain. The Syrian uprising, in particular, has acutely affected Lebanon’s economy. Lebanon is currently home to roughly 1.5 million Syrian refugees, almost a quarter of the country’s population. (It is also home to half a million Palestinian refugees.) The World Bank estimates that “a result of the Syrian crisis, some 200,000 additional Lebanese have been pushed into poverty, adding to the erstwhile 1 million poor,” and that up to an additional three hundred thousand Lebanese, mostly unskilled youth, have become unemployed.
The global financial crisis and the rise of Hezbollah caused the money coming into Lebanon in the form of investment, aid, or remittances—there are more Lebanese living overseas than in Lebanon—to dwindle. More recently, Gulf money, from tourism and also remittances, dried up, as a result of sanctions against Hezbollah, which has been fighting in Syria on the side of the regime. Saudi Arabia lifted its travel ban (enacted in 2017) to Lebanon in February this year. The United Arab Emirates lifted its ban in October. “Lebanon is held hostage by Hezbollah,” Nadim Shehadi, the executive director of the Lebanese American University New York Headquarters and Academic Center, told me. “Our economy has been paying the ransom while Hezbollah hides behind it.”
Months before the protests started, Lebanon was already “deep inside an economic crisis,” Bassel Salloukh, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, in Beirut, told me. Its economy grew just 0.2% in 2018, and its public-debt burden is the third highest in the world. In January, the credit-ranking agency Moody’s downgraded Lebanon’s status to junk. Unemployment had reached twenty per cent, with youth unemployment at thirty per cent, according to a report released on October 17th by the International Monetary Fund. The report also notes “a high level of corruption in Lebanon” and lists “the government’s failure to achieve its fiscal targets and advance reforms; political infighting; and social tensions” as a risk with a “high likelihood” of occurring.
By early September, the government had declared a state of economic emergency after a second ratings agency, Fitch, downgraded its credit status from B- to CCC, what The Economist called “deep into junk territory.” Then, Lebanon’s economic crisis began to manifest in ways that were feverish, brutal, and strange. By late September, people were largely unable to withdraw U.S. dollars from Lebanese A.T.M.s. A lack of dollars in circulation directly affected companies importing gas, wheat (for Lebanon’s staple large flatbreads), and medicine, all of which needed to pay in dollars but sold their goods for Lebanese pounds. On September 30th, the Times revealed that Saad Hariri, who is married, had paid sixteen million dollars to a South African model, in 2013, between terms in office. Hariri’s net worth is estimated at $1.5 billion. Two weeks before the scandal broke, Hariri had suspended his family-owned media company. Its almost four hundred employees hadn’t been paid their salaries in months, the Daily Star reported.
On October 15th, dry weather, high temperatures, and strong winds caused the worst wildfires in decades to burn large swathes of the countryside south of Beirut. Three privately donated firefighting aircraft capable of carrying more than a thousand gallons of water remained grounded; they had fallen into disrepair five years ago. The aircraft that the government had to use instead could carry just under two hundred gallons. Lebanon lost more than three thousand acres of trees in the fires, doubling what had been lost so far this year, George Mitri, the director of the University of Balamand’s land-and-natural-resources program, told Al Jazeera. One person was confirmed dead in the fires. Carmen Geha, a professor of public administration at the American University of Beirut, told me that the fires gave people “a very visible and tangible failure to target their anger and disgust with the government.” Sectarian responses in the wake of the fires also fuelled protesters’ sense of unity across factional lines: when an M.P. from the right-wing, largely Christian party the Free Patriotic Movement claimed, falsely, that the fires were only happening in Christian areas, the general population was infuriated.
This month’s protests ignited when, on October 17th, the government announced a tax of six dollars a month on Internet voice-call services such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. The tax was, as Dahduli put it, “just the last drop in the cup,” and, as Hammoud added, “the cherry on top,” betraying a significant lack of understanding of the struggles of disaffected Lebanese. Sami Atallah, the director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, pointed out on Twitter that Lebanese already pay twice for water, because they can’t drink their tap water, and twice for electricity, because there are at least three hours of power cuts per day. (Outside of Beirut, the cuts are up to twelve hours.) The country also has only two state-owned cellular providers and the highest cellular rates in the region. WhatsApp is, in every sense, a relief—an inexpensive way to feel connected and exchange jokes. “This is what made people snap,” Salloukh said. This month’s protests ignited when, on October 17th, the government announced a tax of six dollars a month on Internet voice-call services such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. The tax was, as Dahduli put it, “just the last drop in the cup,” and, as Hammoud added, “the cherry on top,” betraying a significant lack of understanding of the struggles of disaffected Lebanese. Sami Atallah, the director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, pointed out on Twitter that Lebanese already pay twice for water, because they can’t drink their tap water, and twice for electricity, because there are at least three hours of power cuts per day. (Outside of Beirut, the cuts are up to twelve hours.) The country also has only two state-owned cellular providers and the highest cellular rates in the region. WhatsApp is, in every sense, a relief—an inexpensive way to feel connected and exchange jokes. “This is what made people snap,” Salloukh said.
Hours after the government announced the tax, it reversed the decision. But it was too late. The Lebanese civil-society organization Li Haqqi had already sent out a message via—what else?—WhatsApp calling on people to block roads in protest. “Let us take action against the unfair taxes! To Riad al-Solh Square today (17 October) at 6 p.m., to foil the government’s efforts to pass unfair taxes on telecom, gas and others,” it read. That night, protesters burned tires in the streets and clashed with police. Two Syrian workers died when the building they were sleeping in was set ablaze. The hashtag that emerged that night was “Lebanon is burning.”
As the sun began to set on the Serail on Friday, protesters threw water bottles and firecrackers at riot police. They were waiting for Saad Hariri to address the country, and he was forty minutes late. Dahduli had gone home; her parents didn’t want her out after dark, and Hammoud would soon leave, too. When Hariri spoke, he set a seventy-two-hour deadline for the Cabinet to address the protesters’ concerns and adopt key economic reforms. Protesters scoffed: it had had years to fix the country; what could it do in seventy-two hours?
More firecrackers, water bottles, and even flares were thrown at the police, who charged forward into the sea of protesters, the light cast by surrounding buildings reflecting off their helmets. The crowd pushed back. At around 8 p.m., the police started firing tear gas at the crowd, starting a pattern of surges and retreats. I stood to the side on the road connecting Martyrs’ Square with Riad al-Solh, in front of a row of soldiers, covering my face. The gas dissipated and a soldier rubbed raw onion (which alleviates the effects of the gas) on my eyelids, brow, forehead, and upper lip. Almost at the same time, a protester approached and rubbed onion under my nose, before giving me a piece to carry with me. A man sat at my feet, his bloodied T-shirt wrapped around his neck, his head bandaged where riot police had hit him with a baton. “They have equipment and we have nothing,” he said. “What can we do?”